The end of the Amethi myth

On May 7, 2014, as Amethi went to vote, spectators on TV watched a myth of a different kind, a soap opera of a different order. It was witnessing not the elaboration of myth but the end of a political myth — the myth of Amethi. The final destruction came in two parts.

On May 5, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, entered Amethi like a conquering Roman general. He was imperial in attitude, treating Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra like an ignorant schoolgirl and questioning her credentials for interrogating BJP candidate Smriti Irani’s status. Ms. Vadra’s silly question, “Smriti who?” rebounded on her, exposing her arrogance and her ignorance. Mr. Modi had stormed a Nehruvian bastion, announcing the end of an era.

Beginning a conversation

Amethi was part of a collection of anomalies — a family fiefdom in the age of democracy. It was treated as a family constituency, a package of entitlements that began with Sanjay Gandhi and passed on like a family legacy. The idiom of loyalty was feudal. The electorate behaved like a collection of retainers. Last time, it had sent Rahul Gandhi back with a victory margin of 3,70,000 votes. In an age of democracy, it behaved like a fiefdom and entered history as one. Amethi was Amethi because it was a Nehru-Gandhi borough.

Everyone knew it was an anomaly, speaking a feudal idiom in the age of citizenship. The Gandhis behaved like royalty and Amethi was content to treat them like one. But as decades cascaded into each other, as a new generation less respectful of the Nehrus emerged, Amethi was itching for change. Mr. Modi recognised it when he said that “Smriti Irani has not been sent to trouble Rahul. He has enough problems of his own. Smriti Irani has been sent to end the agony of Amethi, free it, so it enters the road to development.”

Mr. Modi’s statement, while imperious, was more like a diktat — external and distant. But the man who dissolved the myth of Amethi organically was the Aam Aadmi Party’s Kumar Vishwas.

The media was dismissive of Mr. Vishwas as being a poet and comedian. What was important was that Kumar Vishwas was not dismissive of Amethi. He had moved in four months earlier — bag and baggage and family — and began campaigning door-to-door, across hundreds of villages. He had no helicopter to swoop down on a surprised constituency. He walked, drove and began what politics should really be about — a conversation. He was not a Rahul Gandhi submitting select people to quick questionnaires. Of all the politicians, he understood and respected what the word “people” meant.

Steps to empowerment

There was a moment in Mr. Modi’s May 5 speech where he claimed that Smriti Irani could recite the names of a 100 villages and challenged Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra to name 10. The truth is that Smriti Irani could do with the acknowledgement of the vigour and dynamism of her campaign. Kumar Vishwas needed no such statement. That style was intrinsic to his being and campaigning. He walked through dirt and mud, talking, listening, giving a new dimension to the politics of empowerment.

There is a triangular politics of concepts of democracy that one must discuss. There is a difference between the politics of representation, participation and empowerment. Each is a life-giving word but in a different way.

Representation is conventional. The elected member gives voice to interests, and articulates and represents them. Rahul Gandhi was a votary of representative politics; a legislator with the added twist that he thought his job was legacy, a family retainership. His idiom was familial and feudal but there was a touch of the parliamentary to it.

There is a sense that the BJP is also representational but adds to it a hint of participation. It sees politics as a more collaborative act and wishes that people would articulate their problems. It is a politics with a hearing aid as people have a say in what is being done for them. Participative politics is World Bank politics, a part of the emerging development model. It is people friendly without talking of people’s power.

Arvind Kejriwal and AAP make the third step to empowerment. Empowerment emphasises not just people’s problems but their power and competence in solving them. Kumar Vishwas was seeking to empower Amethi by being a part of Amethi. He had the humility and the confidence to do that. Three different styles triangulated at Amethi to destroy an old myth, the myth of family constituency.

One must add that the media gave Kumar Vishwas little attention, convinced that “the defeated” have no claim to attention. The media often belongs to the victors. But one has to go beyond the logic of numbers. Rahul Gandhi might still win with a reduced margin but Amethi will no longer be Amethi. The myth of a fiefdom is over, pierced by a million question marks voiced in the streets and dhabas. The old taken-for-granted-ness of a fiefdom has cracked like porcelain.

Competing for a vote

One witnessed both constraints and possibilities on the day of voting. People were surprised that a dishevelled Rahul Gandhi was present on voting day. Some observers sardonically treated it as more historic than the election itself. The prince, arriving on Election Day, was unbelievable and many saw in it a sign of panic, of anxiety, yet what was clear was that Rahul Gandhi had no idea about the rituals and codes of Election Day. He walked around the election booth as if he was examining a family table. Ms. Vadra’s public relations officer lorded it over when she had no right to be present. Oddly, the Election Commission (EC) sent a notice of eviction to Kumar Vishwas’ family for overstaying their time, yet was happy to paper over such open violations.

Smriti Irani had to throw a tantrum to evict Ms. Vadra’s PRO. But it is equally true that on the day of voting, Rahul Gandhi roamed Amethi in a huge convoy of cars. With respect, one has to state that the EC seems to be encouraging at Amethi an amiable Orwellian world where citizens might be equal but some candidates may be more equal than others. This was obvious in the body language of the candidates.

Kumar Vishwas attired simply, sporting a green gamcha, talked of his work and the people. His family had been harassed and in that sense he had a better understanding of the power and indifference of Amethi officialdom. Rahul Gandhi walked around the booth like a zamindar checking out his garden. The beauty is that India saw it all on TV. What was tacit earlier was blatant today. Amethi had turned into a morality play. Soap opera style, the mythical contradictions between fiefdom and democracy were out in the open. An anachronistic Amethi had to enter the future despite a Rahul Gandhi playing Hamlet over his fiefdom.

The reader might say that I am making too much of these events, claiming that all this happens in India. True, but what is also true is that for the first time, a new generation, a new public, is objecting to ascription, to inherited rights, to an elite that thinks it owns India. It happened last week when a young professional objected to Mr. K. Chiranjeevi, Union Minister of State for Tourism, jumping the electoral line at a polling booth in Hyderabad on voting day.

The more dominant idiom was that ordinary citizens could and should wait. Waiting is a part of the delayed ritual of entitlements, while a VIP is someone who cannot wait. The arbitrariness of this becomes more blatant in Amethi as it struggles between being a zamindari and an electoral constituency. The dhabas of Amethi realise that there is nothing natural or inevitable about Rahul Gandhi’s candidature. They face a different world of contestants, of options where Kumar Vishwas reminds them of poverty and Mr. Modi, about the invitation to development. Rahul Gandhi is now one among a list of candidates who has to compete for a vote. It is not just a tremor of discontent but a rewriting of Amethi as a text. History was being reinvented. The story of Amethi will sound different from today. Such a narrative, storytellers would say, is the great gift of democracy.

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

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