Seen Birnam Wood moving?

Jawed Naqvi | Published: 00:00, Nov 27,2019 | Updated: 00:42, Nov 27,2019


Jawaharlal Nehru University student shout slogans and hold posters during a protest against accommodation fee increase in New Delhi on November 21. — Agence France-Presse/Sajjad Hussain

HOW can we tell that Birnam Wood is moving on prime minister Narendra Modi, to lift a metaphor from William Shakespeare? The signs are there.

Start with his foreign forays. Modi’s closest Israeli buddy, once an invincible prime minister in whom he saw a mirror image of himself, has been slapped with corruption charges. Netanyahu’s future is in a shambles.

Modi’s Saudi hero is selling his family jewels, starting with the massive American oil company, after a humiliating and costly defeat in Yemen. Modi’s American soulmate, Donald Trump, is going to be impeached any time now and could be unseated in next year’s elections.

The right-wing MPs from Europe were ushered into Kashmir to get goodness knows what certificate of democratic prudence. The European right is watching with bated breath the rise of Jeremy Corbyn who Modi’s British supporters have been instructed to help defeat.

Closer home, angry students are out on the streets, joined by ordinary sympathisers of Jawaharlal Nehru University. They may be protesting against a hostel fee hike but are actually fighting fascist attempts to dismantle the robustly independent university. Modi knows how the tinderbox works. He knows it because in 1973, as an ordinary worker of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he took the first step towards power by harnessing another volatile student’s agitation in Gujarat. He funnelled the raging anger into the nationwide JP movement against Indira Gandhi.

JNU is more than a tinderbox, of course. It is the intellectual springboard for a politically and socially inclusive India. It has courted Faiz with Nehru, Mao with Gandhi, Ambedkar with Marx. It has accepted right-wing ideologues, and tamed them. On his first visit to JNU as foreign minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee caught himself committing to JNU’s anti-nuclear stance. ‘You opposed the bomb. So we have dropped it,’ he said with humour that remains alien to Modi.

This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for economics not only cut his academic teeth at JNU, but he spent time in Tihar jail as JNU students often do for standing up to autocrats. A blind student was beaten in the on-going protests, and how did he respond? He tunefully recited Habib Jalib. ‘Aisey dastoor ko subh-i-benoor ko mein nahi manta…’ (I do not have faith in your system that panders to people living in palaces.) Jalib was tortured and jailed for his insouciance. That’s why right-wing governments don’t like ordinary people of the two countries to come close.

A more ominous sign for Modi comes from Maharashtra, a political dynamo of a state. Perhaps it’s the worst of the pick for him for this is where a bitter fight has broken out between two right-wing Muslim-baiting former Hindutva allies — Modi’s BJP and the Shiv Sena. The potential for trouble for the prime minister is pervasive. It brings to mind in several ways the critical last act in Macbeth. Did we see Birnam Wood move closer to the invincible castle in recent days? Shakespeare’s Macbeth had murdered the king who gave him his epaulets. India’s rulers are plunging the knife every day into the heart of a trusting democracy that gave them their unbridled powers. Maharashtra is only the latest victim of Modi’s seething ambition.

But Shakespeare’s witches — an emblem of the worst ambitions that lurk deep within us — were merely equivocating fiends, after all, saying one thing to Macbeth and meaning quite another. They showed the general his dream of power but saved the usurper’s nightmare for another day. They assured the fallible hero of his invincibility by promising him complete safety until the Birnam Woods moved towards his Dunsinane Castle, which Macbeth unintelligently and hurriedly considered an improbability. Then the rival soldiers cut the trees of the Birnam Wood to camouflage their move on his crumbling citadel.

Shakespeare’s vision of the improbable may be unfolding in Maharashtra, a region that laid low the mighty Aurangzeb, an area that saw the golden era of Girni Kamgar mill worker’s leftist unions and the rise of their foil the Shiv Sena. This is the region that spawned the social egalitarianism of Dalit hero Bhimrao Ambedkar. It is the state that consolidated the Brahminical reaction to Nehru’s and Gandhi’s promise of a multicultural and multi-religious India. The RSS first sprouted roots of its Brahminical fascism here as did its challengers, led by mediaeval Sant Tukaram.

The handy thing about the Shiv Sena is that it cannot be remotely threatened as an agent of Pakistan nor can it be accused of appeasing Muslims. Therefore, war drums on the border with Pakistan may benumb most rivals of prime minister Modi, beginning with the Congress.

A communally tinctured canard about the kidnapping of a girl from this community by that, as was once spread in Muzaffarnagar to the tale-carrier’s political advantage, could derail the opponent with a hustled Hindu nationalist narrative. That won’t cut any ice with the Shiv Sena or its Chandrasena Kayastha Prabhu leader and his Maratha flock of militant peasant stock.

Shiv Sena chief Udhav Thackeray had delinked himself from Modi’s party after fighting the recent state elections together. He was going to become the chief minister of Maharashtra with the support of his erstwhile secular foes, including the Congress. But then, in a pre-dawn coup of sorts, a Brahmin supported by the prime minister and the RSS, and also possibly dear to the powerful Mumbai business clique, was hurriedly sworn in at daybreak while newspaper headlines were describing the anointment of Thackeray.

Peasants in India have a history of fighting the most powerful states exploiting them, not different from the history of medieval Europe. The Marathas and Sikhs were a handful for the zealous Aurangzeb and also his distant successors, the British. They could be divided but not defeated. The witches’ brew is bubbling in the cauldron, and they are singing something to themselves., November 26. Jawed Naqvi is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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