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The hunger for change?

If there is one thing that is being sought from politics today, it is its ability to bring about transformative change. Twice in recent memory, have voters been galvanised and felt passionately about a political option. The Jan Lokpal movement and the 2014 verdict. Though both these outcomes pointed in very different ideological directions, they were both expressions of a strong desire for fundamental change.

The Anna Hazare-led Jan Lokpal movement pointed to the possibility of a new kind of politics. It arose out of the middleclass frustration with corruption, but was in many ways about creating a new imagination for politics itself. That it gathered the momentum it did, and for a brief period imprinted itself on our collective consciousness is testimony to the hunger that existed for change. It is another matter that the dream died an unheroic death. The AAP experiment has its merits, for there does seem to be an interest in delivering outcomes that is refreshing, but in its current scale, and given its current lack of transformative ambition, it is a marginal player in the overall scheme of things.

Mr Modi rode on the crest of a euphoric wave. While he was always a polarising figure, in 2014, a large part of the country believed that he represented the possibility of real and sweeping change. He managed to expand his base significantly, connecting with diverse constituencies that believed that something significant was about to happen. Public support for him was its peak when transformation seemed to be at the top of his agenda. The fact that a disruptive and destabilising idea like Demonetisation got widespread public support in its early days is evidence of the fact that people wanted radical change, even if it caused them pain and suffering. 

It must be remembered that the choice of Yogi Adityanath, was actually welcomed by a significant section of the country. While he was regarded as being part of the extreme fringe of the party before his selection, it was incredible how quickly, the conversation around him changed once that happened. There was a sense that a strong leader, who was a disciplinarian, would be able to make a state like UP work. The hunger of change made a lot of people overlook his track record in terms of inflammatory speeches and the fact that he had no previous administrative experience. 

The faith that his core support base reposes in in Mr Modi because they believe he represents change. To them, he stands for an ability to restore pride and strength in the majority community. They see in him hope that the political script of the past will be completely overhauled in line with their vision of the country. On the flip side, the slackening of his appeal also has to do with his inability to deliver change beyond the cultural agenda of the party. The sense that there is far too much talk and not enough action of the right kind has been gaining ground. 

If the Congress is a little more credible today than it was some time back, it is because Rahul Gandhi represents the possibility of a new approach. It is true that for now, the Congress is more focused on what is wrong with the current government, than with articulating its own promise. But eventually, if he has to become a potential leader of the country, it will have to be on the back of a promise of change, rather than continuity. Nobody is hankering for a return to the Congress culture of yore. 

It is clear that much more is being sought from politics by way of big and audacious change. Why is it then that politics finds it so hard to deliver? 

For one, the kind of change that is being looked for is extremely difficult to deliver for it means that the very instruments that bring a party to power need to be dismantled. Reforming election funding, bringing about police and other administrative reforms, setting free key institutions in the country, dismantling crony capitalism, looking beyond subsidies and transfer payments as a way of buying votes- these are all excellent ways of ensuring that one doesn’t get re-elected, or so the popular wisdom goes. 

The other problem is that the election discourse in India is inevitably mired in its complex network of caste and sub-regional calculations. It is easy to believe that the answer lies exclusively in being able to work out a formula at the ground level that beats the odds. Getting caste alliances right, managing elections at the booth level, ensuring the deployment of adequate resources, these are all unquestionably vital cogs in the election machine, but they do not respond to a deeper, more significant need of the electorate. It is easy to lose oneself in one’s own formulations and lose sight of the bigger picture. 

At an everyday level, far too many things don’t work in India. The administrative infrastructure lags far behind the growing aspirations of the people of the country. The brand of politics that we practise is squarely implicated in this state of affairs. Power has mutated into a grotesquely deformed source of exploitation and venality. The idea that power is a facility rather than a responsibility has seeped in so deep, that without genuine resolve and the ability to take actions that are detrimental to one’s own self-interest, meaningful change is not possible. 

2019 is not going to be about transformative change. Neither the BJP nor the Congress or other Opposition parties are promising anything new. The BJP has lost belief in the developmental part of its 2014 plank, and the Congress is grateful just to be in the game.  Which is why there is a good chance, that these elections will fan rather than quieten the need for something more substantial, something more radical that the people of the country need. There is a restlessness under the surface that will find a way to surface eventually. 

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