National symbols must always work as unifiers

India is big on symbols—if not their study, a field called semiotics, then the practice of deploying them. Take the political standoff over this Sunday’s inauguration of a new Parliament building. There has been an exchange of barbs across the aisle. In a joint statement, 19 opposition parties called the Centre’s decision to have it opened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi instead of President Droupadi Murmu “not only a grave insult but a direct assault on our democracy….» They said they will not attend the ceremony for flouting the letter and spirit of our Constitution, whose Article 79 states that Parliament comprises the President and both Houses. In response, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies termed their boycott “a blatant affront to the democratic ethos and Constitutional values of our great nation.» It is a battle over symbolism like none other. As if it wasn’t enough that a saffron tinge was widely seen in the occasion’s calendar mark, since 28 May is also Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar’s birth anniversary, a ceremonial redux from 1947 looks set to amp up the semiotic intrigue in New Delhi’s air.

On Wednesday, news broke of a golden sceptre scheduled to play a role. Called ‘sengol’ in Tamil and drawn from a Chola tradition of power transfer that was revived in 1947 for the symbolic handover of authority to our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru by the British Empire, this is a staff with Nandi the Sacred Bull as its insignia. Given to Nehru just before freedom at midnight, as reported, this sceptre was retrieved from obscurity and will be consecrated by religious rituals and handed to Modi for installation in our all-new capitol complex to signify ‘fair and equitable governance’. “It will shine near the Lok Sabha Speaker’s podium as a national symbol of Amrit Kaal, an era that will witness the new India taking its rightful place in the world,» said home minister Amit Shah by way of elaboration, referring to the years ahead till 2047, a period that may see our membership of Parliament enlarged and constituencies redrawn to reflect demographic shifts, which was the basis for why the Modi administration opted for a whole new construction project.

What lends itself to relatively easy semiotic analysis is what it all adds up to; and it may explain unease among BJP opponents. In its gestalt, it signals and sustains the novelty of India under the ‘party with a difference’, but within the framework that existed before the BJP’s rise. Although few doubt a shift in India’s direction, even visible in emblematic moves, clever calibration helps the BJP counter critics and rouse its support base simultaneously. What’s much less obvious is how each symbol works as a cue (or set of cues). The regime’s clever use of motifs is captured well by the Ashokan Lion Capital atop the building to be opened this weekend. It’s a gigantic replica of Emperor Ashoka’s majestic sculpture that gave us our national emblem. It’s on Indian passports and official documents, an embossment that has etched itself on our minds as a sovereign symbol. Except that the form of this particular one differs from the usual. Its lions bear a discernible expression. With their hint of a snarl, they even seem somewhat aggressive. While the sculpture’s recent unveiling took pacifists aback, it found plenty of applause too. And no matter which angle is picked for a view, it’s still the same crest we grew up with. At first glance, at least. As for what thought the sight of India’s Lion Capital pops into our heads, ‘Satyamev Jayate’ mustn’t lose its national share.

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