Narendra Modi was enacting a symbolic crusade in Varanasi, remapping history as he retraced the landmarks of a city. In mapping space, he was reclaiming history, the rejected or slighted history of a nation

Politics is often a symbolic domain, where the grammar of a world and its historic logic are played out for a nation to watch. On April 24, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi filed his nomination from Varanasi. The roadshow that preceded it had all the power of a staged ritual. It was as powerful as a Republic Day tableau but it reached deeper into the subconscious. In his march to power, Mr. Modi was rewriting history, outlining the India of his imagination. As a semiotic act, it was perfectly executed.

A day earlier, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convener, Arvind Kejriwal, Mr. Modi’s great challenger, had filed his nomination and experts were stunned by the crowds he drew. The procession was huge, the crowds enthusiastic and curious. There was an improvisional edge to Mr. Kejriwal’s struggle, a relaxed ease. This was no march of history, but an impromptu walk, full of delight and surprise. Politics becomes conversational, as power walks amiably through the neighbourhood of a great city. Mr. Kejriwal makes politics impromptu, accessible and inviting like conversation at a paan shop or a dhaba.

Symbolic political triangle

The Kejriwal style can be contrasted with the Congress’ approach to politics. There is a loose tokenism about the Congress with the Gandhis confusing family and nation. The mistakes became more blatant with Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra. Her entry was supposed to ease the electoral pressure on the Congress. Her style was reminiscent of Indira Gandhi, her poise created a tremor of confidence for the Congress. In actual fact, Priyanka sounded like a housewife complaining about her in-laws, about how her husband was attacked. Her promissory note, like Rahul Gandhi’s, was dated, having been encashed decades earlier. This was about her family’s services to the India now presented as a bill to the nation. The Gandhis had become anachronistic. They spoke the contented language of entitlements rather than the rhetoric of responsibility. With Priyanka, history repeats itself twice, a second time with the full costumed idiocy of a farce.

Narendra Modi’s is the third part of this symbolic triangle. The nomination had to be a memorable ritual, more evocative of a yajna in the old sense of the term; a statement of power which had to be a discourse on history. This is precisely what the BJP’s Amit Shah and his team choreographed to precision.

Great moments of drama often begin with a sideshow of a farce. Arvind Kejriwal struck the false note accusing Mr. Modi of helicopter politics, of swooping down to spend time with the people. It was not the right countermove for this moment of battle. It was clear that Mr. Modi was enacting a symbolic crusade, remapping history as he retraced the landmarks of a city. In mapping space, he was reclaiming history, the rejected or slighted history of a nation.

A new solidarity

The roadshow, as it was modestly dubbed by TV, was to begin at Banaras Hindu University (BHU). The choice was apt. BHU was the legendary national university set up by Madan Mohan Malaviya. Malaviya, ignored today, was one of the classic characters of the national movement, the arch interrogator among the Indians during the great drama of the Indian Industrial Commission. Malaviya was Hindu, a modernist, a nationalist who sought to blend Hindu society and modernity. In garlanding Malaviya, Mr. Modi was garlanding a Hindu vision of modernity, often ignored in a search for abstract secularism. In honouring Malaviya, Mr. Modi was recovering a different sense of modernity, different from the Nehruvian state. In his march to power, Mr. Modi was tracing a different historical lineage.

From Malaviya to Patel, as the next statue, was immaculate strategy. Both were great Congressmen and Mr. Modi had swiftly, subtly appropriated both for the BJP, almost hinting that the best possibilities of the Great Indian Congress lay through the BJP. It was both a salute to the nation and a summoning of castes. As Malaviya’s statue stood stiff and formal, we watch an animated Modi. He bows from the waist to a city and a nation. There is humility to the act and grace to the elasticity as his supporters remark, it is Kashi after all.

From Patel’s statue, the cavalcade moves to Vivekananda, Mr. Modi’s exemplar, a man who provided Hinduism with a whiff of modernity, who added to its religious monasticism, a touch of this worldly asceticism. The pracharak is only a secular variant of the monk armed with culture to march into modernity with a different language of service rather than the egotism of individualistic self. The spectator realises that a new organicity is being created, an organic nation state signalling a new solidarity.

I had switched off the sound on the TV and watched the procession as if it were a silent movie. One was reminded of another movement in his political autobiography. It was his body language during the Sambhavna Yatra which was stiff and unyielding. If Mr. Modi had bowed and apologised with similar gravitas, the nation would have been different today.

The crowd was swelling. A procession had become a surge. A sea of saffron was a trite metaphor. It was more like a gigantic river carrying the flotsam of life and history. Even BJP organisers sensed the unbelievable and the unprecedented. This roadshow was the true juggernaut to office as Mr. Modi moved to garland Ambedkar signalling that the BJP was not just the old casteist Hinduism but a theory of inclusion and justice, a coalition of Brahmins, Dalits and OBCs clamouring for a new nation state.

Suddenly one sees Amit Shah, Mr. Modi’s main organiser on the vehicle. It creates a pause as one realises the staged power of this ritual. One senses Mr. Shah, the propagandist, digging deep into the emotional core of the crowd. The next move becomes obvious. As the crowd reaches the barricade, one senses only the four proposers of Mr. Modi can enter with him. His nomination was to be filed by a boatman, a weaver, a singer and a judge. It was a judicious mix of the vocations of the city invoking the childhood ditty of tinker, tailor, soldier, spy. The boatman evoked the Ganges as an inseparable part of Varanasi. The weaver, possibly Muslim, heralded the great crafts of the city. The singer invoked the great gharanas of Benaras and the judge, in this case a grandson of Malaviya, the new occupations. It was a perfect quartet of nominees, combining the city and uniting it to the history of the nation. Benaras as a microcosm and India as a macrocosm were being juxtaposed in this moment of history we call the roadshow. Development and diversity had found a new axis in Mr. Modi. The presentation is so compelling that alternative readings or dissent are/is impossible. It is a closed world of symbols, politically coded to perfection.

Lost opportunity for Congress

The crowd strikes awe and silence in one. The only distraction which splits the TV frame is Mr. Kejriwal. He improvises an alternative spectacle, though a modest one. He starts a dharna at Assi Ghat with his supporters, objecting to the manhandling of AAP’s Somnath Bharti. It is a footnote but serves both as a distraction and a warning that what one is watching is a spectacle, although a powerful one. It makes one reflect on tactics, possibilities and alternative histories. It makes one ask what if the Congress had emerged from its political autism and challenged Mr. Modi not with a Bhumihar MLA but with Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra.

Many experts feel it would have galvanised the Congress, injected adrenalin into Congress cadres. Even Priyanka, instead of playing the tame agent, would have become a new protagonist, an agency in her own right rather than a background editorial, an addendum to politics. A self-inflicted silliness might have yielded to an inventive politics. An opportunity was lost to make history, to give the Congress a sense of a different future. While Mr. Modi grabbed the symbolism of Benaras, the Congress retreated into an embalmed sense of itself. Democracy lost out because Benaras might have been the signal of a Congress returning to battle than of a Modi rolling his way to Lutyens’ Delhi. The tragedy lies in the ifs and buts of politics and history.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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