'Puja Versus Tapasya': Why Rahul Gandhi's Formulation Has Meaning

The puja paradigm of politics continues the colonial model. Tapasya, as a collective plebeian movement, is the perfect antidote to that unthinking oppressive paradigm.

Come to think of it, the formulation proffered by Rahul Gandhi about puja and tapasya is neither facetious nor simple-minded.

It encapsulates a rather profoundly instructive truth about correspondences between forms of religion and forms of politics.

Where puja (worship) is clearly a hierarchical concept, suggesting a supplicant and a deity, tapasya (meditation) involves an individual endeavour to subject oneself to levelling regimens calculated to erase hierarchical distinctions, and to raise the ordinary to the exalted.

If the first entrenches an unequal relation of power, the second seeks to forge a morally-inspired horizontal spontaneity of common humanity.

This may be one reason why in our “Indic” – a favourite Hindutva allusion – civilisation, across religions, the wandering mendicant, rishi or sufi, has always held a more venerated status than a Pandit or Mullah.

It is a valid inference that in speaking of puja as he did, Rahul Gandhi had a pregnant, even epiphanic, pronouncement in mind – n epiphany being a moment of searing perception that illuminates past, present, and future.

In his last speech to the Constituent Assembly, we may recall, Ambedkar had cannily observed that whereas bakhti (ergo, puja) in matters of religious faith can be understood to be normative, such a sentiment, if transferred to the political realm would verily see the end of constitutional democracy in favour of cult-worship.

When that happens, the rational and analytic resource of the body politic gives way to uncritical devotion, as to a deity in religion, and thus to the closure of questionings without which only dictators flourish as new gods appended to the pantheon.

Since tapasya, on the other hand, searches after that within oneself which exposes the falsity of egotistic discriminations, regardless of the disequilibriums of power, Rahul Gandhi seems to want to express that recognition in his frequent interactions with ordinary women, men and children along the way as he trudges T-shirted in the freezing cold, and with the media in order to establish a distinctly different human/political template from what the nation has been subjected to for nearly a decade now.

Do recall how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi walked out of a high-falutin meeting of the then Congress to go travel third class to see for himself where the people of India lived and in what circumstances.

Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rahul may be understood to be doing the same thing on foot.

Tapasya, most of all, imbues the subject with the urge not to use political language to deflect, deceive, or deride, but to embrace the imperatives that afflict the vast mass of people who neither have access to political puja, nor benefit from it despite repositing faith in self-designated godheads.

 If the first part of his tapasya was to stand down as an entitled Gandhi and make way for Kharge to take over the reins of the oldest party, his subsequent effort clearly appears to be to let common rather than entrenched opinion to determine what his deserts and dues for the future are.

 The common Indian will also, justly, look to see what follows the Yatra.

If the participants in the Yatra come to see it as the crowning act of a once-in-a-lifetime grand historical project with nothing better or more arduous to follow, its moral and political charge may come to be quickly dissipated.

Tapasya in politics can indeed be more exacting than in personal life; no better lesson to draw here than from the career of those who fought for Independence form colonial rule.

If, however, the human and spiritual capital of the Bharat Jodo Yatra continues to be invested in a sustained democratic partnership in foregrounding and fighting for people’s common needs without a hankering after the main chance, the edifice of the politics of puja may find itself cracking , defeating top-down propaganda and demagoguery that finds refuge in unquestionable cult-worship.

Whether or not the Yatra has established Rahul Gandhi as the primus to lead the charge on behalf of secular-constitutional democracy is a poser that is best left to the body politic to pronounce on; and be sure they will.

Those that have ears to hear and eyes to see probably already have the answer.

One other consideration attendant upon the odyssey of the Yatra in which the Indian National Congress has clearly sought to relive its forgotten legacies of public immersion.

A.K. Antony has once again advised that the grand old party should woo the “Hindu” constituency. One would like to know from Antony if the 12 crore votes the Congress polled in 2019 had no Hindus among them.

Clearly, there must have been a preponderance, if it be agreed that those born Hindu but not Brahmin, Thakur, or Bania are also kosher Hindus. 

Not that the 12 crore did not include whole chunks of the latter as well.

We wish to submit to Antony that this form of computation now has lived out its day for the Indian National Congress.

Its new narrative must draw from the accumulated experiences of the Yatra, not from ossified forms of drawing -room configurations.

Given the record that the Congress vote does, in fact, include large chunks of Hindu vote, Antony’s articulation suggests that it is not the “Hindu” constituency he has in mind but the “Hindutva” one.

We would like to say that going down that path will not but be both counter to the genius of he Bharat Jodo Yatra but electorally a self-defeating one as well.

The way to best the politics of Hindutva is not to second-fiddle it but to show it up for what it is – an anti-people, vested stratagem of those who seek to appropriate the riches of the realm under the garb of “cultural nationalism.”

The idea, canny as it seems, should be seen as a non-starter, both morally and politically.

Indeed, visibly, the Yatra as a force for communal harmony can be seen to have made discernible penetrations in the common mind wherever it has reached, bringing back what has been grievously lost over the last decade.

Therefore, catering now to sectarian constituencies would not but be a gross betrayal of the mission with which the party is seeking to both re-establish itself and to retrieve the constitutional republic.

Let it be clearly seen that the puja-paradigm of politics is at bottom a continuation of the colonial model. Tapasya as a collective plebeian movement is the perfect antidote to that unthinking oppressive paradigm.