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Arvind Kejriwal: The rise of the rebel donning the robes of change

Sunday, 29 December 2013 - 6:43am IST | Agency: DNA
What do political parties do when in a crisis? They discuss among themselves. Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is different. It discusses problems with the people. This is the new deal; India's brand of direct-to-home politics, that cuts out the middlemen, the power brokers, the political fixers and party chieftains. Delhi's new chief minister Kejriwal enters the political stage armed with a new script. Binoo K. John maps the rise of the rebel donning the robes of change.

It was at the Ram Lila maidan in August 2011 that a tectonic change happened. The tremors were felt but no one knew who would capture this energy released in the political fission of those days and channelise it into a political party.

The Ram Lila revolution of 2011, like the many other political revolutions that this maidan hosted — the Jayaprakash Narayan  meetings, the Indira Gandhi speeches,  the Advani clarion calls for Hindu religious assertion — was to change a lot of things.

Located at the cusp of Old and New Delhi, where the locale of Mughal India itself holds its ground against the encroaching schemes and architecture of modernity and Punjabi baroque, but where new ideas have gained national traction, the Ram Lila is ideal ground for clarion calls to disturb the settled notions of a so-called modern nation state.

It was at the Ram Lila maidan in August 2011 that  Arvind Kejriwal launched himself — in someone else’s name.  No one gauged the energy levels of the phenomenon  correctly.  Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal were leading an assault on the Congress government at the centre.

The issue: corruption and the Lokpal bill. That day, outside the maidan you had to stand in a queue to be frisked. As if this revolution was only for only for invitees. I asked aloud if there were tickets too. I passed the test of one queue, manned by Delhi Police, then ran into another snaking line that took me inside the maidan but not yet inside the cordoned off real venue, where the Gandhian fast had been modernised and transformed into a TV studio.   

Here the gates were manned by the savvy aspirational youth — weighed down by no political baggage but a flimsy paper Gandhi cap — who that day swore to change India for ever. They asked you to wait in line, and soon I lost my patience. I wasn’t going to wait any more to see an old man in Gandhi cap on a fast against corruption. Old crap.  I returned only to be accosted by the New Lumpen: English slogan shouting youngsters, waving the national flag  inside the Metro train.  One of the slogans ended:  “Congress saare chor hai, Sonia Gandhi sexy hai (Congress is full of theives, Sonia Gandhi is sexy)”. They were cool revolutionaries. They were working class who wanted to be the ruling class.

How easily they achieved it
On December 28,  they were all again at the Ram Lila maidan. Their caps had the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) printed in black. The slogans against the Congress were not heard. They were hailing their leader, now chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, the 45-year-old middle class hero who subverted all political plans and theories to ascend this throne, albeit a bit shaky.

That day in 2011, I wrote them off as more ambition that stuff.  I had doubts about Gandhian moral and emotional tactics to press home a middle class didactic.

But now, with the wisdom that comes with hindsight we know that  day,  everything had changed.

Neither the Congress, nor then chief minister Sheila Dikshit nor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sensed that the Anna Hazare Ram Lila fast would ricochet for so long.  

On that stage, often standing next to Hazare as the lead picture here taken by Sanjay Austa shows, was Kejriwal. It was the best platform to address Delhi. There was revulsion against corruption, there was hope for change, the middle class had got out of its comfort zones consisting of  the DDA flats, the housing society pads, the government quarters where they stayed illegally and finally moved to the streets heeding Hazare’s and Kejriwal’s call. The old political lumpen, the same who appear magically during all street violence, had given way to the educated, the employed, the moneyed, the mainstreamed, the EMI-payer,  who found a reason  to show off his anger and shout in his own way “Sonia Gandhi sexy hai”. Oh man, they were cool. They were angry.  The EMI-payer was setting the stage for revolution. He was part of the system, yet wanted out.

Both Hazare and Kejriwal are slight, but mighty in their ambition. In this picture (above) Kejriwal is sandwiched between the old Gandhi or rather a memory of him and a new one, Hazare, trying to recreate the Gandhian magic.

