An election of contrasts to celebrate the Indian Republic
Around 550 million people will vote in the 16th general election this year. It has all the intriguing elements: Two parties in transition, older leaders in eclipse, and another party challenging every conventional notion of politics. Sitaraman Shankar writes.india Updated: Jan 26, 2014 10:56 IST
Arvind Kejriwal briefly threatened to disrupt the Republic Day parade last week as he led a protest against Delhi’s cops. Had he done so, it would have been a pity. As the country heads towards a riveting general election, his Aam Aadmi Party has, by truly taking politics to the people, contributed much to the spirit of today’s festivities.
Luckily, better sense prevailed and the Delhi CM called off his sit-in after enduring a cold winter night in the open, and the tanks and floats are set to roll and the military men to march.
The pageantry is a celebration of the much-extolled idea of India. It’s a precursor to an even bigger celebration of the Republic, less than three months away: Around 550 million Indians will vote in the sixteenth general election, a heady affair even by the high standards of the past.
The Republic is 64, a young nation with a restlessness to go with its youth.
But even an India where attention spans are shrinking finds it difficult to take its eyes off Narendra Modi, is rapt for Kejriwal and hangs on to every word of Rahul Gandhi.
Few elections have gone by that have so many intriguing ingredients: A one-time tea seller who has claimed his party’s mantle with an eerie sense of inevitability, a fifth-generation scion who has inherited Congress with just as much certainty but less romance, and an activist who, despite a rocky start governing the capital, has dramatically given the nation a third option whose appeal cuts across communities and caste.
Two parties in transition, older leaders in eclipse; another, challenging every conventional notion of politics. Throw in powerful regional satraps and it’s clear why today’s parade is just the trailer to the potboiler to follow.
The choices before India may be radically different, but there is a striking similarity between the two men at the extreme ends of the spectrum.
It is this: Modi and Kejriwal are men who make their own luck, who reframe the rules of the game and dare their rivals to battle them on their own terms. They do this so well that their inevitable ascent begins to look almost preordained, and a momentum builds that is then next to impossible to stop.
Modi had the confidence to start his campaign to become prime minister more than a year ago, even before he was re-elected as Gujarat chief minister. In his first speech after winning the assembly poll, he addressed a massive crowd in Hindi, and it was clear that his audience was never really Gujarat.
The gods seem to like this Arjuna-like focus on a goal, and have beamed down on him since.
Along the way, a hostile party patriarch was swept aside; it says much for the Modi momentum that few now remember Lal Krishna Advani.
NaMo has scarcely put a foot wrong in the campaign, tailoring his message for each audience with élan. Some may quibble that the foot has sometimes strayed towards his mouth, producing gaffes cited by the chattering classes as proof of his lack of rigour and quality education. But he has gone blithely on, thriving on every insult and ripping into Rahul but waiting for Kejriwal to self-combust.
A voice that carries
If the nation was gripped by Modi — in the public consciousness for a few years now — Kejriwal, an unprepossessing revenue official, has grabbed it by the scruff of the neck. For perspective, he runs a tiny state, has never campaigned outside it, and prefers Hindi in public speech. Despite all this, his voice carries as far as distant Tamil Nadu, where an AAP offshoot has not just been born, but already split.
He has proven to be a formidable political animal, a strange mix of cynical means and idealistic ends. His people have picked on issues that touch the common man, but also those that bring out the worst in him; the police have become symbols of hate, and his ministers are doling out strange vigilante justice.
But his movement has truly taken politics to the masses and cleansed it to some extent of the taint it suffers. Chances are that it will move up the ladder — probably from the bottom position — when our youth are asked for their favoured choice of profession.
Modi has forced the Congress to try and play catch up by hitting his straps months before them; Kejriwal’s brinkmanship is driving Congress up the wall as it itches to withdraw support to him but doesn’t dare.
Congress’ two favourite enemies lie at opposite ends of the political spectrum, presenting the key players in India’s economy a piquant choice. Modi is beloved of industry despite a somewhat vague economic message; Kejriwal has appeal for a certain corporate type who wishes to renounce his sharp suit and make the world a better place, but he makes many company chiefs deeply uneasy with his left-wing views.
A scion’s challenges
So what of Congress, and Rahul?
The reluctant politician always had a bad brief. In its last two years in office, the UPA staggered from one crisis to the other: Scams in coal block and telecom spectrum allocation, rising prices, a crippling economic slowdown and a collapsing rupee. Policy paralysis struck, and UPA II seemed to be waiting to be put out of its misery.
Handed the mantle, Rahul has seemed uncertain of what to do with it, and it has shown: His message has been inconsistent and the delivery usually wooden. After a disastrous showing in assembly elections at the end of last year, the spin was that he was playing the long game, aiming for 2019. It is unlikely that Congressmen — some of whom mutter darkly about a two-digit Lok Sabha tally — will have the patience to wait for his magic to work.
So his challenge for him is clear: Shake a sleepwalking party awake and gain it some points for good work done — and there was some — in its decade in office, pray for alliances to work, enabling Congress to become the tail that wags a Third Front dog. And hope for parties to stay away from Modi, a man whom many of his peers struggle to like.
For Modi, it is to peak at the right moment in the campaign, and to try and blunt some of his sharper edges, to take his juggernaut the final miles into Lutyens’ Delhi.
And for Kejriwal, it is to compete nationally without having had the time to convince the capital, to pick judiciously from the thousands said to be throwing themselves before his chariot wheels, and to rein in colleagues who risk losing his goodwill.
This election, the first of the Republic’s seventh decade, finds echoes, however faint, of the three men who did the most to build it.
Rahul has had the legacy of Nehru thrust on him, Modi styles himself a modern-day Patel, and Kejriwal aspires to the conviction of Mahatma Gandhi. The descendant of three prime ministers, the one-time tea boy and the former revenue department babu need to prove themselves worthy inheritors.