“If not Modi, then who?”
If I had been gifted a brick for every single time I have been asked that question over the past four years, I could have built a house by now.
Asked with genuine sincerity most of the time, that question is a testament to the success of Narendra Modi’s carefully constructed political narrative of national indispensability. It is also a question that strikes at the very root and heart of a democracy, because implicit in the question is the assumption that in a country of 1.25 billion people, there is not a single other person in India with the capability and stature to be prime minister of India.
“If not Modi, then who?” is usually followed by “Rahul Gandhi?” and a snigger. “Arvind Kejriwal? Who do we have as a national alternative, anyway?”
A similar question was asked when Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister who steered the country through the first decisive decade and a half of its independence passed away.
“If not Jawaharlal, then who?”
But a successor was found, Lal Bahadur Shastri, whose memory and legacy continue to evoke respect half a decade after his death. That was 54 years ago. India has had 13 prime ministers since then. But out of all them, it is prime minister number 14 who has taken the cult of the personality to the next level.
The cult of Modi, it would be safe to say, has overshadowed Indian politics almost more than anything else has these past four years.
A cult, incidentally, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary thus:
“A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.”
“A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.”
“A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a more accurate definition of the Modi phenomenon.
But the thing to remember about cults is that they have a shelf life. No matter how popular or charismatic a cult and its leader may be, sooner rather than later the appeal starts to wane and the shine begins to fade.
The same thing is happening with the cult of Modi, too. The spectre of unemployment hangs heavy over India, thousands of jobless youth enter a comatose job market every day and the messianic promises that looked so appealing on billboards and the front pages of newspapers in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections now seem a mockery.
“Bahut hui petrol aur diesel ki maar/Ab ki baar Modi sarkaar.”
“Bahut hua naari par atyaachaar/Ab ki baar Modi sarkaar.”
These are today a bad joke. Diesel prices have hit an all-time high and in a rapidly deteriorating social environment, women’s well-being and safety is more imperiled than ever.
“But what is the alternative to Modi?” presupposes the assumption that India would lose a great deal if Modi is not the prime minister. Looking at this government’s track record over the past four years in the areas vis-à-vis the issues that it rode to power on (vikas, jobs, manufacturing and corruption), that assumption has turned out to be profoundly wrong.
Nonetheless the question continues to be asked.
Two responses come to mind. One is from veteran journalist Vinod Dua, who, in one of his increasingly popular Jan Gan Man ki Baat episodes wisely observed, “Alternatives emerge in a democracy. But in order for alternatives to emerge, democratic processes need to be strong.”
And the second, thought-provoking response to this most weighty of all questions was offered by Shehla Rashid, a 30-year-old student leader, activist and former vice-president of JNUSU, at a gathering commemorating the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Here are translated excerpts of her speech:
“The alternatives to Narendra Modi are Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Ashfaq and the Constitution of India.
“If Bhagat Singh were alive today, what would he talk about? What issues would he work on? That's our alternative. The first thing he would fight for would be the right of every child in our country to receive education, and all that he or she needs to be in good health. He would fight to make sure that no child ever had to beg on the street again.
"He would also fight to abolish the tyranny of the Aadhaar and all the pain it has caused the poor. He would ask why women do not have more freedom in India today and why more women aren't part of the leadership of the country today.
"If Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev, Ramprasad Bismil, Ashfaq, and Chandrashekhar Azad were alive today, the question they would undoubtedly ask would be, 'Why are you taking out a rally in support of a rape?' (Referring to the brutal rape and murder of an eight-year-old child in Kathua, Kashmir.)
"If Bhagat Singh were alive today, he would ask why the youth are unemployed and why they don't have jobs. He would demand to know why the Nirav Modis and ultra-rich 1 per cent of India who have stolen so much of the nation's wealth have been given safe passage out of the country.
"Bhagat Singh spoke out against the tyranny of the 'Brown Englishman'. Well, the ‘Brown English’ are again oppressing us today and attacking our basic freedoms.
"If Bhagat Singh were alive today, he wouldn't just fight a government, he would fight the entire system that has kept India chained and impoverished.
"We have people like Bhagat Singh in India today. We have youth who are brave enough to come out on the streets and protest against authoritarianism get arrested. We have youth like my colleague Mohit who was suspended from JNU for raising questions about Najeeb's disappearance.
"We have youth like Jignesh Mewani who has raised important questions about the evils of caste. Those people and many more like them are the alternative you are looking for."
Rashid has a point. The great, mysterious alternative that India is on the lookout for is the same as it has always been - competent and compassionate citizens who care enough for the poor and disenfranchised of India to do whatever they can to remove the vast inequities that afflict them.
It is an insult to the idea of India to assume that there are none of those people around. But with less than a year to go for the next General Election, we would do well to heed Vinod Dua’s advice… “For alternatives to emerge, democratic processes need to be strong.”
As citizens of a democracy, we need to do what we can to safeguard those processes and institutions. We also need to start exploring how alternatives can work instead of listing all the reasons why they won’t, because if we don’t, then we will give in to the myth of the indispensable leader. That myth has let us down.
It is high time we reposed our faith in its antithesis - genuine democracy. We have been lazy citizens. We have swallowed the rhyming two-liners, the fictitious WhatsApp forwards, and the alliterative acronyms.
It is time for us now to do the hard work of asking tough questions about how those who ask for our votes, if they will actually serve the people who put them in power. We need to ask for details and plans, not rhymes and slogans.
We need to start practicing democracy differently. We need to start voting for policies instead of just personalities. We need to examine very carefully what our candidates stand for, and then vote only for those who truly uphold the Constitution and its values. And that will take time and effort - something that we as an electorate have not been used to putting in.
“If not Modi, who?” The national alternative, it turns out, is good, old-fashioned, informed, secular democracy.