The picture was memorable, even incredible. The timing was a meeting of Parliament to table a no confidence motion against the BJP government. Rahul Gandhi presents an indictment and then casually walks across and hugs Narendra Modi. Parliament is bowled over. It does not know whether to applaud or to object.
The body language of the two leaders is also fascinating to watch. Modi looks immobile, almost ambushed. Rahul looks playful. Modi had not expected a hug. He is never ready for what he has not planned. This is not one of his foreign policy hugs, establishing equality with Abe or Putin. He looks pained, almost transfixed before he reluctantly shakes hands.
It was a hug that created a minor history. Rahul Gandhi had outwitted Modi at Chinese Checkers if not Chess. There was a touch of the comic to the picture. It was as if Parliament had created its own cameo hour with Rahul winking like a Pinnochio who had proved his point.
One can dismiss this picture as entertainment or take it to signal a new possibility. The 2019 Election no longer sounds a tired fait accompli. Suddenly there is a sense of surprises springing up, of Chandra Babu stirring the Federalist Pot, of Mamata wielding a team to challenge Modi. It reminds you that encounters are eventually judged not by results alone, but by the quality of the game. The quality of the political game is definitely changing.
Stick with the picture for a minute. There is a predictable frozenness to Modi, a sign that he is no longer capable of surprises. Rahul to use a sociological term looks “Liquid modern”, fluid, flexible, renewed, ready to surprise the world, playful, not quite ready for power but game for a round of politics. He signals confidence while BJP, to stretch its vegetarian weakness, looks ham handed.
Symbolically, one senses the possibility of a new game, a drama caught in a difference in style, body language and motivation. There is a sudden suspicion that Modi has over-shot his mark. Modi looks burdened by his role, Rahul ready for a certain inventiveness.
Politics should be an invitation to a new generation of idealists seeking new configuration. Rahul has to kindle that imagination by fostering political startups, new efforts spread across the country, with each state creating its own dialects of politics. The first goal is not votes, which is the only language the BJP speaks but a politics of caring
Modi loves power and is obsessed with it. Rahul has lived with power and the powerful and is more casual about it. His challenge is he has to learn to democratise it further. He might discover in power, the possibility of trusteeship, of a way to induct new imaginations. Rahul brings a transition from light heartedness to a lightness of being. He is a man who has had time for himself. His forays into different worlds, from organic farming to management psychology, might let him create a set of new possibilities.
Modi appears like the end of the 19th century, an incarnation of a much awaited past, Rahul has the future on his side. He has to only make the leap. Modi drives himself hard. If he loses, neither the RSS nor he will forgive himself. Rahul might bring a less obsessive hope to politics and prevent it from having the terminal power of a 10+2 exam. Rahul can forgive himself.
In a symbolic sense Rahul has an advantage. He has vulnerabilities but he is still a face, a human face. Modi already looks like a waxen mask, an overdrawn portrait. He can move between a hoarding, a hologram and a mask but Rahul is the face. Modi can be the Chaiwala but his chai served Lutyens’ style. Rahul still has the sense of being incomplete and improvised. Of course, each carries an outdated burden; Rahul, the baggage of a clerically corrupt socialism and Modi, a shop keepers’ mentality of mercantilism in politics. The BJP has the mentality of a loudspeaker while Rahul can admit he has found his hearing aid.
I want to emphasise that this essay is not an attempt to contrast personalities in terms of idiosyncratic traits but an attempt to see each persona as possibilities.
I would suggest a scenario of strategies that Rahul can play out. There is first the legislative level where the parliament has failed to catch the imagination of the people. Rahul can initiate a series of bills on the lines of the early RTI and enlarge the democratic imagination.
One cue he can take from the BJP itself. It tried to make nature a fragment of the constitutional imagination but parochialised it to declaring the Ganges as a person. Weaving nature into the constituted imagination, might be a way of sustaining diversity. Rahul can also explore new diversities for agriculture because beyond doles and prices the BJP lacks an agricultural imagination. To rethink agriculture and the countryside as ways of life and not as a social work project might add to his constituencies.
On the ground Congress has to recognise the excitement AAP created about the prospect of a new politics. It has to learn from the idealism and experimentation of early AAP politics. Politics should be an invitation to a new generation of idealists seeking new configuration. Rahul has to kindle that imagination by fostering political startups, new efforts spread across the country, with each state creating its own dialects of politics. The first goal is not votes, which is the only language the BJP speaks but a politics of caring.
The Congress should be a part of new mass struggles. For examples, it should play a greater role in the environmental struggles in the South, not looking for dominance but a new learning. It needs to revive the creativity of law while working with civil society, a skill it had but did not quite sustain.
Currently the Congress is like Pavlov’s dog, mechanically reacting to BJP’s ploys. Rahul’s hug demonstrates that he knows the rules of the game and can change it to his advantage. The Congress should function as a think tank providing new ideas for institutionalisation. One institution the BJP has both banalised and corroded is the University. By creating a new education report, it can mobilise forces around its other ventures. Rahul can be at the centre of such possibilities while denting Modi’s leadership.
India might be currently fatalistic about 2019 but the rumblings of boredom and disappointment are clear. Ground level reactions are not covered by a ‘me-too’ media. By breaking open this turgid world, Rahul will open new possibilities. He may not lead all of them, but he does not need to. All he needs to do is to create a new adventure in politics, law and science which creates the effervescence of democracy.
Votes will follow spontaneously from a nation tired of mob lynchings, rising oil prices and frightening decline of institutions. Rahul’s hug might trigger the unsettling of BJP authoritarianism. It is the equivalent of showing that the emperor has no clothes.
(Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination)