Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Mukul Kesavan - Modymandias - Or lessons from an election

The pharaoh lost. He still stares into the middle distance on every road - from his perch on high hoardings, from inside glazed posters on bus stops, from above the fold on weathered newspapers blown down the street. The impassivity is deliberate. This is the marbled gaze of the larger-than-life ruler, remote, all-knowing. When will he learn that he has lost? When his party's lease on those spaces runs out, perhaps. Till then that purposeful gaze bears witness to the pre-ordained triumph that didn't happen. In some dimension of space and time, Kiran Bedi is rehearsing her swearing-in speech... luckily, it isn't the one we live in.

While watching the saturation coverage of the Aam Aadmi Party's sweeping win, I saw brief clips from Narendra Modi's speeches in Delhi which set the tone of the BJP's election campaign. Photographs suit Modi: still pictures lend his visage a certain gravitas. Video, not so much. When the BJP wins, the rhetorical excess of this style is hailed as masterly populism. The eye rolling, the elaborate mockery passes in good times for oratory. But in the aftermath of a BJP rout, the hand-waving, the mocking riff, for example, on shady money being paid into the AAP's coffers at dead of night, seemed faintly absurd, less an indictment of the party than the last speech of a pantomime character about to get his comeuppance.

It's hard to tell what the political implications of this electoral caning will be. An election that started out as a serious contest, ended as cartoon catastrophe for the BJP. It was the real-life equivalent of watching Wile E. Coyote run off the top of a cliff and pedal in mid-air before plummeting to a very hard landing. Or watching Jerry pound Tom with a gigantic mallet. It was a great or gruesome spectacle depending on your political affiliations, but the very luridness of the defeat made you wonder if it was as bad as it looked.

The BJP's spokespersons, understandably, did their best to pass it off as a local setback, not a judgment on the party's time in office. The other side was keen to emphasize Modi's ownership of the campaign and his responsibility, therefore, for the paddling the party received. The truth, as our triangulating television anchors like to say, is probably somewhere in the middle. But watching this electoral drama play out on television, brought three things into sharp relief.

One, the Delhi election clarified the plight of the failed turncoat. A successful opportunist escapes stigma because the world secretly admires a well-timed exit. But think of the wretch who jumps ship...then drowns in the water watching the abandoned vessel sail confidently towards the horizon.

Two, Kiran Bedi's bid to become chief minister must be one of the strangest candidacies for high electoral office in the history of the republic. That earnest yet hectoring manner, her knack for congratulating herself while admonishing others, the sheer weirdness of her utterances - her explanation of how she saw the light and joined the BJP is a personal favourite - catapult her into the Sarah Palin league of running-mates-who-sank-the-ship. The political systems are different, but both Palin and Bedi were being asked to run as sidekicks: Palin as John McCain's vice-president and Bedi as a local proxy for Narendra Modi. Both brought something that the alpha males didn't have. Palin was going to supply McCain with the oomph that he lacked, while Bedi was chosen to starch the BJP's Delhi campaign with an activist's piety and self-righteousness.

Bedi's performance right through the campaign was a patented mix of sycophancy, self-regard and daftness. Her last day as a chief ministerial candidate (and her last, I suspect, as a member of the BJP) was characteristically dissonant. Immediately after the results came in, she thanked Narendra Modi, the BJP and all its workers profusely for their faith in her and apologized elaborately for not having been up to the task they had trusted her with. She even thanked the party for making her chief minister without charging her for the privilege, almost as if the BJP customarily auctioned these positions.

Then, almost immediately afterwards, she denied she had lost at all. She had given of her best, she said; it was the BJP that had lost. The BJP was, according to her, "an interesting cadre-based party" that would go into the reasons for its defeat and explain them to the public. "An interesting cadre-based party" is one way of describing a party that you've just led to inglorious defeat but not one that suggests a long term future with said party. If I was Arun Jaitley (who allegedly proposed her candidature) or Amit Shah (who as party chief must have ratified it) I'd offer to resign. Kiran Bedi was no ordinary loose cannon: she was a whole arsenal of unpredictable artillery. What were they thinking?

Finally, everyone, is talking about the shredding of the BJP's aura of invincibility, but the most striking feature of the media's coverage of the rout was how little affection there is for the BJP in the public realm. Changing news channels, switching between English and Hindi news, I was surprised by how vindicated and excited anchors, reporters and studio guests were. At times, there was so much Schadenfreude sloshing around the studios that you wondered how the people inside kept from drowning in it. There was the odd Modi bhakt standing up for his hero, but for the most part no one seemed particularly concerned or unhappy.

Some of this has to do with the BJP's winning streak. When dominant parties stumble, sympathy is often in short supply. But that's not the whole explanation. Modi's supporters sometimes argue that the mainstream media is incorrigibly prejudiced against their man. Sambit Patra, the BJP's national spokesperson, was heard plaintively complaining that the BJP never had a honeymoon period with the media. This is partisan moaning: understandable but untrue.

The BJP has had enormous support on television. Whole channels have devoted themselves to praising Narendra Modi's "vision" for India: the " swachh Bharat abhiyan", his zeal as an economic reformer, his foreign policy forays, have all elicited wall-to-wall coverage and praise. I'm not arguing that Modi inspires no admiration: he does. I'm merely observing that he elicits no affection or love. He probably wouldn't have it otherwise. During a campaign speech, Modi actually told a Delhi crowd to vote for the BJP because a BJP chief minister would work out of a fear of Modi: " CM ko dar hoga ki Modi baitha hai..."

Amit Shah and Narendra Modi would rather inspire awe, admiration and fear than love and affection. And they succeed in this. They win elections because voters admire their ability to get things done and their summary way with people and processes. The trouble with this sort of success is that when failure comes knocking you get gawking onlookers, not concerned citizens.

Contrast this with the way in which the Aam Aadmi Party is regarded by the public. When Arvind Kejriwal grinningly introduced his wife at a rally after the results came in, I could almost hear television's collective communion go "awwwwww!". People like Kejriwal. There are people who loathe him; that goes without saying. But lots of people like him. They thrill to his successes. They feel for his failures. They call him Arvind without thinking twice. To feel for Mr Modi would be an impertinence. And no one, no one, would dare call him Narendra.

This is not to single out Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Majoritarian right-wing parties are inherently charmless organizations. They spend their time peddling a passive-aggressive resentment of religious minorities, they believe that austerity is economically virtuous, they routinely denounce liberalism's pandering nostrums. Their leaders are admired, hero-worshipped and feared. They are not concerned about being liked, and they aren't. It is why their defeats inspire voyeurism, not empathy.