The decision to screen the epic was taken under a Congress government. In a short time, the BJP, aided by its Ramjanmabhoomi campaign, came to occupy "the centrestage of politics," L.K. Advani claimed. The VHP’s Ashok Singhal, who led the campaign, has acknowledged that the Ramayan serial was crucial in inspiring recruits to the janmabhoomi andolan. What if DD hadn’t screened Ramayan?
There’s existed for some time an illusion that ‘Hinduism’ could unite people, that it could bring an ancient civilisation together again, make it great once more. The Ramayan’s extraordinary appeal helped move this illusion out of RSS shakhas and ivory tower discussions, and translate it into a set of campaign tactics. The temporary success of those tactics was read, by the advocates of political Hinduism, as confirming the truth of their philosophy.
A technological phenomenon was mistaken for a political one. An audience congregating around TV sets at home is not a movement. A broadcast is conceived as one-way communication; politics by contrast, is two-way communication, a dialogue leading to collective change. The Ramayan broadcast could have been treated like a dialogue, but was simply treated as proof of India’s Hindu identity. Were audiences saying something the BJP did not want to hear? Few people saw Hindu pride as the chief message. For audiences, Ram rajya was a message of democracy and equality, contrasted with the inhumanity and injustice they saw around them. Gandhi used the term Ram rajya in a similar way during the independence movement. But under the BJP, Ram rajya was reduced to a war against rakshasas.
Five years of the BJP’s experiment at the Centre have made some things clear. Invoking Hindu identity can only postpone, not prevent other political differences from arising. Crises of the economy, as well as of caste and regional disparities, cannot be displaced onto religious or nationalist questions, but must be addressed in their specific details.
Unfortunately, the party’s dependency on the RSS makes it hard for the BJP to learn this lesson. The RSS is a sect unable to transcend its sectarian limits, despite its ambitions of ruling India. Instead, every setback to political Hinduism is understood as a call for more Hindutva or as a need to return to "hard core" Hindutva. And that is what the BJP too says.
Had the Ramayan not been screened on Doordarshan in January 1987, perhaps the illusion of Hindutva would not have derailed our politics so comprehensively. The UPA may not be the answer to all our troubles. But it has opened a debate on our economic and political conditions. Liberalisation in its present phase began in 1991, but the dominance of Hindutva and the challenge to erstwhile secularism took up all the space in political debates.
The Mahabharat was screened after the Ramayan, to even bigger audiences. Its message, however, is very different. There are few rakshasas in the Mahabharat. Instead there is a Hindu joint family engaged in a ruinous civil war. Its characters are of a royal lineage, or have unparalleled qualities of strength or beauty. But each is ultimately alone. No identity, no religion or dynasty can save them. Each has to find the path of virtue, however difficult it may be. That is the lesson of this epic.
Because the Mahabharat was screened after the Ramayan, it was the latter that was picked up and used to define the historical moment.
What if the Mahabharat had been screened first? The ethical rather than the identity component of Hindu culture might have been foregrounded. Here were lessons for caste politics as well as for economic reformers. Instead, it seems, our fantasy about the Ramayana has been followed by a Mahabharata in our society. Now belatedly, we can ponder over which epic provides the best lessons for us.
(Arvind Rajagopal is the author of the prize-winning Politics After Television.)
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