Ummeed par duniya qayam hain: the world is established on hope. There is talk of names being deleted from electoral rolls, of electronic voting machines being manipulated and of Muslims and Dalits being threatened to stay away from the booths. Opinion polls show that unemployment, particularly after Covid-19 devastated the labour market and small industries, is the main issue in this election.

The farmers of northern India are alienated from and annoyed with a government that sentimentally invokes them but treats them with a casual brutality if they protest. There is talk among the well-heeled as well as the person on the street that this will be a stolen election. This perception has led to dire predictions that if the Bharatiya Janata Party wins this election again, it will perhaps be the last election.

The prime minister, seemingly convinced of this, has provided a forecast for the next thousand years that sees a resurgent Hindu India scaling every peak of economic and social advancement. At the same time, there has been a bruiting about of the idea of an expansive welfarism, a politics of hope that speaks of transfers of money from the state to the people.

As Congress leader Rahul Gandhi put it dramatically, come June 4, khatatkhat, khatakhat, a lakh of rupees will appear in the bank accounts of every female member of rural households from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. A rapacious idea of democracy has taken out the ideas and substituted it with hard cash, a monumental bribing of the population in the name of welfare.

Hope, however, is the thing with feathers – a delicate thing waiting to take flight. Amidst the cynicism and the resignation, surprisingly, there has been a turn to an idea that all politics is established on the samvidhaan – the Constitution. BJP President JP Nadda has said vehemently in interviews that the values of the Constitution will be protected as against the Opposition parties that are sankalp rahit (without resolve) and mudda vihin (without issues).

In a poignant example of the devil quoting the scriptures, the ruling party now presents itself as the defender of the core values that lie at the bedrock of Indian politics. In one sense, one could see this as a typical hijacking by a dominant ideology of the insurgent discourse of the populace. After all, these days the idea of “empowerment” is associated with the World Bank rather than social movements.

It could also be argued that the appeal to the Constitution by the ruling party is pitched at the level of protection of reservations of the Dalits and Adivasis, against the scare that the Congress will gift these away to Muslims. However, both Nadda and Nitin Gadkari have been vocal in their defence of BR Ambedkar and his Constitution against all comers. However, the idea of the samvidhaan as the guarantor of Indian democracy is also the substance of speeches by the Opposition. Congress candidate Kanhaiya Kumar has said in his speeches that “ham hain samvidhaan ke asli pahredaar” –we are the true guardians of the Constitution.

What does this tussle over who are the true defenders of the Constitution mean? Is the constant invocation of Ambedkar across the board a sign of hope? In videos on the internet, random passersby, precocious children, and those volubly sarcastic about Modisarkaar are saying that the samvidhaan matters; it has acquired the status of actor Nirupa Roy in Deewaar. Everyone else may have daulat (wealth) and shohrat (fame) but the ordinary people can assert, “Hamaare paas samvidhaan hai.” We have the Constitution. It is referred to as the brahmaastra (the ultimate weapon) of the janata against the sarkar and spoken about with passion and reverence.

The question here is not so much about whether the ideals of Ambedkar or the actual clauses of the Constitution are known beyond the talismanic invocation. It is the fact that the samvidhaan has emerged as an iconic symbol of the praja in the prajatantra.

Even as the government cynically reduces governance to the idea of money flowing down from national coffers into individual bank accounts, the appeal to the Constitution inflects national politics with ideas and values. It asserts that there exists a script that speaks of the people and their place in the polity; a script that has been deviated from. It has become the source of ummeed, of hope, amidst the general dereliction of governance.

Amidst the loud rhetoric, the projections of thousand-year-rule, backtracking on communal sentiment, and of course, the promises of cash in the kitty, the samvidhaan has been the deep bass underneath the cacophony. While poll pundits and journalists argue over what is the real issue in this election, it is quite clear that the Constitution has emerged as the star of political rhetoric, the darling of raja and praja alike.

It has taken a while for the formation of this icon. The Jawaharlal Nehru University student protests of 2016 and the appeal to azaadi – the true freedom governed by the rule of law. The pathalgadi movement in Jharkhand of 2017-’18 and its invocation of the Constitution in demanding participatory governance. The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act through late 2019 and early 2020 and the political event and metaphor that was Shaheen Bagh, convened around the Constitution.

Amidst these political manifestations, the idea of the Constitution came alive, breaking free of the routine and clerical that it had got trapped in within the public mind; embodying only the contested principle of reservations. The idea of popular sovereignty and its protection by the samvidhaan has now become political commonsense and a rhetorical habit. Hope has indeed begun to fly, whatever the result of elections.

This article is based on the India’s Politics in the Vernaculars Project that the author is a part of.

Dilip M Menon is the Mellon Chair of Indian Studies and the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.