Both Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal appeal to the popular in its raw and undiluted form. While Mr. Modi champions the majoritarian instinct in the popular, Mr. Kejriwal takes recourse to the symbolism of the aam aadmi that is also constructed as a majority
In the run-up to the recent election in Delhi, many surveys observed an interesting resolve of the electorates to vote for Mr. Kejriwal in Delhi and Mr. Narendra Modi in the ensuing general election. A couple of months ago, in an interactive session with the media, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Yogendra Yadav had admitted that the majority of Delhi-ites, who wanted Mr. Kejriwal as the Chief Minister, would vote for Mr. Modi in the general election. He had also said that ever since Mr. Modi had been appointed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, the youth vote has moved in favour of the Gujarat Chief Minister.
Rejecting established leadership
While it is evident that what each of these leaders represents is not only different but also a very conflicting idea of politics, the electorate feels no compunction in choosing the two together. While Mr. Kejriwal stands for a more open, approachable and participatory ethos, Mr. Modi symbolises authoritarianism, aggressive masculinity, and the sheer concentration of power. What then explains the seamless continuity that the electorate could mark between them? It is important to make sense of this in order to understand the emerging dynamics in Indian democracy.
First, this mode of choice makes it possible to argue that the vote and hyperbole around the success of the AAP is more of a negative vote against the incumbent governments and their methods of functioning rather than a positive vote for the AAP. The electorate seems to be less enamoured by the “alternative” that the AAP stands for (in any case there is no clarity as to what their concrete programme is, apart from fighting against corruption), and are voting and supporting more to insult, humiliate and insinuate the existing power blocs, political parties and their leadership. The electorate is increasingly refusing to be used as cannon fodder for the established political parties, marking a steady decline in their capacity, through their conventional organisational tactics and methods, to mobilise the electorate. It is rejecting the idea of established leadership, and the continuity this brings. The defeat of Ms Sheila Dikshit and many other established and well known leaders, who had won many elections on the trot in Delhi, is a case in point to validate this. In this sense, the strategy of the AAP to field candidates against the top leadership of other political parties, including the much hyped contest between Mr. Rahul Gandhi and Mr. Kumar Vishwas in Amethi, is geared towards appealing to this growing sentiment among the electorate. It is therefore understandable that those who have voted for the AAP also find in Mr. Modi a similar symbol of change and an untested case that requires to be given an opportunity, more than a positive vote for what Mr. Modi’s brand of politics stands for. Mr. Modi also ostensibly stands for unconventional methods in decision-making, against dynasty politics, and as somebody who is not bogged down by the niceties of institutional procedures. By that logic, he too, like the AAP, becomes an anti-establishment symbol. Both the voting patterns seem to emerge from a negative vote against the establishment that the Congress has come to represent in this case.
Thus, Mr. Modi and Mr. Kejriwal share the same discontent. Therefore, it is of little interest in whether or not the AAP is fielding a candidate against Mr. Modi. Even if they eventually decide to do so (since there is still speculation as to where Mr. Modi would contest from), for all we know, he might come out with flying colours as he might stand to represent, in popular perception, the more aggressive, ardent and effective voice against the establishment.
Second, there is a deep sense of pragmatism, or realism, in both Mr. Modi and Mr. Kejriwal’s brand of politics. For Mr. Kejriwal, “Swaraj” stands, for effective service-delivery mechanisms, beyond the pulls of ideology. He has repeatedly said he is neither right nor left but an aam aadmi, and would do anything that fixes the everyday problems of the aam aadmi.
The AAP, in his own words, is “shivji ka baarath,” where everyone and with all kinds of persuasions are welcome. Mr. Modi epitomises this similar kind of pragmatic approach to politics. He is here to deliver, and make administration effective, even if he is aggressive, autocratic and concentrates power, since these might be necessary to make the “system” efficient. Any debate on ideology and the values involved in pushing the system look like a drag, and less important than the pressing need for things to get done. Neither of them has campaigned on the basis of a concrete programme, economic or social. While Mr. Kejriwal has promised to get things done in days — 15 days for the Lokpal — Mr. Modi has claimed there are now only 100 days to turn India around, and fast pace it.
Representing the popular
Third, there is an unsuspecting idea of the popular in both leaders. They both appeal to unleashing the popular in its raw and undiluted form. They believe in articulating, more directly, the popular sentiment of the people. While Mr. Modi champions the majoritarian instinct in the popular, Mr. Kejriwal takes recourse to the symbolism of the “aam aadmi” that is also constructed as a majority. It is popular because it is the majority. While Mr. Kejriwal takes recourse to the rhetoric of direct democracy, Mr. Modi has already proved himself in Gujarat, in letting the majority community directly settle scores. Added to that is his credibility in being voted back thrice to power. The logic often used by his supporters is: “if he has done anything wrong then why would the majority of the electorate vote him back? The aam aadmi too has his share of prejudices, be it caste, religion, gender or race; neither of them would pause to ask if everything in the popular is necessarily democratic. While Mr. Modi found a friend in the popular voice of Lata Mangeshkar, the AAP has been happy to settle for Mr. Kumar Vishwas and his populist brand of comedy. While Mr. Modi has actively stoked prejudices, the AAP, at best, has left them unaddressed and unresolved. The party’s recent position on khap panchayats is a clear indication of this cultivated ambiguity. While there is no possibility of taking recourse to celebrating the cult of the subaltern unproblematically, both Mr. Modi and Mr. Kejriwal thrive on the majoritarian instinct that drives such politics.
The media has only preoccupied itself in raising the debate between the leadership qualities of Mr. Rahul Gandhi and Mr. Modi, but if it were to only begin probing the contrast between Mr. Modi and Mr. Kejriwal, it would be intriguing to see how the viewers and eventually the electorate would begin to respond to this conundrum.
(Ajay Gudavarthy is with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)