The social cannot be detached from the political, whether through a saviour-like Modi or a generic aam aadmi
Identity became the big idea of Indian democracy 20 years ago. Mandal, Mandir and Market, or caste, religion and a new economic order, made identity the mantra of what was dubbed India’s “second democratic upsurge”.
Today, however, the individual dominates, with Modi, Media and Market instead appearing triumphant. The cult of Moditva has replaced Hindutva, emerging as the rallying point of the aspirational. Here, an individual can loom over a party and signal the power of the person to direct, if not change, history. It is precisely why individuals from India’s founding moment, from Gandhi to Patel, are being appropriated to announce that a “great man” can change the context. What is at stake, though, is the legacy of Nehru and Ambedkar, who installed state and society as the drivers of Indian democracy.
Enabled by the media and the market, at first glance the individual seems to have replaced the identity politics of the 1990s. Not since the slogan of “Indira is India” has one individual captured political attention in the way Narendra Modi is currently doing. The end of Indira Gandhi’s India paved the way for a new sequence of politics, in which society in the form of caste gained political control. In the 1990s, caste blocked the ascendant politics of religion.
Today, Modi signifies the archetypical individual. An OBC leading a pre-eminent party of identity, caste and Hindutva are conspicuously absent from his rhetoric. But it would be erroneous to suggest that this duel is over. The BJP’s squeamishness towards the mandir today shows that though Hindutva is the base of its politics, it does not want to speak its name. In contrast, the aam aadmi has become the counter-cult figure to Modi. Like Modi, the aam aadmi is seen to be stripped of his social inheritance, be it caste or religion. The “aam aadmi” notion even wishes to supersede the basic social difference between men and women. The idea of the aam seeks to project ordinariness as common cause and identity. In a country marked by distinctions, a populist victimhood by those in urban and semi-urban India, who have made relative gains owing to market reform, identifies the aam aadmi. The Aam Aadmi Party’s individual is depicted as a modest sufferer.
Modi and the aam aadmi signal the immediacy of the present in which the individual, however big or ordinary, is projected to overcome history. Saviour or sufferer, the projected powers of the individual thus are aspirational, extraordinary and potent enough to change history. Such a discourse is an outcome of the mediatisation of politics and in sync with the market. The stupefying power of media has reduced history to a game of symbolic thrones. Mimicking Gandhi’s political strategies, the AAP has responded and reduced the power of Gandhian symbols to fight a mighty system to a reality TV show. Modi too has laid claim to the nation’s founders, from Patel to Gandhi.
With history on its side, the Congress appears immobilised by this burden. The Congress’s commitment to the invisible, non-individual but still overwhelmingly rural base of India has resulted in neither a slogan nor a vision. Focused on the social, it is struggling to create a new narrative for the future. Modi’s campaign has dismissed the Congress’s welfare strategies as mere handouts, suggesting instead that the state should enable the market.
By attaching himself to the founding pantheon, Modi is claiming the future. When he talks of a popular movement for development, the missing founding figure is Nehru, who established the political language of development in India. Entirely indebted to Nehru’s vocabulary, Modi seeks to disconnect ideas of development from Nehru and the state. In championing his own rise as a member of a backward community but without the help of state reservations, Modi wants to expel and banish another founding figure: Ambedkar.
When Ambedkar laid the foundations of the democratic architecture of India, reservations were a nonviolent solution to historic inequality. Ambedkar had transformed the potential social strife of caste and its inherent antagonism into open, democratic and political competition. Above all, it has meant that the political would subsume rather than trans-cend the social. To detach the social from the political, in the name of an ostensibly identity-free individual, is not only to misrecognise Indian democracy but, more dangerous, to evacuate the politics of its content.
The writer teaches modern Indian history and political ideas at the University of Cambridge, UK