Home >Opinion >Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal: Two divergent poles of Indian democracy

Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal represent two contradictory impulses within the work-in-progress that is Indian democracy. Modi fans might balk at the mention of both the names in the same breath—one is the country’s prime minister, while the other is struggling to stay afloat in an environment that seems to have turned hostile toward him and his kind of politics.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that—with Rahul Gandhi fading out of the frame—in the aftermath of the 2014 general elections, it is Modi and Kejriwal who have managed to secure a place for themselves at the forefront of the national political imagination. This is also borne out by media analyses of election coverage which clearly reveal that the top two politicians who enjoyed the highest exposure in mass media, as well as being dominant on social media, were Modi and Kejriwal, in that order .

A couple of caveats: It can be counter-productive and misleading to reduce political analysis to a matter of personalities. So the referents of ‘Modi’ and ‘Kejriwal’ here are not the respective politicians per se but the kind of democratic politics they signal to their respective publics. Also, I’m not suggesting here that there are no other leaders in India right now around whom other, different kinds of politics might not coalesce—this is merely a useful schema to map a significant binary among the many political undercurrents roiling in our democracy.

What Modi represents in terms of democratic practice is best understood by looking at what he means to his own supporters—not what he represents to his critics. By ‘supporters’, I don’t mean here the moneybags who bankrolled his campaign and have concrete expectations of return. Nor am I concerned with those of his supporters—though they form a sizeable number—who might be said to be sympathetic to the ideology of Hindutva. I am referring to the sub-section of ideologically indifferent voters who cut across socio-economic barriers to, if not actively support Modi, at least give him a chance.

This segment of Modi voters does not care much for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), let alone Hindutva, but chose the lotus symbol only because of Modi. And if there is one constant refrain in their answers to the question of ‘why Modi’, it is this: they chose Modi because they wanted a ‘strong leader’. A leader who has the force of personality to take charge, be decisive, get things done.

On the other hand, Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) represent the diametrically opposite impulse in mainstream politics at this juncture. They embody a participatory dynamic that involves dispersion of—as opposed to concentration of—power. It is a different matter how successful Kejriwal has been in following this ethos in his own party. But going purely by self-projected image, if Modi embodies strength, then Kejriwal embodies a self-effacing humility—symbolically, if not always in practice.

There is also another dynamic that differentiates the opposing tendencies these two represent. Modi’s appeal to voters is premised on distance—vote for me, and then leave me to do my job. He whole-heartedly embraces political authority. Kejriwal’s appeal, on the other hand, is premised on closing the distance between the governed and those who govern. He works from a default position of holding all political authority under suspicion—except where it is under the direct scrutiny of those subjected to a given political authority.

If Modi’s modality can be summed up as “Trust me to deliver the change you want", Kejriwal’s message has been: if you want change, then take on the responsibility for making the change happen.

In the Modi paradigm, the voter is a customer who has paid his vote, and expects prompt and efficient delivery of political services in return. In the Kejriwal paradigm, nothing is a given unless you are willing to go out and make some effort. And in the Kejriwal worldview, this is necessary because the system needs overhauling, and changing the system is an uphill task which cannot be accomplished by one man or one leader alone but needs the people to remain politically engaged.

In other words, Modi recreates the subjectivity of the voter as a consumer, while Kejriwal speaks to the voter-as-citizen. In such a scenario where political work has been recast in the idiom of running a private limited company—incidentally, the motto of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ encapsulates the quintessential corporate virtue of efficiency—the model of the ideal leader is the CEO, not the democrat. A key leadership trait of the world’s most admired CEOs is their toughness, not their penchant for participatory decision-making.

So, while Modi’s self-assured pronouncements have served to project him as strong and decisive, Kejriwal’s openness to changing his mind after every process of democratic engagement have rendered him susceptible to charges of being wishy-washy and weak.

In a mass culture dominated by consumerism—where, for instance, the discourse of rights can move seamlessly from politics to animals to parking—it is easy to see why the Modi paradigm might hold a greater appeal among voters.

This brings us to a fundamental question: Why does a democracy—any democracy—need a strong leader? Is it not enough that people have political rights, that those rights are zealously protected, and that they get to choose one among themselves—one from a community of equals—to represent them? And is it not enough if this representative does his best to further their interests? Why should it matter whether he is strong or weak any more than whether he is tall or short, or fat or slim?

Well, one answer could be that in an era where politics has been marketised, and the idea of the market de-politicised, the values of the market underwrite political choices as well. So if greed is good, it is strength that can make greed win. Self-effacement, then, is for those who cannot match the strong—it is a signifier of weakness.

Thus humility is for those destined to be losers in a winner-takes-all system. Today, it is as obsolete as that weird economic system Indians used to suffer in the pre-historic era that ended in 1991. While Modi’s message of strength evoked prosperity with great clarity, Kejriwal’s projected humility, in the currency of political communication, translated as weakness and ambiguity.

Besides, where you have a plurality of competing interests, and different points of view held by multiple stakeholders, the strong can ram through their agenda at the expense of the weak. But is that democratic? Well, in this scheme of things where speed is of the essence, there is no time to waste on such questions.

Another way of formulating this answer would be to say that we don’t want to grow up as a democracy. For growing up means taking responsibility—not just for oneself, but for the entire (political) family. In a mature democracy, the majority takes responsibility for the minority; the strong, for the weak; the centre, for the margins; the well-fed, for the starving. That is the meaning of the social covenant we call a state.

But we only care about narrow self-interest—it is the only thing the market recognises, it is the default setting of the earning-consuming apolitical animal. Though older than 18, the majority in India is a political minor, uninterested in the responsibilities of adulthood. Whether you’re a political collective or an individual, if you do not want to grow up for whatever reason, a father figure is precisely what you need. Simply put, the strong leader is popular—here, as elsewhere—because he sparks a delicious regression into a world of magical thinking where choices are happily divorced from consequences, and effects are independent of causes.

This is also why Kejriwal evokes such tremendous hatred in sections of the Indian middle class—a hatred and aversion that is out of all proportion to whatever may be his sins of commission and omission—for he is a constant, and annoying, reminder of our own political subjectivity, a subjectivity that we have not only happily exiled, but actually recreated as the Other of our normative (a) political self. It was therefore fitting, and not merely in symbolic terms, that Indian democracy had Kejriwal in prison on the day it got its new prime minister.

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