Blog | To be or not to be Arvind Kejriwal?

This article was also published in the Hindustan Times on 14th August 2014.

Plato had said that one of the penalties for refusing to be a part of politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. In 1999 when Arvind Kejriwal embarked upon his ‘journey for change’, he firmly believed that “change begins with small things”. Back then he may have set on the road to correct the mistake which Plato had pointed out. However, fifteen years from then, one wonders today, what has become of him?

It is a very critical time in the political balance of the country. This is not only a time when nations are taking personalities and stands in the international circle but also one where our country itself needs to define its political personality after decades of regional pushes-and-pulls between the smaller gullies and the bigger corridors of power. I say “critical” with an equal importance to the potential to transform and the power to extinguish the political balance (or what remains of it). It is definitely not the first time when an ‘electoral insurgent’ has announced himself on the scene – J.P. Narayan showed the gates to Indira Gandhi and V.P. Singh did the same to her son. It is also not the first time when the grand old Congress has been humiliated nor the first instance of the so coined “people’s political will” being “triumphant”.

However, it is a critical time in India’s political history because of the abundance of problems that are at hand at home and the plethora of opportunities for a stake in the world’s future, in the international circles. A balanced treatment of both is what is expected of any leader at helm, today. Can political activists – most of who end up being flashes in the pan – deliver on them? As a political optimist, one may say, maybe – and if given time, definitely. Is Kejriwal such a leader who can live up to such expectations (or ‘demands’, if you may)? The answer seems to fade away with every passing day.

There are three very important things to consider before you pass a judgment on Kejriwal or his AAP : how did they start; what have they achieved so far; and where do they stand? Kejriwal is a graduate from IIT and had served the IRS before entering citizen movements that later transformed into political-activism, then briefly political-ambition and now maybe best termed as political-abba-jabba-dabba. That he was an educated, ‘clean’ personality known for his eagerness to improve the system, worked for him initially – as long as he worked for the causes he had chosen. While lambasting him publicly or drooling over his memes on the social media, many forget that the man was awarded the Magasaysay Award (other Indian recipients include Vinoba Bhave, Verghese Kurien, M.S. Swaminathan and even J.P. Narayan) for his work with the RTI movement. Kejriwal formed ‘Parivartan’ – an organization ‘for change’ – as the first organization in his phase as an activist. So far, he had been a man who had delivered on what he had promised – although the fruits of what he had delivered were yet to be seen. But he had become the man people could look up to as an alternative – a man who could get things done.

This brings us to the second question – what have Kejriwal and his party achieved so far? After his first movement towards the RTI campaign, AAP was the second organization Kejriwal gave shape to – along with his political ambitions. Between the two, more importantly, was the forgettable Anna Hazare movement that stands as the point of turn in Kejriwal’s shift from activism to ambition.

After the success of exposing fake-ration-cards scam, the RTI movement started to crumble – while simultaneously, Kejriwal chose to join the Anna Hazare camp for the Jan Lokpal Bill, hoping his RTI success would snowball into a political facelift of the country. Or at least that was what the masses largely were made to believe. Thousands thronged in his support and the ever-active news channels beamed out images of jam-packed crowds to a generation that had not seen something like this happen in the country ever. At least not together as a country – on the respective television sets, in respective languages, at the same time and the same thing for hours and hours. This ensured Kejriwal’s popularity reached its career high – so much so that the media (and at times his party members themselves) compared the chaos to previous movements like J.P. Narayan’s and V.P. Singh’s and even the Indian freedom struggle! RTI – and for a large part, even Hazare and Kejriwal – became tools for political mudslinging between the Congress and the BJP camps. Today, no one talks about the RTI, or the Jan Lokpal, or Hazare. Will Kejriwal follow suit?

Following the support that he garnered from crowds all over the country and even celebrities and journalists; he managed to achieve the incredible when he became the Delhi CM. And that is when it occurred to him – the delivery. So far, Kejriwal’s movement had relied on hitting and mocking the politicians in-general and talking about assumed-and-agreed ‘right issues’ like corruption and ‘black-money’. However, in a country where Twitter-trends remain a big thing even with internet penetration of only about ten percent and where even a count of ten lakh heads does not muster a considerable percentage of the total population, Kejriwal’s numbers and strategies began to fall away.

