“If Not Modi, Then Who?” Can Delhi Voters Give Us the Answer?


“If Not Modi, Then Who?” Can Delhi Voters Give Us the Answer?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections last May, the most popular rhetoric supporters of the government shared was “If not Modi then who?” Even people unaligned to any one political party, seemed genuinely bothered by the lack of alternatives to a second Modi term. Though they disliked the possibility of an encore, these voters despised the alternatives available to them even more.

I, for one, could see some credibility in that concern. Because though he re-launched himself and thrust a lot of energy into the 2019 campaign, Rahul Gandhi continues to give everyone the impression that behind the role he has inherited, there remains a man yearning to run away from it all. As for his role in the Opposition, the less said the better. Elsewhere, the likes of Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati have been reduced to state-level players, perpetually insecure about marginal gains and losses on a modest scale. Mamata Banerjee, a force of nature in Bengal, would certainly struggle to appeal to the Hindi belt, a criterion that has always been pertinent to the allocation of power in India.

Comparatively, Arvind Kejriwal has gradually grown in stature, sobered up and adapted to circumstances around him, paving the way for a moderate politics that seemed elusive, even impossible not too long ago. As Delhi goes to vote on Feb 8, the chances of AAP repeating the massive landslide victory from five years ago seem near impossible. But in re-electing and endorsing Kejriwal, the people of Delhi can help India take the first step in the direction to answering the quandary of “if not Modi, then who?”

A Kejriwal victory could do is carve a new niche in politics.

Of course, it isn’t as if Kejriwal is the answer. His party still needs to work for a decade or two to even nudge the needle anywhere south of Delhi. But what a Kejriwal victory could do is carve a new niche in politics, one that wants to deal in the metrics of work and delivery, rather than identity and division. One that appears constructive to the lower classes and appealing to the nonchalant middle and upper classes.

Not too long ago, after a public attack on him, I declared Kejriwal a missed opportunity, a fallen star of the fallout from the anti-corruption movement that in more ways than one, spelt the end of the Congress as a national force. Riding high on short-term popularity, Kejriwal once cultivated the gall to lock horns with Modi directly. He was to soon learn his lesson in flying too close to the sun, too soon. He has since mellowed, drastically changed his approach to electioneering and resorted to fighting the popular narrative with something he himself is good at – administration.

On one hand it is abominable that faced with issues of poverty, unemployment, and lawlessness, India’s people can still be swayed by divisive agendas built around religion, caste and hate. But that paradigm has worked successfully for both the BJP, and Congress. In comparison, Kejriwal has in this campaign at least, wisely sidestepped attempts to provoke him into jibes or responses that play into the BJP’s familiarly divisive pitch – choose us or those who stand with Shaheen Bagh. It shows the benefits of evolution and learning that previously, when Kejriwal might have let words fly off of his lip, he now employs caution.

Kejriwal was to soon learn his lesson in flying too close to the sun, too soon.

While the Congress continues to dig itself a bigger hole with repeatedly endorsing the one family it cannot divorce, and BJP forges ahead at the cost of social and communal harmony, India is not only crying out for a new national leader, a third option, but also a new brand of politics that centres tangible issues backed not by prehistoric rhetoric but modern science and facts. This third alternative need not emerge from the familiar politics of identity but from a vision for the future and the inalienable thirst to deliver on that promise. Were we to approach our future with the kind of cynical energy we reserve for personal or communal history, India could go places that, at least at the moment seem unimaginable. Arvind Kejriwal may or may not be the man to take us there, but he is at least, inviting us to take the first step.

If you are feeling hesitant about Kejriwal’s stature, his battleground being too small to matter to a demography as large as India, consider the fact that AAP is only seven years old. Also, endorsement of his pro-development agenda, might be the constructive signal voters can send, not only to Kejriwal but to politicians who have literally mugged speeches from manuals of hate and bigotry. Should a government that pitches the work it has done, and the work it promises, win, there will at least be momentary consideration across party offices in the country. “Work” and “Policy”, or some vague extrapolation of the two could again become topics that decide discourse.

It is crucial that Kejriwal is allowed the opportunity to modernise Delhi, and make it habitable and loved once again. Were he to fail, we can gladly return to the status quo that exists by default. Should he succeed, it could pave the way for a new form of middling politics led by real issues.