Spectre of a Sceptre
King Ottokar’s Sceptre was published in the Late 1930s when Europe was in a big turmoil. It was published as a serialised weekly comic strip in a children’s supplement of a Belgian Newspaper. The book has intrigued Tintin scholars for decades, and they have researched the backstory and contents with an energy generally reserved for more serious literary works. While they have differed on nuances and details, they have converged on:
- It was an indictment of dictators and megalomaniacs in general.
- That it was a scathing criticism of Nazi expansionism—Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and Herge named the main baddy Musstler, a portmanteau name derived from Mussolini and Hitler.
- That there was a subtext of political power drawing legitimacy from religion—the king could ascend to the throne only on the designated St Vladimir’s day,
It was courageous of Herge to publish the book in 1939—Belgium was to fall in the next few months to Germany.
I read the book in 1977—I was fresh out of school; the Emergency had ended; Indira Gandhi had been voted out of power; The dictator lost, and Janata(pun intended) won. Those were euphoric “ballot over bullet” times and the Syldavian King’s story appeared so alien. We were a civilized and enlightened people—we could select or reject our rulers based on their performance. Unlike the unenlightened rest of the world, our rulers did not draw legitimacy from some divinity-ordained sceptre or a royal lineage.
Flash forward to 2014: We, the people, rejected an earlier set of rulers and elected a new set with a massive majority. This party, with a highly rated world leader as PM, has been in power for the last 9 years. That they got re-elected in 2019 with an even higher majority, was a vindication of their ideology and a victory for their crusade-like campaign. It was the grandest spectacle of democracy. But on May 28, 2023, things changed and changed hugely. On the inaugural day of the new parliament, a group of holy priests presented the PM with a sceptre, Sengol—a symbol of transfer of power (as per GOI communiqué). It was so reminiscent of King Ottokar’s investiture ceremony on St Vladimir’s day.
Here was a ruler who, despite enjoying the support of the masses and the attendant power, was still seeking the legitimacy of his throne from divine powers. Future researchers may investigate the compulsions and motivations for this course of action but for now, as they say—the more things change, the more they remain the same.
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