In the 1970s, there was the anti-establishment hero; in 2014, there is the anti-establishment neta. I once asked Javed Akhtar whether he and Salim Khan had created the ‘angry young man’ as a reaction to the troubled pre-Emergency years.
Javedsaab smiled: “We weren’t really thinking about politics, we just wanted to tell a good Hindi cinema story!” And so, we had Zanjeer, Amitabh Bachchan and the rest, as they say, is history.
Salim-Javed may have accidentally hit upon a winning formula; in politics, the evolution of the anti-establishment neta has been more deliberate.
Whether it is Jayaprakash Narayan with his ‘Total Revolution’ in the 1970s or VP Singh with his anti-corruption plank in the 1980s, the space has always existed for a leader who wants to ‘shake up’ the system.
Only now we have three leaders competing for that role of change agent, making it a rather crowded space. Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal, each in their own unique way, are offering a break from the status quo.
Take Modi, the front-runner at the moment in the prime ministerial stakes. His speech at the BJP national council was a revelation: not once did he mention Team Hindutva’s core ideological agenda. Instead of Article 370, common civil code and Ram mandir, Modi spent much of his hour-long speech shaping his ‘rainbow’ vision for India: from bullet trains to IIMs and IITs in each state.
Contrast this with the Modi one had seen during his Gujarat ‘gaurav’ yatra in 2002 in the aftermath of the riots. Then, he had liberally sprinkled his speeches with anti-minority rhetoric (hum paanch, unke pachees) and offered little in terms of a governance agenda.
Now, in his new avatar as a potential prime minister, Modi is consciously attempting to project himself as the political and ideological challenger to the ‘secular establishment’, not by taking on the minorities but by contrasting his origins as a ‘chaiwalla’ and track record as a ‘development-oriented’ chief minister with a ruling elite based on surname and privilege.
Moreover, by harping on his market-friendly Gujarat model of growth, he is also slowly distancing himself from his own Sangh parivar: he is now more likely to be seen in the company of technocrats and industrialists than with a Praveen Togadia and the VHP, or the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.
He has already dismantled the hard Hindutva brigade in Gujarat with a fierce personality cult; he now wants to replicate the same across the country, one reason why a section of the BJP fears his rise almost as much as the Congress does.
Rahul Gandhi too, is challenging the Congress’ ‘old order’ from within. Like Modi, Gandhi’s speech at the AICC session was also an eye-opener.
It was easily his best public speech yet, again a welcome break from his ‘power is poison’ grandstanding to a realisation that political power is necessary to change systems. He spoke of a ‘bottom-up’ approach to politics, of empowering the worker, of opening doors to younger people.
His ‘nonsense’ remark directed at the Union Cabinet’s ordinance on convicted lawmakers, his push for the Lokpal legislation, his rejection of the Maharashtra government’s inaction on the Adarsh report were all directed at recasting himself as the impatient, young crusader who is ready to freshen up a rusting old party.
And then there is Kejriwal whose self-image has always been of a streetfighter activist first, a neta much later. During the Lokpal movement, he positioned himself as being against a corrupted political class (‘sab neta chor hai’ was a popular slogan).
Now, in his new avatar as chief minister, he is once again attempting to build his image as a politician with a difference, someone who shuns the VIP culture, who wants to take the government to the people, even if it means staging high-profile dharnas at the gates of power.
The man in a muffler with a persistent cough, sleeping on Rajpath, driving a WagonR, are all designed to differentiate himself from his fellow-politicians, an aam aadmi representative fighting a khaas aadmi culture.
You then have an interesting troika of anti-establishment heroes: a pracharak who is attempting to evolve into a macho ‘Mr Fix-it’ of every national problem; a dynast who wants to dismantle the edifice of the very party that created him; and a self-confessed anarchist who wants to destroy the state before attempting to rebuild it.
What this triumvirate has realised is that ‘politics as usual’ is no longer acceptable to a majority of Indian voters, which is why you need to redefine it.
For Gandhi, the challenge is to get an ageing party to realise that elections can no longer be fought through drawing room cabals in Lutyens’ Delhi; for Modi, the challenge is to get the Sangh parivar to discard its ideological rigidity for a more pragmatic approach to politics and for Kejriwal, the goal has to be to achieve some order and cohesion within a group that he happily refers to as a “Shivji kee baarat”.
Modi has achieved some success already because the Sangh is desperate to return to power at the Centre and is ready to sacrifice its Hindutva agenda at the altar of one man’s unswerving ambition.
Gandhi may have left it too late and cannot entirely distance himself from the baggage of 10 years of UPA rule. Kejriwal is his own high command, but is also a man in a hurry, with the result that he is prone to gimmickry over a well-considered, long-term strategy.
What is clear though is that a younger, restless India is yearning for ‘change’: is it the promise of change offered by Modi’s dream of an ‘aspirational India’; is it Gandhi’s idea of an ‘inclusive India’, or is it Kejriwal’s notion of an ‘angry’ India? Whoever sells the dream best will win the battle for 2014.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal