The Aam Admi and Indian Politics – Guest Post by Ashok Malhotra

Arvind Kejriwal has founded the “Aam Aadmi” Party. However, what Kejriwal has come to symbolize is so distant from the average Indian that it is difficult to see him as an “Aam Aadmi”. On the other hand, Narendra Modi is a lot closer to the average Indian, and this is not just because of his OBC-Chaiwala background (though they are also significant) but more to what he has come to symbolize and his dealing with the emotive conflicts of the present day Indian Identity. Thus while Kejriwal may evoke a lot more admiration and reverence, Modi is a lot easier to identify with and hence conveys the impression that he is not just an idealist but a practical man who knows what he is dealing with and has demonstrated some ability of doing so.

One of the significant struggles for the present day Indian is the conflict between sectoral leanings and larger Indian identity. Nehru’s clarion call to rise above class, caste, creed, language, province, religion etc. and embrace an idealistic fervor for nation building has lost much of its sheen. In effect what it has fostered is

a) a rootless and faceless Indian who is deeply ambivalent about his own system of belonging and
b) Identity based divisive politics.

Kejriwal has stayed clear of the later but has not been able to engage with the former. In a sense he represents the Nehruvian ideal of some one who has transcended the sectoral identities and embraced the nationalistic fervor. This is easy to admire but not very easy to identify with by people whose basic sense of identity comes from their sectoral roots.
Modi on the other hand has tried to challenge the basic Nehruvian premise that sectoral identities are a threat to nationalism. He can easily proclaim that he is a Guajarati Hindu and this in fact strengthens his nationalistic fervour rather than diluting it. His stance that Gujarat is his family, which is sending him to serve Bharat Mata, is likely to find much greater emotive resonance than projecting himself as some one who is above sectoral identity. Needless to say the issue of his Hindu identity is a lot more complex, particularly because of the strong associations of Hinduatva with intolerant, regressive and oppressive forces. Perhaps in his mind there is no conflict between Hinduatva and nationalism. This can be potentially dangerous because it can easily breed insensitivity to pulls and pressures of a diverse society. How things will pan out, only time will tell, but it seems that what the nation has entrusted Modi to do is in fact only that which we have to learn ourselves viz. to learn how to co-hold our sectoral identities with a macro identity -be it a national level or at a human level or at an ecological level.

Another area in which Kejriwal is likely to evoke considerable admiration but very little identification is his image of deep commitment, courage of conviction and willingness to pay any price for it. In many ways he reminds one of the story of Aztec priests ( ref. AshishNandy) who chose to be beheaded rather than being coaxed into embracing Christianity . Nandy’s speculation is that in a similar situation the Hindu Brahmins would have embraced Christianity, justified it as Aapad Dharma (rightful conduct in a crisis) but there embracing of Christianity would only have been superficial. Deep down they would have remained Hindus and in due course their brand of Christianity would have started looking like another Hindu sect. Nandy goes on to argue that while it is easy to admire the masculine courage, heroism and valor of the Aztec priests and condemn the cowardice of the Hindu Brahmins, it is important to recognize that this feminine cleverness and adaptability has been at the core of the survival of Indian civilization. In an earlier paper I have suggested that this “Aapad dharma” seems to have become the way of life for many Indians. Thus it would seem that in the Indian psyche, heroism and valor are strongly associated with sacrifice and martyrdom. Most of our tales of heroism and valor centre around martyrs and not victors. This has taken a toll on the deployment of dynamic masculinity among Indians, because it is invariably seen as a threat to survival and belonging.

Both Kejriwal and Modi have tried to invoke the dynamic masculinity in the Indian psyche but Modi has been a lot more careful to stay clear of the fear that it may also evoke. Thus he rarely talks the language of sacrifice, revolt and upheaval, but that of conquest. His message has not been to die for the country but learning to live for it. Needless to say for a society struggling to deploy dynamic masculinity in a responsible manner and unhooking it from anxiety of survival, such a message will strike an immediate chord

Another significant stress for the present day Indian stems from the conflict between the inner propensity to have faith and living experience of mistrust of powers that be. Faith has been a significant anchor of the Indian identity. The basic stance is- “If I am following my Dharma then I will be automatically taken care of”. Even a calamity is justified as something, which is ultimately for one’s own good, though one may not be able to see it immediately. This faith has withstood centuries of oppression and exploitation. However, in the last few centuries (particularly in the post independence era) the situation has reached a tipping point. The insensitivity, callousness and oppression by the powerful has been of such magnitude that it is no longer possible for the average Indian to sustain the faith in inherent fairness and justice of the world. Generally, this tension has been dealt with through a belief that while the world as such is fair and just, it has been corrupted by a handful of people who are in positions of power. Thus anti-incumbency has become a taken for granted feature of Indian democracy. Kejriwal tried to leverage this through portraying the Aam Aadmi (common man) as a sincere, honest victim who is being exploited by a handful of people. If these few villains can be taken care of, then all will be well. While Modi also exploited anti-incumbency to the hilt, he stayed clear of victimhood. Even for himself he did not act the victim when he was attacked on issues such as post Godhra riots or linkages with the big business houses. While his supporters talked about his being unfairly targeted, he himself chose not to react or justify himself. His simple stance was –“If I am guilty then punish me”. Simultaneously he kept emphasizing on performance and accountability. In a very subtle manner he delinked the issue of faith from trust/mistrust of the rulers. Unlike Kejriwal, he did not over emphasize vigilance. On the other hand he punctured the Congress’s attempt to project the Gandhi family as the only one who could be trusted.

