Election time is a strange period for working out the relation between the stated and the unstated. The language of realism helps articulate the obvious. Realism claims to be pragmatic, obvious, palpable and predictable. The real is what you are sure of and can even invest in. One feels confident of the real. Consider Varanasi. People feel Mr. Modi’s victory is obvious. Mr. Modi, they claim, is larger than life. He seems inevitable. When Mr. Arvind Kejriwal stands challenging Mr. Modi in Varanasi, experts appear dismissive. They argue that Mr. Kejriwal’s challenge sounds futile and unreal, a children’s crusade no one is bothered about. It is the Modi juggernaut that sounds real. Even the media sounds definitive about it, claiming it to be a no-contest. The miracle man of the Delhi elections appears naive and less magical. But the real has a way of dissolving as categories change, as definitions alter, as debates shuffle patterns. One is tempted to ask what Mr. Kejriwal is trying to do. Is it to defeat Mr. Modi in the election or is it to delegitimise him? Is it an electoral battle or a symbolic crusade? Can Mr. Kejriwal’s quest be read differently? One can understand this better when one contrasts the battle of Baroda with the struggle in Varanasi.
When one watches the old Congressman Mistry contesting as the Congress candidate from Baroda, one sympathises with him but there is no resonance. Mr. Mistry’s battle is pure electoralism. The Congress has to set up a candidate and it does so. There is no challenge to categories, no resonance of a different sort. The Modi-Mistry tussle looks and appears like a simple equation of forces. The pluses and minuses are clear. The Congress has maintained a semblance of dignity by setting up a gentle warhorse against the Modi machine.
The battle for Varanasi is different. As Mr. Kejriwal announces his candidature and embarks on a train, Mr. Modi recites a Prasoon Joshi poem. It is nationalistic enough but one worries more for Prasoon than Mr. Modi. An advertisement confused as a poem, recited in an old-fashioned way is a harangue. The poetry of a nation drains out in what reads like a predictable catechism. Maybe, someone more tentative and playful than Mr. Modi could have read it better. It sounded more like a loyalty oath to be forced on reluctant citizens than an invitation to fight against forces destroying the country. A poet like Subramania Bharati could have done a better job. Sadly, poetry is often a more difficult task to master than patriotism.
Watch Mr. Kejriwal as he folds hands on the train. His appearance is normal, almost tentative. He is confident, yet waits shyly as if waiting for Varanasi to invite him to contest. Mr. Modi seems to claim Varanasi as a right. Mr. Kejriwal understands the rules of hospitality and representation. He moves in more coyly and tentatively.
There is a second tacit contrast. Mr. Modi sees the Varanasi of Hindutva. Mr. Kejriwal claims a more relaxed but lived Hinduism. He signals a holiness, which allows for difference, which generates the secular. He hints at the Varanasi of amity, of many faiths rather than a saffron Varanasi. For Mr. Kejriwal, the colours of Varanasi go beyond saffron and he is not ready to yield the symbolism of saffron to the Sangh Parivar. There is a quiet contest about what it means to be Hindu without invoking the opposition of Hindu versus Muslim.
Varanasi thus becomes a definition for a different political battle. The recent Delhi election was about defeating a decadent Congress. Varanasi is about inventing and invoking a new era in politics. Varanasi breaks the Bharat-India, Muslim-Hindu divide that Mr. Modi seeks to enforce. Varanasi is about the empowerment of categories and people. Sadly, the chaiwala has now become the agent of corporations. When the chaiwala is an Ambani man, Mr. Kejriwal asks this: who then is the common man we seek to empower? Mr. Modi seems to present himself like a collection of dogmas, a god-given diktat; Mr. Kejriwal is experimental but is clear that Mr. Modi is the one to be defeated and in Varanasi.
One quietly senses Mr. Modi as a political text being reworked from the centrality of Gujarat to the cosmos that is Varanasi. In a cosmic space, a development agenda as a petty form of clock time seems secondary. Justice makes more sense, empowerment sounds more relevant to the Gujarat of Modi. The development model shrinks before Varanasi. The notions of development and nation state have to confront bigger civilisational questions, even go beyond the standard polarities of secular/communal, development/non-development. Mr. Kejriwal is suggesting the battle is different, that he and even Mr. Modi are irrelevant. The choice and challenge before India as a civilisation, a nation, a democracy and a community is to decide what kind of a decent society we want to be.
It is in this context that we have to read the symbolism of the two campaigns. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to place savage wager on Mr. Modi, even if it cannibalises a party. One feels a twinge of pity to see an old guard cast away because as old soldiers they refuse to die or fade away. Watching Jaswant Singh cry was I think demeaning for the party because he felt what was insulted was the discipline of old loyalists. One wondered whether the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was so desperate for victory that it was ready to fragment the party. Yet, one wonders if Mr. Modi really trusts the party as his cadre of enthusiasts seems to operate parallel to it.
Secondly, Mr. Modi seems to appeal to Bharat, yet is confounding it with saffron waves. The point Mr. Kejriwal is tacitly and quietly asking people to open themselves to is that it is precisely Varanasi as a way of life that is a challenge to Mr. Modi’s politics. Varanasi as a holy city allows for the other without treating secularism as the other. It seems to suggest that some forms of the holy instead of becoming intensely theocratic create own thresholds of the secular and the syncretic like a persona called Bismillah Khan.
What Mr. Kejriwal is asking is that Varanasi become more reflective and, therefore, initiate a more dramatic investigation of Mr. Modi and his politics. He is asking India whether the Congress and the BJP as parties are the limits of the dream. Is Indian politics to be a little Punch and Judy show between the decadent and the conventional? What Mr. Kejriwal is saying is that he is only a trigger. It is India that has to decide what kind of a polity it wants. The issue is no longer about Mr. Modi but of the eternal question of empowerment. In fact, he is presenting himself as a comic clown against Mr. Modi as king and asking what Mr. Vajpayee asked of Mr. Modi — what is Rajdharma? Does the emperor’s new clothes, which he calls development, tell us something about the middle class? Who then talks of the marginal? Is power always frozen at the top or can it melt and coat an entire system? In asking these questions, Mr. Kejriwal is inviting India to the new possibilities of democracy.
Let us not be naive. Mr. Kejriwal’s trip is like a pilgrimage. Mr. Modi’s organisation is like an army that is camping. Mr. Kejriwal’s attempts in terms of political scale would be modest. His message is like a conversation, homely, humble, even deprecating. Mr. Modi has the persona of a loudspeaker, amplifying his own repetitions. Mr. Kejriwal has place for the small and marginal, for the gossip of the nukkad. He is a listener. Mr. Modi’s persona comes out better as a dictaphone. But the contrasting styles are a signal to the contrasting messages of the two opponents. Mr. Kejriwal is content to be the quiet catalyst who changes not just electoral democracy but the drama of citizenship. Mr. Kejriwal is leveraging Varanasi to challenge the Gujarat that Mr. Modi presents. It is a battle of texts, discourses, messages which will be deciphered again and again. In this lies the value and drama of Indian Democracy.
(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)