Ten months ago, it was not exactly Weimar India, though those who still cannot come to terms with Narendra Modi on Raisina Hill are capable of such retroactive adjectives. What was missing then was the leader, not one with a Capital L but someone who could converse with the present and concentrate on the future. In his autumnal isolation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, already abandoned by his party and soon to be rejected by the people, looked like a good man wasted by his own inability to play out his essential self. In the sheer venality of the context in which he governed, he was too timid to stand up and lead. More than a political meltdown, his failure was a personal tragedy. The man who began as a modernizer, with that professorial detachment and apolitical attitude, turned before our eyes into an effete politician unmaking his own legacy. In General Election 2014, the dutiful Dr Singh was reduced to a bad example of leadership, and his India was so remote from the aspirations and attitudes of most Indians. He was the non-leader. And the challenger on the stump portrayed himself—nothing surprising as his career for the last 12 years has been a series of bestselling self-portraits in varying hues of nationalism— as India’s redeemer, as the rebuilder of a broken nation. Most strikingly, in a country where ‘power-hungry’ was a morally incorrect term, he loved every moment of the fight for power; he was presidential even before he was elected Prime Minister. If Narendra Modi was all about the singularity of a leader with the right answers, his counterpart in Congress was an angry man who could not stop struggling with the complexities of India—he was still discovering it, trying to comprehend it. Power for Rahul Gandhi was an existential dilemma devoid of poetry. The creation of a New Congress, or the challenge of winning India, was too much to expect from a man still struggling to make sense of himself in the battlefield. He was the leader trapped in his own uncertainties. Set against these two was the man who made his ordinariness a new philosophy of governance—and a call for mobilisation against politics-as-usual. What made Arvind Kejriwal a power to reckon with was not the reach of his gospel— part Gandhian, part Marxist, and part libertarian— but the impatience of the poor as well as the elite. He personified the picaresque of apolitical politics—and its limits.
Today, Modi is ten months old in power; Rahul’s absence is the overwhelming presence in the party; and Kejriwal, after a historic victory in Delhi’s Assembly election, is asking us, along with his fellow adventurers, whether he is worthy of our faith in him. In their strength, reach, or appeal, they hardly have anything in common. Modi’s rags-to-Raisina Hill story is a political epic of our time: a man rising from the embers of what could have been his political demise to become a force that galvanised the resentment of a people, and, in the process, making his biography more beguiling than his party’s manifesto. As candidate, he was his own mythologist and marketer; he built to perfection, in words, the Leader Ideal. As Prime Minister, the ideal has already been marred by the reality of not the NaMo- striped jacket but the exigencies of power. Rahul, caught between the powerlessness of his party and the residual powers of his pedigree, is still struggling to be leader of the ruins. He has to discover himself before he can be the leader of India’s oldest political tradition—and keeper of the last vestiges of one of the world’s most enduring political dynasties. He is too involved in his conversation with himself to lead a party in tatters. And elsewhere in Delhi, Kejriwal Re-armed is going through an extraordinary metamorphosis. The commoner-ruler has withdrawn into the loftiness of his righteousness, floating above muckraking apostles and heretics. There is only one argument in AAP today, and it is spelt Kejriwal. Chief Minister Kejriwal, born out of Delhiites’ show trial of politicians in a make-believe, is a leader blinded by his own aura. India, indulgent and unforgiving, still lends itself to every variation of salvation theory in politics, but these three concentrate the national mind because the others’ idea of India is smaller than their shrinking satrapies. This is the story of three leaders in search of one India, still impatient, and their quest captures the political zeitgeist.
THE INSIDER OUTSIDER
Modi on the stump sold himself to the swooning legion as the lone outsider all set to storm the Sultanate of Delhi. He wore his outsiderness on the sleeve of his starched half kurta. The world he conquered was not an enlarged version of Gandhinagar; and in his new role, he was not the Chief Minister of India. Though, at times, he was not so sure. In his initial forays into India’s near abroad and beyond, culminating in the Manhattan blockbuster, he reduced the distance between statesmanship and showmanship, a feat worthy of a man who never doubted his exceptionalism. Still, as he began his life in the city of smokescreens and trapdoors that mystified the power of the Higher Order, he was cautious, and, wisely, Prime Minister Modi refused to mime the grandiloquence of Candidate Modi. Apart from the public execution of the Planning Commission on Independence Day, there were no history-seizing gestures. That was all fine, the slow march of the modernizer, exuding the virtues of little reforms. For discerning eyes, there was a transformation underway: the erstwhile outsider was internalising all the vices he was raging against as the fortress-buster of the campaign days—or so it seemed. The new insider, though, looked a bit incongruous, not just in his style. We missed his natural charisma as he vanished inside the loose raiment of power. And he began to sound distant, speaking to the nation through any medium other than the press, for, he opted for an adversarial relationship with the media—not a trait you expect from a modernizer. Let paranoia be the preserve of autocrats, and Modi, all said, is not one.
