What Kejriwal's Ramlila brand of politics implies

Modi too goes counter to the traditional politics, responds to urge for change

ajay

Ajay Singh | December 23, 2013


An Aam Aadmi Party supporter at a rally addressed by Arvind Kejriwal in the run-up to Delhi elections.
An Aam Aadmi Party supporter at a rally addressed by Arvind Kejriwal in the run-up to Delhi elections.

“Can they hold the assembly meeting at the Ramlila Maidan?” retorted a senior BJP leader when asked if the success of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the austere lifestyle of its leader Arvind Kejriwal would set an example for the national parties and their leaders to follow. The leader was of course on a chartered flight, returning from Varanasi after attending Narendra Modi’s hugely successful rally in India’s oldest city.

Only three days later, AAP national convenor Kejriwal has decided to take oath as the chief minister of Delhi at the Ramlila Maidan. The BJP leader’s premonition about Kejriwal holding an assembly session on the sprawling ground may not be a distant possibility. Perhaps nothing has upset the traditional political parties and their leaders more than the image of Kejriwal as next-door neighbour or literally an aam aadmi. The fact that he steadfastly refuses to let go of this image despite his anointment as the chief minister has hit the well-entrenched politicians where it hurts most – their sense of entitlement of perks and privileges.

“The state is a temporary thing and in no way a permanent feature in human life,” said the great sage Leo Tolstoy. And those scared of Kejriwal’s ‘antics’ challenging the notion of the state’s permanence are certainly oblivious to the deep yearning of people for a transformational change in the old political order. If Kejriwal has emerged in less than a year to symbolise this change, it is nothing but an illustrating testimony to the widening chasm between the practitioners of traditional politics and the people.

Even the signals emanating from the ground are being ignored. Two remotely unconnected events, in Delhi and Varanasi, are illustrative in their own way in defining the popular political sentiment in the country. Just as Kejriwal decided to seek people’s opinion on whether or not to form the government, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi addressed an unprecedented crowd at Varanasi which buoyed the saffron brigade. Instead, the Hindutva forces should genuinely worry about the people’s mood.

Varanasi is a veritable microcosm of India. What is true of India is equally true of Varanasi, the most pious city across the country. But the city has a rich history and tradition of challenging the faithful and conventions. On December 20 when Modi addressed a huge public gathering nearly 30 km away from the city, he was acutely aware of the fact that those who trekked miles in hordes to listen to him were not BJP supporters. An indication of this was available on the ground when a section of the crowd tried to heckle the sitting MP from Varanasi, Murli Manohar Joshi.

Joshi is an archetypal brahmin. He should be an instant winner in Varanasi's audience. But nobody except Modi was the star attraction. Cutting across caste barriers, the audience comprised people of all ages, all groups. Of course, this unprecedented level of mobilisation was beyond the capacity of the party's organistional strength. Even local party leaders admitted that given the unpopularity of Joshi and the local BJP, it would be difficult to mobilise even a fraction of this strength for any other national leader from the Hindutva stable.

Then what drove people to Modi's rally? Unlike KN Govindacharya or BJP president Rajnath Singh, Modi was never associated with the city and its cultural moorings. Unlike Vajpayee, he is not from a brahmin lineage which gets instant acceptance in a society steeped in religious rituals and cultural mores which are perhaps older than traditions and even history. He is certainly not an unusually gifted orator who can impress even those engaged in regular political gossips at famous Assi ghat by the Ganga.

But all this conventional wisdom about Varanasi turned on its head when Modi came here. The reason for his success was not far to seek. Fed up with traditional politics of caste and archaic idiom, Modi, rightly or wrongly, comes across as a symbol of hope. Those living in Varanasi have been facing the worst kind of infrastructure crisis in the city. People's top priorities – bijli, sadak paani (‘BSP’) – have been relegated and the law and order scenario is scary. Political rent-seekers have been thriving while concerns of the ordinary citizens are hardly an issue. In an atmosphere of despondency and frustration, Modi emerges in people's perception as a leader who delivered in Gujarat. And if given a chance, he would do the same for the rest of the country.

The minute details of what and how he delivered in Gujarat are considered unnecessary digression from the objective. Any attempt to challenge the perception which has reached delusional proportions only fortifies people's faith in what they believe. Obviously the phenomenon appears to be a metamorphosis of a new political order not guided by conventional logic and traditional calculus. Apparently, Modi has the advantage of the first mover in a vacuum caused by venal politics of the third-front players like Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
It would be no less than naïve to assume that Modi was a natural political choice for people of eastern UP. On the other hand, he seems to be beneficiary of a political windfall because of his carefully cultivated image of a leader not cast in the traditional political mould. But won’t such a scenario change if Kejriwal with his aam aadmi image decided to change the grammar of governance in Delhi?

What is particularly significant is the fact that those thronging to Modi’s rallies in large numbers are averse to the Congress and the BJP in equal measure. They abhor the regional players with equal intensity if such parties symbolise traditional politics and venal vocabulary. This is why Modi’s magic is not expected to work in states like West Bengal and Odisha where regional leaders have evolved their own powerful paradigm of politics. Similarly, in southern states also, Modi may find it difficult to breach the barrier beyond the Vindhya range. In such a scenario, the nation’s future political course will be largely dependent upon the Kejriwal experiment which has the potential of redefining not only politics but also statecraft.

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