Gestures mean much in politics. It is not surprising, therefore, that AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and RJD chief Lalu Prasad hugging each other at the swearing-in of Nitish Kumar as Bihar chief minister sparked a controversy.
Many have interpreted the hug as an act of compromise on the part of Kejriwal and a betrayal of the AAP’s principled stand against corruption.
A sheepish Kejriwal has explained that it was Lalu who “pulled and hugged” him, and that he was still opposed to Lalu’s “record of corruption” and “dynasty politics”.
It is unremarkable for even political foes to exchange pleasantries, hug and shake hands when they share a public platform. What, then, triggered the outrage in this episode? And why did Kejriwal, who has openly supported the Mahagathbandhan of which Lalu is a part, attempt to disassociate himself from the RJD chief?
The answer is that, between Kejriwal and Lalu, a hug is overloaded with meaning. It ceases to be about two individuals and becomes the tortured embrace of two political images. Of course, the two protagonists have been complicit in the manufacture of their images. But they are now trapped and imprisoned by them.
The AAP was born of a movement against corruption. The jhadu in Kejriwal’s hand was meant to sweep politics clean. Lalu, rightly or wrongly, has turned into a symbol of corruption. Politicians before him, and many since his conviction, have gone to jail for corruption, but it is Lalu who has come to represent, for an influential section of the popular imagination, the acme of political venality.
Lalu, the original aam aadmi who claimed to represent the unrepresented castes and classes, promised social revolution and then betrayed it. How can the leader of the AAP, the latest dream built on a sanctimonious narrative on corruption, be seen to engage with Lalu? Kejriwal’s response may indicate that, rather than confront the reality of politics, he prefers to remain a prisoner of perception.
The article first appeared in print under the headline ‘image trap‘.