Here come the chariots of power

They are VVIPs. And I am what I am, the smallest unit of we, the people who have made them what they are — elected representatives of we, the people. This is about them and me, for anything about them and us ultimately boils down to them and me. This is about watching them go. They go whizzing past me, one after another, leaving me reeling from the storm they kick up. I want to count how many of them there are, going with a shrieking urgency that burs the surroundings for them and also makes them a blur for the people watching them go.

They go as if the nation is on fire and if they don’t proceed in a scorching rush to wherever they are going, everything would be reduced to a fistful of ashes. They go as if they are doing a sacred service to all the people making way for them to go. And they go as if it is the duty of the nation and its people to come respectfully to a standstill and provide them smooth passage. The whirlwind they whip up reminds me of these lines of Ghalib:
“Raundi hui hai, kaukabaye-shahriyar ki / Itraye kyon na khak, sar-e-rahguzar ki.”
(Why should not the dust preen? The emperor’s carriages, no less, have trampled it.)

I once counted 28 vehicles in Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s cavalcade thundering past me on a Patna road. It all began and ended like a bolt from the blue on a sultry summer evening when I was going on my rickety cycle, quite forgetful that my nation could crystallise anytime out of nowhere before me, fix me with its eyes and say, ‘Serve.’ And I would have no choice but to heed the command in its overpowering gaze and firm voice.

The nation shocked me that day by suddenly taking form before me in the shape of  immensely rude policemen who verbally and physically lunged at everybody on the road to unceremoniously drive them off it. The vigour and alarm in their language, both of the body and otherwise, made it clear to me and others around me that one of the representatives we had chosen to serve us was on his way to doing just that.

The citizens and their vehicles cringed in submission along the road, careful not to hinder in any way the progress of the nation. Transfixed by the road, my fluttering heart started murmuring Tagore’s lines: ‘When thou commandest me to sing it seems that my heart would break with pride ...’

The road went completely blank and quiet before they came—the beaming Scorpios, Boleros, Pajeros and other huge signs of prosperity and progress. Dust rose to the sky like hymns in praise of this progress. The huge signs came and came. And came. And I waited and waited. And waited.

I figured I would feel worthier by believing in Milton when he says, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’ While standing and waiting I counted too. After the 28th huge sign of equality, fraternity and liberty flew past me, quiet and stillness swept the road again. Then the policemen sauntered by, awash with relief at the satisfactory end of a scary test of their commitment to duty. They dismissively signalled us to move on. And I moved on, with an empty feeling in the stomach, heart and mind. It is no mean feat to serve the nation.

Many things in day-to-day life show me my place in my nation. The mammoth cavalcades of the elected leaders of the nation are one such thing. When they go screaming by, scattering everything in their path, there is deep symbolism in the world standing perfectly still and making ample room for them. It is a sign of time having stood still for ages. It is about chariot after radiant chariot gliding over royal paths, kicking up dust storms, the wheels of the carriages, the hooves of the horses, the stout, shining faces of the emperor and his men all just a blur for the nameless, faceless people along the road who blend pliantly with their surroundings and let stately splendour stand out.

Of course, both kings and democratic leaders have good reasons to travel in huge cavalcades creating typhonic circumstances. I know two of those good reasons: securit concerns and exigencies of state. Is it just that? Or is it also about vain show of power and inflated importance? About a chasm between leaders and the people they lead. About leaders exclusively and arrogantly enjoying pomp and grandeur that has nothing to do with their mandate to humbly serve the people who have made them leaders?

In the days of kings in this land, crowds herded along the path of royal processions cheered them because the king and his men made it mandatory. I wonder why people today choose to watch in complete silence when the cavalcades of their representatives sworn to serve them dash past. Are they, by any chance, exercising their right to freedom of speech (or silence), just one of the many gladdening gifts of our democracy?

Amit Shekhar is a senior journalist and columnist
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