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Opposites as competing possibilities

The victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi election last week granted the citizens of Delhi a desperately needed respite from politics. Newspapers look aimless and there is already a restlessness of a news-soaked nation waiting for the next combat. Yet, respites are therapeutic as they enable reflection and allow analyses to go beyond the frenzy of instant predictions. It also allows one to read politics in more creative ways rather than worrying about percentage points or incumbency effects.

The battle between the AAP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has to be seen playfully. This is critically essential especially as the AAP’s strategists plan to scale up AAP to the national level. I am not sure whether this will work. The AAP cannot be a standardised party; it has to be a collection of diversities linked by a new style of politics. The idea of the AAP as a juggernaut destroys the idea of the AAP. The party has to be a dialogue, a pollination of differences. If it expands mechanically, it will be a disappointment. The AAP is a collection of dialects, showing how politics speaks different issues in different places.

Scaling up the battle

However the AAP can scale up the battle in a different way. The AAP and the BJP should not be seen only as empirical parties, but as imaginations. The battle of the two parties has to be seen as a conversation of metaphors, of imaginaries, of competing hypotheses. If we subject them to political thermometers but forget the playful semiotics of the struggle, something meaningful will be lost. It might be fruitful to compare them as symbols and actually see Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal as caricatures. Caricatures exaggerate properties to bring out essential truths and possibilities.

Look at Mr. Modi today. He already sounds stale, is literally repetitive. He needs to be vitaminised with additional news. He has to be fed events because Mr. Modi I feel is no longer a presence. Without this artificial history of news, he feels like a robot. In fact, he conveys an emptiness because he cannot convey a stillness. Mr. Modi looks like a designer creation, a soldier in perpetual uniform. At the end of the day, he seems a perpetual collection of roles, a series of masks, a collection of agendas but not a person. The challenge of wanting to be Prime Minister and playing Prime Minister has robbed Mr. Modi of a presence, a being and a personhood. He is a project who is no longer a person.

The image

Second, Mr. Modi in a few months has been transformed, from myth to history, from aspiration to power. He may not have transformed the nation in six months but has transformed the nation’s perception of him. The asceticism has disappeared. He enjoys his own commodification. His attempt to auction his suit was an effort to hide his designer obsessions. In an ironic way, he conveys the sense of power as conspicuous consumption. One can no longer picture a pracharak with an aryasamaj look. Today, he is a designer commodity. He is compulsively fashionable. To talk of him as the chaiwala is no longer tenable. His c hai is sipped in board rooms; it smells of power and privilege. His new shakha has the business dons like Mr. Adani. It is as if he needs the constant gossip of externalities to sustain him as a media figure.

Think of Mr. Kejriwal. The fashion gossips feel he is a nightmare. A Monte Carlo sweater, which is a local product, is about as fashionable as he gets. He dons a muffler which is every middle class male’s security blanket. A silly topi literally caps what should be called an ensemble. But this description is precisely what makes him endearing. His very indifference to dress signals a style of dissent. His ideas of fashion extend to his contempt for conventional politics, to the regalia of Republic Day, which he sees as silly and pretentious.



Arvind Kejriwal will succeed only if he resists absorption by the Delhi elite, and remains an object of surprise and irritation



Mr. Kejriwal sees through the current pretentiousness of politics. He is not a native of Lutyens’s Delhi. This is what saves him unlike the “Oxford” educated lot around Rahul Gandhi or the technocrats around Mr. Modi. The very slapdash attitude to the folklore and rituals of official power is his saving grace.

Look at the two of them together. Mr. Modi looks like an aspirant for a corporate or United Nations job. Mr. Kejriwal looks like a reject who has flubbed his last application. Mr. Modi oozes the serious. Mr. Kejriwal conveys the sense of comedy and surprise. Mr. Modi is a juggernaut, while Mr. Kejriwal is a piece of jatra, improvised, indigenous, a trifled tattered. Mr. Modi appears fit. He behaves like a timetable. With Mr. Modi around, one feels that India behaves like an army, a land where unity is uniformity. With Mr. Kejriwal in power, India is walking amiably. One shows urgency, the other invokes care. They respond to two different rhythms of time.

On change

One hopes they sustain the difference. Mr. Modi feels he is a VIP. Mr. Kejriwal is contemptuous of the Lal Batti. The danger is that Mr. Kejriwal threatens Mr. Modi as long as he remains Mr. Kejriwal. Remember that both came to power because of a society that wanted change. Yet, civil society wanted them to be catalysts, agents who affect change but do not change themselves. Mr. Modi, in an ironic sense, became the change he wanted to effect. He sounds like an invention of a technocratic regime. Thankfully, Mr. Kejriwal still sounds anarchic. In fact the word anarchy sums it up. For Mr. Modi it is anathema; for Mr. Kejriwal, it is possibility. Mr. Modi stands like a Prussian, Mr. Kejriwal looks like the next door Gandhian. There is no laughter left in the Modi image. Mr. Kejriwal has the sense to look both comical and humorous. His very vulnerability becomes his strength. Mr. Modi wants to create an India on an assembly line of uniformity.

Imagine if Mr. Kejriwal changed, comes to office in a safari suit, goggles in his shirt pocket, a briefcase reeking of high class leather. So far one cannot visualise this. He seems more sensible and comfortable in a loose shirt, sweater and muffler which somehow signals that his ideas have the same amiably cared for quality. One has to now ensure that Mr. Kejriwal retains this informality as Mr. Modi grows more and more formal. Mr. Kejriwal’s politics will retain that sense of surprise, while Mr. Modi’s future is a finality of ideas.

Of possibilities

I want to see the two of them as a fable, of the nature of dissent and the fate of politics. Style is not always superficial. It is a symptom, an embodiment of a certain idea. Style connects to substance in a way we look at ideas, present ideas, and live them out. In this sense, Mr. Kejriwal and Mr. Modi become evocative of two ways of life and politics. I think dissent as a life form needs a different kind of sustenance. If it becomes too digestible, it dies out or is absorbed superficially. Mr. Kejriwal and the AAP have to remain a continuous debate about Indian politics and democracy.

I hope Mr. Kejriwal as muffler man stays the way he is. He will succeed only if he resists absorption by the Delhi elite, and remains an object of surprise and irritation. Mr. Modi is already a Delhi man, a management man, a part of the logic of a certain politics. Mr. Kejriwal should not be absorbable. The price of anarchy and dissent is that it resists conversion. One hopes that the years to come find Mr. Kejriwal mellower but still a challenge to the orthodoxies to come. I hope he remains naive, fluid and unacceptable while Mr. Modi has been absorbed into the orthodoxies of change. I hope Mr. Kejriwal remains a piece of gossip, a hypothesis of possibilities as Mr. Modi becomes more priestly and formulaic. Mr. Kejriwal as muffler man confronts Mr. Modi as management man in the India of today. I wish someone would create a graphic novel out of this great opera of opposites as competing possibilities.

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

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2020 4:17:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/lead-article-opposites-as-competing-possibilities/article6913539.ece

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