City City Bang Bang, Columns

The outsider impulse

The 3 politicians that are setting the agenda for the 2014 elections, at least insofar as media is concerned, all have one thing in common. They are all outsiders, in some way or the other and importantly want to be seen as such. Narendra Modi comes from outside the closed circle of Lutyens’ politics, and pays little heed to the implicit but embedded codes of behaviour that governs this group. Arvind Kejriwal comes from outside politics, and is striving to stay as an outsider even while being in power. And Rahul Gandhi, who is the last person in the country, who is the ultimate insider given the role his family and he himself have played over the last six and half decades since the country’s independence, sees himself and conducts himself as a perpetual outsider, darting in occasionally to make his presence felt and then retiring to the periphery.

Rahul Gandhi’s interview underlines the determined effort he is making to escape the overwhelming reality of the political system that he is part of, by inventing a fantasy arena where the empowered young create a new democratized system. The advertising that has emerged from the party illustrates this imagined reality that he presides over.

Interestingly, Gandhi’s concerns are all those of an insider- his primary interest is still in overhauling his own party, rather than offer a vision for the country or its people. The Congress’ biggest problem is not Narendra Modi, but its own inability to articulate a larger idea that inspires the electorate. Its awareness of the entrenched nature of the political system is so high that it cannot extricate itself even momentarily to envision a new direction for the country. Rahul Gandhi is so burdened by the reality of his own immediate political neighbourhood, of the ‘system’ that he keeps complaining about, that constructing an alternative if largely fictitious political reality is the only escape he has been able to find. The outsider is in fact an √©migr√© from his party, in existential exile from his own destiny.

Arvind Kejriwal’s outsider faces no existential issues. As someone who thinks not in concepts but in actions, he offers a radical counterpoint to the way politics is conducted in this country. He makes us aware that beneath the fractious messiness of Indian politics, there has always existed a well disguised but a clear outline of rules by which everyone played the game. By seeking not only new outcomes from power but by actively exploring new modalities of exercising it, the AAP creates a new order of possibilities that the party itself neither fully understands nor is in control of. The yearning for a new reality, far removed from the existing one results in the embrace of a ceaseless agitation against any sign of power. The great strength of the AAP has been to provide proof that a new brand of politics is being actively sought and can be practiced, but the increasingly inchoate nature of its actions is in danger of making it seem like a one-off phenomenon that is neither possible nor desirable to emulate. Its ability to influence the politics of the day through its actions requires it to follow a framework that restores belief in some principles and institutions, whether old or new. Otherwise, Kejriwal and AAP, will remain on the outside, shorn of the relevance that should otherwise be his right.

Modi is the outsider whose primary instrument of change is Modi himself. He aims to transform the existing reality primarily by inserting himself in the equation. In some ways, Modi’s promise as an outsider is to come inside and make us believe in the very system that we have been convinced is moribund. He shows little desire to change the system in any fundamental way; his main goal seems to be to make it work. Which is why he offers no dramatically new prescriptions; all he offers is clarity that being Narendra Modi has conferred on him. His promise is couched in administrative rather than political terms and he carries himself with the air of a conquering general rather than an accommodating politician. Modi is like Kejriwal, a perpetual outsider, but unlike him, his primary allegiance is to himself.

Today, Modi might belong to the BJP, but if things go according to the script, eventually the BJP might well belong to him. The great comfort with lionizing himself, along with the gratuitous references to his 56 inch chest is a sign of the self-sufficient regard in which he holds himself. Modi’s promise is that of strong individual leadership and not of any systemic overhaul; he is neither a generic politician nor a budding statesman, but a forceful leader who needs believers, not mere followers. He makes no attempt to rein in his frenzied support base nor does he show any interest in surrounding himself with a less unsavoury cast of political aides, for their role is in allowing him to operate in the manner of his choosing. In his scheme of things, anything that allows Modi to be Modi, is by definition good.

Being on the outside seems to have become a necessary condition for succeeding inside the new world of politics. But the outside is a large place which is why each of these outsiders are driven by their own impulses and see the world in their own unique way. The one who has the best chance of actually running the country is promising that change that can be believed in but it requires us to believe in the man making this promise. That is Narendra Modi’s biggest strength and his biggest challenge.