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Modi’s chaiwallah to powerhouse journey no longer unique. Others charting the same script

The new, if unnoticed, story is the likely emergence of a new social map of political leadership even as hard identity talk reigns.

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The biggest winner of the latest election cycle is Gujarat Congress MLA Jignesh Mevani. Now, if this triggers a dismissive response from you, try and hold on for a second. I invoke Mevani in the hope of outlining emerging changes in Indian politics, and this is because the biggest loser remains Indian political analysis.

As the world’s most high-octane democracy, every election is frustratingly treated with the same cookie-cutter analysis. Excited data crunchers hold sway as they bombard you with colour-coded charts and graphs with mainly two points of discussion: Vote share of parties and the nature of the swing vote, with some noises about caste or ‘incumbency’ usually ending with ‘lessons’ for parties and prophetic statements on the next election. The only constant in the current analysis is the power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even if you are a die-hard supporter of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Modi, this is less than satisfactory.

The twin results of BJP’s big win in its prestige bastion of Gujarat and the solid, if hard-won, Congress victory in Himachal Pradesh indicate that both personality and populism have hit a saturation point. To put it in street-speak, both bhakti (devotion) and revdi (freebies) look not quite spent but overdone. Aam Admi Party’s less-than-impressive results compared to its big talk and big media love-in has confirmed its character as a spoiler rather than a contender.

Also read: How Narendra Modi, the poll strategist, provided the blueprint for Amit Shah

Personality matters

The new, if unnoticed, story is the likely emergence of a different social map of political leadership even as hard identity talk reigns. Look no further than Mevani and, indeed, Congress’ Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu in Himachal Pradesh. You don’t necessarily need to be in a cadre-based party to breach the zealously guarded citadels of power.

To be sure, Modi continues to wield all the powers associated with his personality and as a distinct form of leadership of our times. His carefully curated road shows in Gujarat ensured more than just the big mandate for his party. Whether it is a Lok Sabha election or his home state, Modi manages to overwhelm any concern with governance and accountability. Despite the recent preventable deaths due to the Morbi bridge collapse, or even the long-drawn-out and brutal fallout of the global Covid-19 pandemic, Modi remains popular. Policy-work and the running of a good government now appear too dull and all too ordinary for his persona. To my mind, Modi is not Indira Gandhi. He is the new Amitabh Bachchan.

Modi has transformed himself into a superhero figure today. He switches between a statesman-like persona with street appeal to project himself as greater than the electoral process, party, and even government. Little wonder then that he dresses for the occasion. Modi, after all, is showered with rose petals wherever his carriage goes. It is pure spectacle. In strictly political terms, this should worry his party as, despite holograms, Modi can’t be everywhere. And this much is already clear from the Himachal Pradesh election results.

Many analysts and academics have eloquently and justifiably decried that Indian democracy is now reduced to mere electioneering. There is plenty that is wrong and even alarming about Indian democracy today. I won’t enlist that now, but unlike many analysts, I take elections as a major touchstone and not just a mere process of democracy. And if elections are the main and only game in town, the gamers might just be adapting, if not changing.

Also read: Opposition on their knees but BJP has troubles brewing within

New stars?

Modi’s script of change from a humble chaiwallah to a powerhouse is no longer unique. Others are charting the same script even if the scale and success seem small by comparison. Mevani’s spirited and crowd-funded campaign in Vadgam was easily the toughest fight in Gujarat, which bodes well for India’s competitive democracy. His backstory of consistent fightback from below bestows dignity on democracy. Student leader, activist, journalist and now in office for the second term, Mevani fought off money, muscle, and cynicism for principles to count in politics. It speaks quietly, if assuredly, to the power of politics as transformation.

Mevani may be an outlier because he has bucked a dominant trend in Indian politics. As recent academic writing attests, political leadership in India is becoming exclusive even as more socially diverse groups engage in the electoral process. In short, personality power combined with a lack of diversity is making Indian democracy less representative, even as voter participation remains robust. With his modest background as the son of a bus driver, Sukhu has also prevailed over the political aristocracy in Himachal Pradesh. Even if they are outliers, they have become exemplars as both have emerged in an overly expensive electoral system that is all too competitive and entirely prohibitive in every respect.

Mevani’s win also indicates that a perceptible shakedown is afoot on the social basis of India’s party politics. His win comes at a crucial point as Dalit power has all but lost its main party of representation, which is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). With Mevani, India’s Dalit politics finally has a charismatic young leader who can take on the big fight and win. At the same time, BJP has gained unprecedented support in Gujarat’s tribal constituencies. Congress has won handsomely in a northern state and can no longer be blithely dismissed by the media. Despite its new official status as a ‘national party,’ AAP remains hidebound to its Delhi-based instincts. The changing social and regional basis of party politics deserves its own column. And I have not even raised ideology! But if personality is king, then it may no longer be the sole sovereign.

Modi may or may not have fashioned himself on Indira Gandhi. The reaction to her outsized persona was the emergence of multi-party democracy in India, and the response to Amitabh Bachchan’s superstardom was the inauguration of the multi-star blockbuster. If elections are the new mass entertainment, then the latest elections clearly show that picture abhi baaki hai!

Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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