Is politics an art or science? It’s a vexed question that, I reckon, Plato must have struggled with in his time. While I am not an Athenian philosopher, I would wager that politics is a cross between the art of symbolism and the science of electoral arithmetic. If a politician can dexterously, even perilously, strike a balance between symbolism and arithmetic, ie. between the art and science, s/he can win power and cement the ideological base.
Isn’t that the ultimate objective of any successful politician? To wield power expand her/his partisan ideology? In this quest, the symbolism and arithmetic become the tools, while power and ideological expansion are the outcome.
Arvind Kejriwal: Canny Politician or Soft Communalist?
Now coming to the big political event of this week. I disagree with people who are castigating “superman” Arvind Kejriwal for “contaminating” his astounding victory with a dash of soft communalism. They cite his silence on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, the fact that he steered clear of Shaheen Bagh or JNU or Jamia where atrocities were committed on innocent protestors, and, heaven’s, because he read the Hanuman Chalisa, thereby wearing his religion on his sleeve!
But my case is the exact opposite of these naysayers. I believe Kejriwal pulled off a near perfect interplay among symbols, arithmetic, power and ideology to shellack Amit Shah’s BJP 62-8 in Delhi’s 70-member legislature. It was a supreme display of canny politics, and for that, he needs to be commended, not condemned.
So, What is the Art of Symbolism in Politics?
It’s those actions that create an emotional ether of instant attraction. For example, Kejriwal’s muffler or Modi’s ethnic turbans. Or the bow and arrow that every prime minister of India wields on Dussehra to slay Ravana’s giant cut-out. Or Pandit Nehru, sticking a resplendent rose in his achkan buttonhole, surrounded by giggling kids on his birthday. Or Indira Gandhi riding an elephant through a swollen river to reach the devastated Dalit village of Belchi. Or Modi holding hands with Trump and doing a victory lap in a jam-packed Texas stadium. Or Rajiv Gandhi feeling at home in a hi-tech simulator. Or Vajpayee reading poetry, passionately, at a kavi sammelan in Lucknow. Or VP Singh riding a bicycle in the sweltering summer to win the Allahabad by-election in 1988. Or Rajnath Singh cracking a coconut on the first Rafale fighter plane. Or Rahul Gandhi wearing a grey T-shirt and blue jeans for a bevy of adoring Chennai students. Or Modi meditating in a cave in Kedarnath.
Or Kejriwal beginning his victory speech this week with ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, appealing equally to his Hindu and Muslim supporters.
And What is the Science of Arithmetic in Politics?
If all above is intangible symbolism, what is the science of electoral arithmetic? It’s the creation of social coalitions, via political or economic inducements, that become devoted “vote banks” of “the leader”. I know “vote bank” is a much-derided phrase, but honestly, all politics is about creating coalitions of followers whose self-interest coincides with yours. There is no shame in it, nothing to get defensive about. It’s the political version of the truism that “if I scratch your back, you will scratch mine”:
- When Indira Gandhi abolished privy purses and nationalised banks in the late 1960s, she created a horde of young admirers who were chafing at the astonishing inequality of wealth between rich/privileged capitalists and common, under-employed Indians. She won a resounding mandate on her garibi hatao (remove poverty) slogan in 1971.
- When Manmohan Singh risked his office to close the nuclear deal with America in 2008, he was igniting the aspirations of young Indians excited to see their country at the global high table. With the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, he caught the imagination of poor, seasonally employed villagers. No wonder he got re-elected in 2009 with a sweeping victory in urban and rural India; he also won with the highest accretion in any incumbent’s mandate.
- When Prime Minister Modi destroyed terror camps in Balakot with high precision missiles, abolished Article 370 that many saw as giving a discriminatory special status to Kashmir, got his Attorney General to convince the Supreme Court to allow the construction of a grand Ram Temple in Ayodhya, and cleared the rites of passage for “persecuted non-Muslims” from three Islamic neighbours, he brokered a powerful coalition of voters wedded to the trishul of majoritarian Hindu nationalism. This constituency saw his actions as correcting or avenging the wrongs of history. No wonder he continues to enjoy approval ratings of nearly 70 percent after six years in office, flying in the face of a weak economy and record unemployment.
When Arvind Kejriwal gave free water and electricity to poor and middle class households, free travel for women on public transport, better education in virtually free Delhi government schools, and free pilgrimage to elderly Hindus, he too created an awesome coalition of grateful shanty dwellers, women, parents and senior citizens. And since he is avowedly neutral between Hindus and Muslims, the minority vote was a super bonus for AAP. No wonder he orchestrated perhaps the most stunning re-election in India’s history.
Did Arvind Kejriwal Cross a Lakshman Rekha (Ouch, Prohibited Line)?
But die-hard, uncompromising secularists are a tad dissatisfied. If he had revved up such an unbeatable combination of voters, why did he need to play the “soft Hindutva” card? Why did he need to “tar” his victory with this “compromise”? In other words, why did he try to “seduce” voters with the art of symbolism when he had “killed” the science of arithmetic?
Honestly, such a line of questioning ignores the harsh realities of power politics. It ignores the fact that an electorate is fallible, that ordinary people are vulnerable to transient biases, they can get emotionally swayed by fake religious invocations, they often need an emotional antidote to negative symbolism. Ultimately, politics is not moral science, where you must counter only with “pristine” arguments. Often, you need to throw a few sentimental punches that break down barriers. So, if Arvind Kejriwal had to sing the Hanuman Chalisa or maintain a stoic/strategic silence on the Citizenship Amendment Act, we must cut him that slack. It was a tactical necessity to win the ultimate war.
It’s what I said in the beginning. A good, effective politician must be allowed to create a delicate balance between the art/symbolism and science/arithmetic of politics, if s/he must be victorious within a desired ideological spectrum. In this case, the forces of communal hate and violence had to be vanquished; those advocating peace and religious equality had to win. And if the ultimate outcome was delivered within acceptable boundaries of ideological compromise, well, welcome to the world of realpolitik!
Lage raho (go for it) Kejriwal!