The tension between tradition and heritage on one hand, and progress and modernity on the other, is yet another source of difficulty for the present day Indian. Most Indians have very little understanding/appreciation of their own heritage. They either follow it blindly or hold it in shame, or experience it as a burden or are reactively aggressive about it . Modi has made his intent in this matter reasonably clear. He will respect the heritage but not be bound by it. He can touch Advani’s feet but will simultaneously limit his influence. This stance will sit well with the average Indian who is struggling with the same difficulty. However this stance also denies the inherent complexity of the issue. While it may be reasonably feasible to make this stance work in the context of a prosperous Gujrati business family, extending it to a diverse and complex society is not that straight forward. So far he seems to have colluded with the popular fantasy that the two can blend harmoniously with each other rather than show any alternate path. The real test both for him as also for us as a society will begin once the inherent conflicts and contradictions begin to emerge. We may then discover that there are serious conflicts between our quintessential Identity and imperatives of the model of progress/ development that we are chasing-be it American or Chinese.

Finally, there is the issue of personal ambition. While Kejriwal dismisses it almost totally, Modi uses the usual rhetoric of selfless service. However his demeanor and track record suggest that he is an extremely ambitious man. Also, it seems that he is cognizant of his own ambition though he recognizes the dangers of flaunting it in front of others, and hence the necessity of covering it up with acceptable rhetoric. In this respect he seems to be following the footsteps of leaders like Mayawati, Mamta Banerjee, Lalu Yadav etc. The fear of personal ambition both in one self and in others is an issue, which is extremely destabilizing for the Indian identity. The present day Indian does not wish to deny personal ambitious but is scared of it. Thus Modi’s way of dealing with it is much closer to his heart than Kejriwal’s complete denial. Needless to say, it will take us some time before we can learn to co-hold personal ambition with pursuit of collective good.

All things put together, Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi comes through as a caricature, a nice amiable fantasy. In contrast Modi’s Aam Aadmi is crude, earthy and real – both in his/her attractiveness and repulsiveness. One who is not just the victim but also the perpetrator, one who wishes to be proud of his/her heritage but is simultaneously ashamed of it and a captive of it, One who wishes to be inclusive and broadminded but does not know what to do with his /her parochial identity, one who wishes to grace personal ambition but is also scared of it, one who wishes to regain self-esteem but continues to see himself/herself through other people’s eyes. Till now this Aam Aadmi has been floundering along with the rationalization that he /she has been denied his/her rightful place under the Sun. Now that that this Aam Aadmi has put one of his own at the helm, this rationalization will not hold good any longer. Now there is no one else to blame. In a sense, the Aam Aadmi has not gambled on Modi but on himself/herself.


Ashok Malhotra is an author, thinker, organisation consultant and commentator on the social character of the contemporary Indians.  He can be reached at ashokmal (digit nine)at gmail dot com.

4 thoughts on “The Aam Admi and Indian Politics – Guest Post by Ashok Malhotra

  1. Thank you for this interesting article! It makes me think of how I, the ‘aam aurat’ must reclaim my power by:
    -delving deeper and understanding and appreciating what is my heritage
    -giving up the language of victimhood, instead focusing on forging ahead with dreams
    -acknowledging personal ambition, and the possibility of coholding it with the pursuit of collective good
    – examining to what extent I see myself through other people’s eyes, and what it does to self-esteem.


    • Thank you Rashmi for your response. I think the struggles of “aam aurat” are even more severe. you may like to read my paper on Gender and Indianness, (it may be on the sumedhas web site). regards. ashok


  2. Hi Ashok, just finished reading Indianness and Gender at the Sumedhas website. (which doesnt seem to have a place to leave a comment). I had been thinking earlier in the day of a quote attributed to Jung: “ What did you do as a child that made the hours pass like minutes? Herein lies the key to your earthly pursuits.”
    And after reading your paper, it struck me that a lot of my adolescence was really spent in the fight between the pressure to be Sati, and the rebelliousness , pushing me to the ‘wild side’, and the resultant feeling of shame. Consequently, leaving little time left to do things ‘as a child’.
    Certainly leaves me with much to explore~


    • Dear Rashmi, thank you for your response. I think a significant difficulty for the India woman stems from the fact that while her Shakti is acknowledged and even celebrated, she is simultaneously from using it for herself. She is conditioned to believe that this Shakti can only be used in the service of a patriarchal structure either for Satitva (as a wife) or as Matritva (as a mother). However, this also opens up unique opportunity for the Indian woman for she does not need to become a man in order to discover her power. Regards. Ashok Malhotra


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