From this platform, Kejriwal took bits of Hazare and Gandhi as if plucking from the background picture, mainly the moral might, taped together bits of socialistic fabric, cut off the umbilical chord of India’s history and its needless gravitas, then after a while ditched both Gandhi and Hazare completely and retained just the Gandhi topi, refashioning it out of paper and manufactured cloth, not khadi. He put together an agenda of urban middle class aspirations bereft of any ideology and launched the Aam Aadmi Party, shamelessly lifting the name from the pet phrase the Congress used successfully in the 2009 general elections. 

For the first time in Indian history, a party with neither a sub-nationalistic nor pan-nationalistic agenda, no obeisance to the Left or the Right or Centre or any deity, but wavering conveniently from one to the other, is in power as a minority government with the offer of a New Deal. What does this mean? For Delhi, for India and the political culture itself?

But first, how did Kejriwal, who so presciently won the Ramon Magsaysay award for Emergent Leadership in 2006 for his work with Right to Information, convince the Delhi electorate? How did it win the heart and imagination of India?

Kejrwal, the mechanical engineer from Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur turned activist turned chief minister, had started the election campaign six months before elections, with neither a party nor a structure but just volunteers. He cut out all the crap, the normal central committees, the polit bureau (which even the Telugu Desam Party copied from the Communist Party of India-Marxist), the High Command and went straight to the root of the matter.  When AAP (they have a political executive committee) needed to take a momentous decision like whether to form a government or not, Kejriwal did not go into a huddle with his chieftains into a mock 10 Janpath Gothic bungalow and emerge with a decision. He opted for direct democracy, SMS and emails and then show of hands at Jantar Mantar. How long the direct democracy trick will last is difficult to gauge, but Kejriwal had just finished off the great Indian political cabal.

We now know how suspicious people are about cabals and cliques, kitchen cabinets, inner circles, and ‘sources close to the high command’, 10 Janpath, Ashoka Road etc. This and the hush-hush whisper, which conveys major decisions from one ear to another, have dominated Indian political imagery and culture all these years. 

Nehru whispering into Gandhi’s ears. AICC session circa 1950.

Indira Gandhi whispering into Dev Kant Baruah’s ears AICC session, 1975, Chandigarh.

Modi whispering into Advani’s ears, BJP Parliamentary board meeting, 2013.

Manmohan Singh leaning into Sonia’s ears, 2004-2013 UPA rule.

Rahul Gandhi whispering into Sonia’s ears. AICC session Talkatora stadium Delhi 2012.

The common man mumbling his anger into a vacuum. Since 1947.

Last week Kejriwal changed that.

The common man texted his decision to him. Directly.

Kejriwal also changed the manifesto culture. Manifestoes would no longer grandstand. No manifesto expert like Pranab Mukherjee to change a comma here and put a full stop there, twitch its grammar and vocabulary, as if it would change destiny.  AAP’s would be crafted from the streets.

The AAP would have manifestoes for each constituency showing that no ideology would be allowed to cloud its demands for civic needs.  Kejriwal sensed that the immediate and the achievable was better than to spell out Utopian dreams which all manifestoes did.  His was more dystopian comfort level.

What then is the New Deal that Kejriwal promises?
As in the post-Depression New Deal of the 30s, here too there is a feel that the AAP New Deal is a bit anti-business. This is because the very nature of business in India starts with bribery and Kejriwal and his old NGO pal and probable finance minister  Manish Sisodia (who won from East Delhi’s Patparganj constituency) worked relentlessly to plug corruption.

The main New Deal is to change the very nature of governance, which is easier said than done.

AAP does not have the clout yet to take on entrenched vested interests in government.

The AAP New Deal
The VIP culture so blatantly evident in Delhi will go.

Corruption will go with the help of Jan Lokpal bill which will be passed in two weeks.

Ideology itself will go. 

No cultural nationalism, no sub-nationalism. 

A baroque moral angst will prevail.

The political class will vanish. The working class, you and me, will have a direct stake in power.

Identity and caste politics will go. 

