IF POLITICS IS A character study, the Book of India is a thriller populated by the originals, the ordinary, the fakes, the charlatans, and the passers-by who leave no trail. We turn the pages only to be astonished by the dark arts of some, the moral vacuity of others, and the intensity of passion a few exude in their single-minded conversation with power. We get diverted by anecdotes that add nothing to the theme, which is always powered by those who, from the narrative frontline, gain easy access to the aspirations we have been holding back as a people, to the dreams we have been too inhibited as a nation to share, and to the fears that grew within. Diversions are inevitable given the size and diversity of the canvas; it’s truly epic, even if not entirely edifying.
The current moment is a set piece that is a study in the aesthetics of contrast and the inconsequence of ventriloquism. Let’s begin with the noisy one whose every word, uttered with the bravado of someone who has nothing at stake but the last vestige of his relevance, takes him to the farthest realm of phantoms. It was not long ago that he, a long marcher discovering himself as a potential redeemer of a political legacy, looked real, a communicator without the benefit of the words. In retrospect, it was as if the destination he sought was not the heart of India that mostly defined him through memes till then but a more comforting zone of self-abnegation. There he is now, so absorbed in a performance that interests only TV cameras. The national audience he seeks is least convinced by a ventriloquist playing victim, peddling words that don’t sell. Rahul Gandhi’s spasmodic conversation with TV cameras about corruption remains a non-event because the country that the princeling without a principality invokes has no resemblance to India.
The India that indulged the Gandhis before him exists only in the imagination of those for whom change is an error, the memories of power are more inspiring than the reality of power as wielded by someone they still can’t comprehend—or accept. They can’t because, although their world has already been dismantled by the cultural usurper who came from below, they prefer to be the last subscribers to a ghost story. It is to their world that Rahul, soliloquising without a trace of poetry but with a lot of rancour, walks in, as the last keeper of conscience for an imaginary India assembled from the discarded portions of history.
The cry of corruption brings out the futility of the whole enterprise. It reveals the enduring solidity of the man they rage against. Narendra Modi made himself inevitable in India by the power of an argument—and he is still arguing for the realisation of an India of his mind. Its authenticity is validated by the authenticity of the man himself. He is unarguably the most popular leader in a democracy today because his leadership reflects the unrealised selves of a people. Such beginnings in the evolution of a nation happen only when one individual’s engagement with power becomes an inter-generational struggle for change.
India’s inflection point came when the biography of Modi blended seamlessly with the shared moral idealism of ordinary Indians. A political life that repudiates the three ‘E’s of calcified power structure—Establishment, Entitlement and Entrenchment—marked an awakening, and the end of impatience. Liberation was a leitmotif in the stump speeches of Modi, who was not fighting against a political opponent but a political legacy that indexed natural affinities of the individual, whether it was the idea of the nation or the intimacy of religion, as external impediments to the creation of the Ideal Citizen—and the Ideal India. Modi’s battlefield was the mind. His slogans echoed the resentments of the lost days.
His struggle for India was unique because he was one politician whose life was not divided by the public and the private. The mandate that matters most for Modi is the character certificate given to him by the people. Political was the only adjective his life could afford, and it was not accidental but intentional. It’s the moral clarity of such a life that earned him in abundance one thing politicians as a class have been losing in India and elsewhere: trust. And it’s the moral dividend he has accumulated from a journey defined by the staggering absolutism of his political life that makes ‘corruption’ incompatible with his persona. And it’s something that doesn’t sell in the India of the moment, even if it is peddled by someone other than Rahul Gandhi, who is still indulged by a political tradition credited with the banalisation of corruption. That’s the sole reason why India is not transfixed by the sight of an unsaleable politician trying to sell an unsaleable item.