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The only political rally I went to as a child has not faded from my memory. Those were the days after the Emergency. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was coming to address the people in Kanak Mandi, the market square of Hoshiarpur. The whole town seemed to have poured out to hear him. I trailed my father to have a glimpse of the country's best known orator.
I vaguely recall the big crowd, its sheer enthusiasm and the great distance between me and the stage. And I have not forgotten a studiedly casual remark Vajpayee made before an all-male audience, which elicited all round applause and laughter. "Look at poor me, Indiraji will say, a woman, hounded by all those men!" Time may have altered the syntax, but the content of the remark remains imprinted in my memory like an unforgettable photograph. I did not then know that it was a sexist remark. Nor did I know it had been made in bad taste.
Political rallies have undergone a sea change over the years. Sexism finds cruder expressions, what with lecherous songs and lusty dances often arranged to keep the herded audiences confined to their pens. People hardly, if at all, come; they are 'arranged' and transported. The rallies are supposed to show not that vast numbers support you but your ability to manage numbers. Manipulation, not mobilization, is the name of the game. And the players know it. Yet they play it because they know that in the politics of the spectacle, appearances matter. If you can arrange a more formidable spectacle than your competitors, your opponents in and outside the party will feel weak in the knees. And the impression of impending victory will bring the weak and wavering to your side with the expectation of rewards, even if these are no more than their humblest rights restored with the nod of the mighty 'elected' to rule.
This is part of what has come to be termed as democracy by management. Its inkiest chapters are authored on the eve and the occasion of polling when the 'management' of democracy completely overtakes democratic mobilization. Liquor and cash flow free, and so do the fist, the danda and the gun.
But will this continue for long? If the post-independence romance with democracy has died, the cynicism too is not really thriving. Beyond romance and cynicism, people have begun to see through the game. They have begun to see how the management of democracy operates, and they are not happy. But they no longer merely indulge their unhappiness in private political gossip. Many among the relatively younger voters – right across the rural-urban divide – understand that one way to save democracy against its 'management' is to swell the numbers of the unmanageable. And those numbers are, surely, swelling, given the spread of literacy and education which the current socio-economic changes necessarily entail.
If the political leadership today is not so illiterate as to be unable to read the writing on the wall, it must think beyond mere 'management'. From the Tahrir Square to the Wall Street to the Ram Lila Maidan, the message is splashed in loud and colourful graffiti. And the message is: WANTED A NEW POLITICAL IMAGINATION!
The leadership that cannot deliver this will wither, atrophy and expire. The future will not receive the dead, despite all the fanfare and the spectacle they may marshal on the way.
One hears now and then of some electoral candidates hiring MBAs. The use of information technology is now an old story. To some extent, the electoral bonding of politics, business management and IT indicates the marriage of 'democratic' politics and corporate business facilitated by the priesthood of IT. This is sometimes mistaken as a paradigmatic shift in politics, which this is certainly not.
A shift of paradigmatic dimensions would require, in the foreseeable future, the use of IT as both model and tool to subserve the interests of democracy. The top-down hierarchic model of command, control and communication (C3) has to give way to the network model for really effective penetration, mobilization and participation. The electoral constituency has extended beyond the anonymous masses on one hand and the groups which crystallize around caste, religion, etc. There are niche groups, newly emerged and emerging, new social formations that the new media has midwifed. If there is any lesson for political leadership in the recent worldwide protest movements, including the anti-corruption movement in India, it is in figuring out the mechanics and dynamics of popular mobilization. These movements have achieved the levels of mobilization which only the political parties used to achieve once upon a time, but they have succeeded because they are not burdened with obsolete models of doing politics. The political leadership can take a leaf from their book; it can 'outsource' imagination to bridge the dangerous gulf that is yawning ever more between the political and the so-called 'civil'. In fact, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that if a kind of battle cry was sounded between the 'political' leadership and the 'civil' society, the provocation had come from the former: it had failed to respond to the fast-changing scenario with an adequately responsive imagination.
A network model of democratic political mobilization can be an answer to the challenges thrown by political de-massification. Interconnected but operationally independent nodes and routes can meet the new demands on political enfranchisement being made by the emerging social formations – symbolized, and often realized, by virtual communities swarming the cyberspace. Time has come for micro-management of political communication and for micro-mobilization of the electorate.
Even the good old manifesto of the political party needs a modular update. The standard manifesto leaves so much unmentioned and so many voters uninspired. Why can't the parties today have online 'contribute your manifesto' interfaces, and eventually build really democratic manifestos that are multi-level, with issues organized along various levels from the local to the state and the national? If the political leadership cannot do even this much, it is surely disconnected with the present. How can it have any future?