A History of Horse-Trading to Distract You from Death of Democracy

If the Opposition is not head and shoulders above BJP, you may as well snooze and save yourself some inner peace.

4 min read
Even a lead of around 20 seats is not safe as we have seen in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Goa, and the Northeast. I call this the Chanakya Bonus.

For much of counting day for Bihar elections, the battle appeared to be “neck and neck.” However, there is no such thing as a neck-and-neck election in India anymore. If the opposing party is not head and shoulders above the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), you may as well snooze and save yourself some inner peace.

Even a lead of around 20 seats is not safe as we have seen in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Goa, and the Northeast. I call this the Chanakya Bonus.

Status quo politicians will suddenly find their inner ‘rebels’, huge amounts of money will coincidentally appear in their accounts, and TV channels will parade this sore on democracy as if it were some grand spectacle.

How far this stench has become normalised was confirmed by the other big result of the day in Madhya Pradesh where 19 out of 28 free-spirited rebels had won in a by-election, successfully reversing the original mandate.

So, as eyes were riveted on TV screens and political analysts pored their brain over minute data, I decided to do something far more productive and far less soul-sucking – recounting the history of actual horse-trading, of the four-legged variety.

Okay, fine, but bear with me please.

The First Horse-Trading

The first ‘alleged’ instance of horse-trading in India is also the most controversial (Horse-trading is always ‘alleged,’ no matter how obvious).

A few bones, allegedly of a horse, were dug up in Surkotada in Gujarat, belonging to the Harappan civilisation. For those who believed the Harappans were vedic Aryans, the complete absence of the horse and the chariot in Harappan iconography is a major inconvenience.

Aha! They said. We got you now.

Not so fast though. There were no wild horses in India after the end of the last Ice Age. As the climate became warmer and wetter, they retreated to the Central Asian Steppes (or grasslands).

Horses are grassland creatures. They have tough lips to remove a layer of snow and eat the grass underneath. They also use their hooves to break the top layer of ice and drink water.

In the monsoon forests that covered much of north India back then, the horse would have hardly felt at home.

So what gives? The Harappan civilisation had documented trade links with Mesopotamia to the west. Mesopotamian records speak of imports of rhinoceri, peacocks and even elephants from Meluha, as they called the land of Harappans.

Therefore, a stray imported horse from Mesopotamia or elsewhere should not make news, but it does.

The horses were domesticated around 4000 BC in the Steppes, and the Indo-European language speakers or ‘Aryans’ arrived riding on them in India around the second millennium BC, something for which we now have irrefutable DNA evidence.

The Thriving Import Trade

Horses not being native to India had profound consequences for Indian history.

Successive efforts to breed the horse in unfamiliar conditions were met with failure. The Mauryas, Shakas, Mughals, and even the British had to import the equine in eye-watering quantities.

“Let me tell you that this country does not breed horses. Hence all the annual revenue, or a greater part of it, is spent on the purchase of horses; and I will tell you how. You may take it for a fact that the merchants of Hormuz and Kaiz, of Dhofar and Shihir and Aden, all of which provinces produce large numbers of battle chargers and other horses, buy up the best horses and load them on ships and export them to this king and his four brother kings. Some of them are sold for as much as 500 saggi of gold, which is worth more than 100 marks of silver,” writes Marco Polo, the famous 13th century Italian traveller.

“And I assure you that this king buys 2,000 of them. And by the end of the year, not a hundred of them will survive.”     

Traders and middlemen made dough importing horses from Arabia over the sea route and from Central Asia through the mountain passes of the north-west.

Among the many centres in India that became rich though horse-trading was the port of Veravel, adjacent to the city of Somnath in Gujarat.

When the Islamic invaders came from the tenth century onwards, they had superior quality Central Asian horses, which gave them a crucial edge in battle.

Apart from religious motivations, Mahmud Ghazni was drawn to Somnath due to the profits of the horse trade and the immense treasures of its temple.

“An additional reason for Mahmud’s determination to attack Somnath may have been to reduce the import of horses from Arab traders. This would have benefited the traders of Ghazni who imported horses into north-west India.”
The History Of Early India, Romila Thapar

He overran the city in 1026 AD and ransacked the temple.

The Iron Horse

When LK Advani decided to do a rath yatra or chariot march in the 1990s for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, he symbolically chose the rebuilt Somnath temple as the starting point. This time, the chariot was an air-conditioned mini truck, and the ‘horse’, an internal combustion engine.

Advani’s trip set in motion a chain of events that led to the ascencion to power of the current regime, with near absolute power.

Is there a moral to the story? I’m afraid not. Morality was never history’s strong suit. What it does offer is liberal servings of irony.

Horse-trading has generally had catastrophic consequences throughout history for the rulers of Delhi. For the present ones though, its new variant is bringing handsome dividends.

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