Arvind Kejriwal’s meteoric rise has dominated media headlines in the recent months. Purely measured by electoral dynamics, this is surprising. Kejriwal is the chief minister of a small city-state with seven Lok Sabha seats. There is limited evidence that his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) poses a serious threat outside of its stronghold of Delhi and the adjoining areas. At one level, it reflects the obsession with Delhi among the media elite whose gaze rarely extends beyond India’s capital. On the other hand, in India’s stagnant polity where leaders are rarely replaced – and if they are, only by their progeny! – the AAP has arrived as a disruptive force. Dismissed as a gadfly, Kejriwal has surprised his critics with his ability to grasp public opinion and adroitly exploit it for his purposes.
Kejriwal’s edification among the intelligentsia has been halted by some recent events. The raid led by Somanth Bharti with its vigilante and racist undertones has shocked and surprised a fairly largely number of his supporters. The Delhi chief minister’s impromptu protests against the central government smacks of double speak and opportunism – traits Kejriwal has attacked most relentlessly in his campaign. Kejriwal’s critics argue that he is simply too much in love with the idea of agitation even if it is meaningless, and damages the debate around governance. He risks alienating the middle class who shared his anger against the ‘system’ and its attendant ills but are too vested in its continuance to wholeheartedly embrace anarchy.
However, if the recent opinion polls are any indicator, the AAP has gained further support in Delhi. According to an NDTV poll, Kejriwal is the most popular politician in the capital. And in a surprising turn of events, Delhi is one of the few states where his popularity surpasses even that of Narendra Modi. Some of his more enthusiastic supporters even believe he poses a significant risk to Modi, who appears unstoppable at this moment. So who is the AAP really targeting?
In the last decade, the Congress, under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, has positioned itself as the guardians of India’s poor. It has launched myriad “pro-poor” schemes in order to protect them from the inequities and the inherent unfairness of a market driven system. However, their attention has been on the rural poor who are still the dominant voice in India’s polity. Or to paraphrase Rahul Gandhi: The real India. There have been some belated attempts at course correction with a renewed focus on urban areas. Unfortunately for the Congress, the shift has been half-hearted and is largely unconvincing. The high decibel campaign launched by the Narendra Modi-led BJP has primarily focused on the concerns of the middle class, who feel aggrieved that the dreams of “India Shining” appear to have vaporised under Manmohan Singh’s watch. Hence the promises of ensuring economic growth and restoring India’s (rightful) position in the world.
But in a rapidly urbanising nation, there is a powerful community whose interests have been ignored: the urban poor. According to the government of India, the urban poor totalled nearly 50 million in 2011 and their numbers will inevitably rise. They have limited stake in ventures like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Employment Act (NREGA) as they have no interest in moving back to their villages and adopt subsistence living. On the other hand, Modi’s economic pitch may leave them cold as they have limited traction in the new economy which disproportionately emphasises services with an almost criminal neglect of manufacturing.
It is precisely this constituency Kejriwal is appealing to. Take his agitation against the Delhi Police, for instance. This was a classic vilification campaign in which Kejriwal cleverly positioned himself as the vanguard against a thuggish and lawless police. Naturally, those troubled by the Khirki raid were hardly impressed with his defence of vigilantism and moral policing. However, the rickshaw puller in Delhi who bears the daily brunt of police danda would hardly be bothered by the legalities that so agitate TV talking heads. Instead, it was a rare instance of a politician taking on his worst enemy and winning – even if it was a pyrrhic victory.
Some of Kejriwal’s more controversial decisions – water and power subsidies – are designed specifically to appeal to the urban poor. In that sense, Kejriwal is less of an anarchist and more of the classical populist who rages against the ‘establishment’ and stands for the interest of the aam aadmi. Incidentally, it was among the constituencies dominated by the urban poor where the AAP scored some of its most significant electoral victories. Despite all the rhetoric about the middle class angst about corruption, Kejriwal appears to be acutely aware of the constituency responsible for his rise. Indeed, it is some of his disillusioned admirers who mistook his movement solely as a cry against corruption.
In that sense, the AAP is positioning itself to fill an important gap in Indian polity. There appears to be no party which speaks to the concerns of the urban poor: the rickshaw puller, the daily wage worker, the security guards in India’s gaudy malls. And as urbanisation is an inevitable part of India’s story, this is an increasingly powerful and assertive constituency.
To be clear, Arvind Kejriwal and his party face significant challenges if they have to evolve beyond Delhi and emerge as a significant national player. The symbolism wears thin eventually, and even the most ardent supporters grow tired of permanent agitations. Kejriwal would have to show he truly understands the concerns of the urban poor beyond eschewing the VIP culture. And some hard questions are in order here: What are Kejriwal’s thoughts on India’s decaying cities and the critical lack of urban infrastructure which hurts the poor most and has forced them to live in squalid habitations? And why would he oppose FDI in retail when the urban poor are likely to be its largest beneficiary?
The AAP’s ideological diversity – it has embraced Leftist activism while making a nationalist pitch – will strain Kejriwal’s political acumen as well as his credibility. Finally, there is no evidence that the AAP would be able to repeat its Delhi success at the national level. Would the party have the legs to survive an electoral defeat and the disillusionment among its hugely expectant supporters?
Nevertheless, Arvind Kejriwal’s rise marks an interesting moment in Indian history. While it would be too simplistic to limit the appeal of the Congress or the BJP to their most vociferous supporters, it does indicate that the urban poor have arrived as a potentially significant and disruptive force in Indian polity. And whether the revolution survives or founders, that dynamic is unlikely to change.
Rohit Pradhan is a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, a Bangalore based public policy think tank. He tweets at @retributions.