Drawing on Epics, Murli Manohar Joshi Offers Pointed Lesson in Rajdharma to 'King'

In RSS and BJP circles, the former party president's article is being read as a commentary on what has gone wrong with the Narendra Modi government.

“Freedom of expression and participation in frank discussion on important matters related to the state by the people was treated as basic for a righteous governance by the king.”

This formulation  is one of several on the precepts of good governance contained in an exhaustive eight-page article penned by Murli Manohar Joshi – the once-formidable former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party – that has generated enormous buzz among the top echelons of the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh who see it as a sign of the saffron statesman’s disquiet over the current direction of the Narendra Modi government.

The article, pointedly titled “Rajdharma – How rulers must conduct: Lessons from ancient India, has been published in an obscure magazine called Power Politics. Joshi, a Lok Sabha MP from Kanpur and a member of the BJP’s Margdarshak Mandal, has never publicly commented on the working of the Modi government. So the article, which talks about governance lessons from Valmiki’s Ramayana, Vyasa’s Mahabharata and Kautilya’s Arthshastra, is being seen as the view of the founders of the BJP on the Modi dispensation.

The points of emphasis in Joshi’s prescriptions – on the importance of consultation and dissent, protection of the people from hunger and fear, the security of women – seem tailor made for a government that is seen by its critics as failing on every count.

Consider this. “The king according to Valmiki cannot be a despot. We find in Ramayan the king consulting ministers, learned men, and the principal officers of the Army in shaping the policy of the state”.

This sentence has been highlighted and circulated in Sangh offices as a dig at the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo and how they have reduced the BJP to a two man show from the disciplined, cadre-based party which once took pride in inner-party democracy.

Reminder redux

In the times of viral lynchings across the country, Joshi seems to be reminding Modi – much like the former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee did during the 2002 Gujarat riots – of his “rajdharma” when he writes, “Let the king protect his subjects from their fear of him, from their fear of each others from their fear of each other and from their fear of things which are not human”.

This, Joshi says, is the the essence of rajdharma:

“As stated earlier, the purpose of governance is to ensure the people ‘protection form fear, for there is nothing more degrading to human worth than living in fear.’ The Mahabharata then goes on to enquire the limits to use of governance and the legitimacy of opposing it when it creates conditions of oppression and violence.”

This prescient paragraph which could be read as addressing the fear of “gau rakshaks” and other lynch mobs is being fervently WhatsApped within BJP circles.

Joshi does not pull his punches and writes, “The main purpose of the state according to the Mahabharata is to create conditions for freedom from fear, including the fear of violence. In other words its purpose lies in protecting the small fish from the big fish keeping in mind that in the process the state does not itself become the big fish. That will lead to oppression and terror resulting in adharma by the state”

The repeated stress on “adharma” with examples like farmers which runs like a thread through the long piece is like a reality check for the Modi government.

In what seems like a real time rebuke to the current government Joshi writes, “When the king wipes the tears of the poor, the dispossessed and the old and creates happiness, such conduct on his part his part is called the king’s dharma”.

At one point Joshi’s piece stresses “the king should try and discipline himself and then only try to discipline his subjects and subordinate. If he does so without realising his own defects he becomes an object of ridicule and he should always remember that.” Says a BJP leader, “The Modi monogram suit is that what he means”.

India needs Kautilya, not Machiavelli

Joshi emphasises that what he means by “rajdharma” is not religious at all but the actual principles of “good governance”. He writes “emphasis on social welfare and the personal character of the king has been maintained throughout Indian history” and pays tribute to Kautilya. In a rebuttal of the concept of ‘Chanakya niti’ – a skill Amit Shah’s supporters praise the BJP president for – Joshi writes, “Let us stop calling Kautilya as India’s Machiavelli while the facts are other way round.”

Kautilya warns that the “excessive use of the state’s coercive powers … leads to resentment, unrest and rebellion”, says Joshi. “The emphasis should be on preventive measures and even inspite of preventive measures a rebellion should break out the people should not be punished collectively. Instead they should be treated leniently.

Protection of women’s dignity

Joshi devotes a section of his article to what the epics say about governance and women’s welfare,

“The protection of the life and dignity of women is the primary aim of governance and the Mahabharata in unequivocal terms states, ‘A king in whose kingdom crying and wailing women are forcibly carried away in front of their sons and husbands who cry and wail in vain, one feels that there is no governance. And Bhisma adds, having given his promise to protect the people and the state fails to protect then such a state is as good as non-existent.”

Though the article appeared before the BJP’s handling of the Kathua and Unnao rape cases became a national scandal, this passage is also being read as a reminder to the Modi government of where it is failing.

Strong leader 

Joshi writes that “just as one wheel cannot move a chariot the king as a single person cannot run the state”.
“This is a pretty sharp rebuke for a man with delusional ideas of being a ‘strong leader’,” says a senior BJP leader who is upset with Modi yet remains part of his cabinet.

Joshi’s piece was published in February but has found traction recently. It started being circulated by an RSS WhatsApp group and from there has gone viral in the Sangh circuit.

Sources say that Joshi, who is perceived to be close to the Sangh and till date has kept his counsel about the workings of the Modi government, is now taking a view. Though his advice is seen as embarrassing, the “nationalist” government can’t quibble with the wisdom of the great epics.