Before we regained him, he lost a bit of his mystique. The Delhi election was not a vote against Narendra Modi’s Delhi; it was not a vote against anyone for that matter. It was a vote for a different idea of power; it was a testament of faith. It was, in the end, a perception vote as well; it mattered because it was Delhi’s vote for change, and Modi as a force of change was still fresh. In the aftermath of the Delhi verdict, even though it was not a referendum on Modi’s inaugural days in the Capital, few things became clearer: India abhors monarchical temptations of leaders it once indulged; a leader cannot remain aloof as the lunatic fringe of his political family talks intolerance and inanity with the confidence of the newly empowered; and infallibility is an idea cherished only by those who underestimate the ruthlessness of Indian democracy. More than anything else, the outsider who behaved like an insider missed the point: you can be an insider only after building a new establishment, which is still a work in progress. In retrospect, such stirrings of fallibility made him wiser. The Modi at play now is an unhurried builder of the future: the strong leader still mastering the soft touch of modesty. And as a man on the Right, his pragmatism may have the stamp of a conservative, who, historically, prefers the familiar to the unknown. But, being extra- sensitive to the unequal country, he will not downsize the Leviathan. The state is not getting smaller at a pace that would bring cheer to the economic right, and the hand that delivers has not abandoned the glove of socialism. Maybe power makes even the rhetorical right a centrist, and in a country like India, that is always in the name of the poor. So here he is, Prime Minister Modi, a leader who is more convinced of the ability of himself than the efficiency of others, a leader dazzled more by big projects than by big ideas, and still talking to the converted, bothering little about the unconvinced. He has the world’s most difficult democracy to repair, to reform, to re-imagine.
THE EXISTENTIAL HERO
Perhaps Rahul Gandhi is the least understood politician in this country, and that too despite the fact that he has been here for a while now, as the Peter Pan of India’s Grand Old Party. And all the while, he has been someone else’s idea of saviour, and that too was inevitable in a political culture where every desperate Congressman who could not think of life beyond the sheltering shadow of the Dynasty wanted a Gandhi to fight for him, win for him, and even shed blood for him. But this Gandhi was elsewhere even as he was, before our eyes, here and now. He had to play out a script prepared for him by the holy ghosts of his ancestry, their glory inseparable from the evolutionary story of independent India. He was a different Gandhi, refusing to be a hero in a script prewritten for him. At times, it seemed he was caged by entitlement, and he wanted to break free, declare freedom, and create a New Congress devoid of superannuated courtiers and salivating sycophants. At times, it was as if he did belong there only to be the conscience keeper of the party, for he alone had the freedom to be a dissenter while being the most privileged insider, and sporadically, he played that insider-outsider part to perfection. He was special; he was the extra-constitutional princeling who did not require the adornment of a crown to exercise his power. In the campaign of 2014, Rahul was all these and more, a man of regular transmutations. There he was, playing with the complexities of India with the now famous to-bee-or-not-to-bee soliloquy, and we are not sure whether he still got a grip on the ‘beehive’ nation. Then there he was as the angry debunker of his Prime Minister’s immorality—immunity for criminal legislators. And throughout, his was not a fight for power, thereby, knowingly or not, repudiating the family tradition. It was an incoherent conversation with power. It was not office that interested him, much to the suppressed disappointment of his party, but the wonderment that was India—a Great Incomprehension.
It still is, even as his party increasingly resembles BJP after 2004: wallowing in defeatism. Much has been made out of his absence at a time when the party and Parliament needed him most. Once again, we committed the mistake of raising conventional questions about leadership and responsibility—or the lack of both. A sabbatical, after all, is what an over-exercised mind needs. A mind that has been struggling with the deepest existential questions and the meaning of power and the madness of politics requires the solace of a metaphorical banyan tree in his private Gaya. It is not a luxury. It is an invitation by your inner self. Soon, he will be the new maximum leader of his party—the country may have to wait longer, but don’t expect what you usually expect of a leader burdened with a brain-dead organisation. If the past is any indication, it will be power as a narrative in stream of consciousness. Here is a leader for whom power is a journey within the whirl of his own mind, rather than a linear progression from his ancestral legacy. There is nothing to lose except an idea he has not yet fully understood—India—perhaps as much as we have misunderstood him.
THE LOFTY COMMONER
Elsewhere in Europe in the last years of the last century, a group of amateurs—playwrights, rock singers and novelists—began their struggle against the biggest lie of ideology from a theatre called the Magic Lantern—and it would culminate in post-communist Eastern Europe having its first philosopher king. The Velvet Revolution of Prague circa 1989 was the ultimate romance of the amateur, and in the words of its hero, Václav Havel, it was dissent as living-in-truth, and it was the “power of the powerless”—the finest moment of “apolitical politics”. A couple of years ago in Delhi, when Arvind Kejriwal, a former revenue officer turned satyagrahi, launched a political party and pledged his allegiance to the common man (aam aadmi), he did not have the grand backdrop of history. He did have the blessings of a people disillusioned with the manners and meanness of politics as usual, and his appeal spread across the classes—he was Dirty Harry and Robin Hood, David and Gulliver. He was loftier and righteous, and for the believers, he was destined to fly on a broom mightier than Harry Potter’s Firebolt to the promised land, where every man will be a government. In spite of the hyperbole, in spite of his simplistic portrait of a Ruritania of equal pleasures, he did indeed gain easy access to the imagination of India. He would stay there, even as he made a travesty of his own ideal. His failure—a street-fighting chief minister who came to personify the irresponsibility of power—was steeped in bathos.
Kejriwal Part Two, after the historic beginning, is unfolding as a farce. When the leader is supreme, Our Lord of Deliverance, purges and show trials are inevitable. The way things are, soon there will be midnight knocks and a gulag for the Yadavs and the Bhushans and other sundry bad eggs who dare to deviate from the teachings of the One. If AAP today is an idea banalised by its own votaries, its paramount leader is an ideal subverted by his exaggerated sense of righteousness. The AAPeople, in the inglorious tradition of revolutionaries, are living up to the truism: managing power is a task more arduous than fighting for it. So the leader as common man re-armed is a me-the-wisest egomaniac who will not listen to any voice other than his own unless it is a chorus of Hail the Helmsman. A leadership built on We the People has become Mock the People (who did not want it to fail).
The old cliché tells us that every country gets the leader it deserves. Maybe it is yet another case of Indian exceptionalism that the gap between what we deserve and what we desire keeps growing. India never gives up its impatience— and no democracy with a historical memory does.