Firstly, even though he had addressed the in-vogue issue of ‘black money’ and the ever popular ‘corruption’ and ‘poverty’; Arvind Kejriwal and AAP had always failed to identify the ‘ways’ and ‘methods’ to achieve their goals – largely restricting their promises to.. well, promises! Whether it was because he was himself surprised at having won the CM’s seat or was it because of the lack of plans to execute on the promises that led him to the famous ‘dharna’, one can only wonder.

Kejriwal and AAP lacked planning right from the beginning and it is easy to guess that he had himself never expected such a success. There was never any research to back any claims it made about the issues picked; no ways to show correction and no self-defining personality at all. The only personality that AAP (or Keriwal) has ever gained is that it is “not like others”. But what exactly is ‘he’ himself like? He promises not to do what others have done – but what does he himself assure of doing? And how?

First there was the problem of power. Earlier, both Narayan and Singh – during their respective movements – had been clever to attract support from factions of the Opposition. In Kejriwal’s case, anything with the word ‘politician’ was supposed to be bashed.  Although this helped bolster him as ‘ a much needed alternative’ to the rest of the lot; this also ensured that he was alone. And once Hazare pulled out, he lost the plot completely. And then, there was the problem of the reach.

Congress failed to realize that despite the overwhelming victory for UPA-II, it was still a country of coalition politics – its reliance (more like hope) solely on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership is, by now, well documented and discussed. On the other hand, BJP has been expanding its vote bank by campaigns all over the country. Even now, Modi is busy in uniting families and adopting godsons from diverse places. Clearly, Modi is going places. On the other hand, much like they say about things and Mexico, AAP happened in Delhi and stayed in Delhi. It never had a Chennai chapter, or a Mumbai-manus face; nor did it ever get a Bong connection. In fact, AAP happened in Delhi but couldn’t even stay there!

So finally, where does Kejriwal stand today? When handed a five year term, he jumped to a dharna. Later he challenged opponents in Delhi’s electoral ring only to later sheepishly request more time? In the name of political activism, Kejriwal has come a long way. He has indeed shown how a political activist can enter mainstream politics and at least get the chance to make a difference – if not really make it. Perhaps in the hands of an able planner and leader, one may have seen the change he had promised. Kejriwal, however, is now reduced to the shadows in the sidelines where he now fights to survive. The ‘aam aadmi’ who once started out to make small changes that could bring about big transformations, is now laughed at when his speeches play during radio transmissions of daily commuters in the NCR.

Clearly, now Plato’s words and Kejriwal appear in a completely different light.

Another negative tide that Kejriwal left after his failed attempt to ‘take over’, has been the dilution of credibility of any kind of political activism. Issues raised by the Medha Patkars and the Arundhati Roys were never even known to the public at large – let alone supported. It was already a case short on hope – with issues getting deadlines only when the Patkars and Roys were involved. Occasionally an Amir Khan may have catalyzed things a little. But no one really knew or bothered about activism by Irom Sharmila (who was also one of the people invited to the Hazare movement for TRPs), Teesta Setalvad, Aruna Roy, S.P. Uday Kumar or Jean Dreze.

But after the Kejriwal drama, and the disappointment it may have caused in the large number of not just the people who  jumped in but also the ones who dreamt of ‘better times’ while collectively catching it all on television; one can hardly dream of any large-scale public involvement for any kind of reforms that the country may have. There we had an instance of masses collectively uniting in belief – for a cause they thought may have revived them. Instead, they now face the truth that though strongly supported, their movement was a cocoon over hollow promises and assurances.

In such a scenario, we again choose a hero – like we have always had, like we have always needed . And so, Modi now leads a touted ‘one man show’ and the nation now watches at him with the beggarly hope of changing things for the better.

And as brought out by Kejriwal’s case, as far as the question of political activists entering politics is concerned, it is more a question of ‘why enter’ rather than ‘should (or shouldn’t) enter’. Political activists in politics is a welcome scenario as long as they don’t lose their plots. However, “political activists” like Kejriwal, were best away from such responsibilities. Best, for the people.