People will rule.

Work in progress
AAP is a work in progress, reflecting the changing nature of its founder’s battle with his own inner demons. He was an atheist but now he thinks that the gods had a role in his victory.

“AAP involved a lot of non-traditional people and we will learn from that and will better it in a way you cannot imagine,” Kejriwal has said with the confidence and  swagger of  a man who has fought for power and gained it.

AAP’s new catchword is ‘mohalla sabhas’. The local urban unit would decide if  a colony would be regularised.  This is the micro managing unit Kejriwal sees as the basis of his new governance.

He has promised the enabling legisation in six months. Something that merges into his direct democracy drill. He will be an agent for change, but change itself has to come from down below.

For one year before the elections, Kejriwal had started thinking of power.

His argument was that the Delhi government in collusion with the Reliance run discoms in Delhi had hiked electricity rates and stolen money. He has kept track of money which he says has been stolen by the private discoms.

Sheila Dikshit’s argument was that the bills are high because power cuts are gone. Delhi has many connects with power. If you mean electricity, Delhi believed in stealing it. From the rich to the poor, cutting through social spectrums, the industrialists and the sweat shops, they all stole power. Dikshit changed that. The private company went after the stealers and caught them out one after another.  Near the jhuggis they used insulated overhead wires so that stealing by looping wires over it also stopped.

This was the biggest grouse against Dikshit. Kejriwal dipped into that grouse and announced a 50 per cent cut in bills. An abiding image of the rebel Kejriwal is of him reconnecting a power meter which had been switched off by the private company.  Like in all his ventures he took the TV cameras with him as he reconnected the lines. By doing this he was also indirectly saying that if I come to power you can steal some. It worked.

Yogendra Yadav, who is the mind guru of AAP, (Prashant Bhushan the legal guru) says that AAP is socialistic since the constitution is socialistic. So they have no large plans of subversion. They will abide by the constitution. Only the bill for the other power, electricity has to be subverted.

AAP is actually a confused lot. There is no way the middle class can cling on to a pretend-socialistic agenda for long. Ultimately it is a question of entitlements of the new middle class, the biggest beneficiaries and practitioners of corruption.

But this helped the party cut through the complex nature of identity and caste that controls election results in India.

Kejriwal won Delhi by also by capturing the two other segments that come into prominence during election: the Muslims and the poor. The jhaadu (broom) as the election symbol appealed immensely to Delhi’s poor and Kejriwal swiftly transformed this unwanted, unsexy Election Commission symbol into one that would change everything.  Sweep the Old away and bring in the New.  ‘Is baar jhaadu chalegi’ (This time the broom will work)  was the slogan he pasted on every autorickshaw.  A symbol of the oppressed became the symbol for change. It was a brilliant slogan with various subtexts of meaning.

He spent a lot of time in the jhuggis, sold them the idea of the new destiny (which includes less power rates), strengthening the PDS system (a consistent CPM demand) rather than weakening it. His appeal to the Muslims ensured that the BJP vote bank remained untouched. Congress lost everything, its plank, its performance record, its pitch.

Now all that is over and Delhi and India is waiting for change.  The ministers will stay in their own small flats, avoiding the Lutyens bungalows that symbolise corruption and the culture of entitlement.

In a recent interview, Kejriwal called his AAP a movement and attributed his success to the volunteers of the party. He went on to say that AAP is not a political party in the conventional sense and that if people with the right intent enter the system and change it then such a movement can have permanence.

High thoughts to proclaim from the shaky pedestal  that his minority government sits on. 

Revolutions that started from the Ram Lila have come and gone. In that long  tableau of Indian history enacted there, one more actor has arrived with a new script. A rebel donning the robes of change.

Being a well read man, Kejriwal  may be aware that just a couple of kilometers behind Ram Lila, from the Red Fort another (albeit unwilling) revolutionary Bahadur Shah Zafar  who was hoisted as the head of the 1857 revolt against the British, was dragged through the streets and then sent away to Burma where he died.

Revolutions have that bad habit of failing. Kejriwal will know that.

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