I reside in a country where I’m not a citizen hence unable to vote, and I’m the citizen of a country where I can vote but where I don’t reside. I have taken absolutely no interest in politics for over 90% of my life and have only recently started following politicians, conversations, critiques, op-eds and hilariously horrible political bigots online. This combination of special circumstances allows me to freely comment on the political landscape of both countries because I have nothing at stake in either of them.
I will cast my perceptive eye on India, which started voting in its sixteenth general election yesterday. This isn’t a thorough, scholarly analysis of any sort. I’m an observer and these are my observations about three major national players who have set the tone of political discourse this past year.
This post is about the Aam Admi Party – Upstarts, attention-seekers, krantikari, showboaters, opportunists, call them what you will, they’ve managed to secure a disproportionately higher share of opinion for a party that will probably win less than five seats. AAP is an offshoot of the Jan Lokpal movement led by the wily Arvind Kejriwal, who left his intellectual mentor Anna Hazare gasping in the dust as he catapulted a ragtag, angry band of anti-corruption activists into a political party with national appeal. It rode to infamy on the backs of disgruntled Indians fed up with the incessant corruption rampant in the UPA administration. As a marketing enthusiast I think Kejriwal is probably the best marketer Indian politics has seen in a while. Single-minded messaging and symbolism (a broom to clean corruption), using the right issues as a platform and a sharp understanding of how to fully utilize a 24 hour news cycle to his advantage. The media have been putty in his hands, lapping up any issue he brings up, no matter how silly.
It was clear during the Jan Lokpal movement that the ideology came from Hazare and Kejriwal gave it legs. He anchored his messages around Hazare’s credibility and brought in supporters like Kiran Bedi who were in line with the movement’s wholesome and honest intent. It was also pretty obvious he was playing the long game. After having denied any political aspiration he promptly did a U-Turn and founded AAP. I have no issues with this particular point, though. It takes guts to fight a system within its rules and he had the courage to do so. Is he ambitious? Of course he is! Who the hell gets into politics just because they want to “do good”?
AAP also showed how to build a grassroots movement that challenged well-entrenched players like the Congress and BJP. Granted, most of the base they’ve tapped into is the urban middle-class and among folks with access to basics like food, water and electricity. His message may not resonate as strongly in rural India where issues tend to be very local, sops are still the preferred modus operandi and there is a high level of disillusionment with the political effectiveness of any party. That said, a third of India is urban and growing at 2.5% every year. a fifth of India has internet – Kejriwal’s preferred weapon of choice. AAP has the potential to cause some serious damage in the coming years.
It was trendy to underestimate AAP and ridicule them. They responded by winning the Delhi assembly elections in Dec 2013. A party formed in November 2012 was now in control of the nation’s capital within a year. They dented a lot of egos and preconceived notions by handing the incumbent Sheila Dixit a massive defeat in which the Congress lost 35 of its 43 seats. That was AAP’s defining moment when they proved themselves a force to reckon with.
Unfortunately, it is also where their story gets derailed.
AAP’s mismanagement of Delhi is the kind of thing you can’t even dream up. This is a good summary of how they systematically bungled or scuttled their chances at governing. Actually, let me amend that – chances at learning governance. This was their first time, it was a great opportunity to learn the ropes. Instead, they went at it in a ham-handed manner, laying bare their inexperience, inflexibility and in some cases, hypocrisy. The worst moment of AAP’s Delhi stint has to be the bigoted actions of “Law” Minister Somnath Bharti (a renowned spammer in the past) when his team attempted to “clean up” an alleged Ugandan drug and prostitution ring. Ordering the police to break in without a warrant, forcing a woman to urinate in public to check for drugs and then misrepresenting a letter from the Ugandan High Commission to justify the raid. Worse, Arvind Kejriwal refused to accept Bharti’s culpability, which resulted in his popularity and credibility taking a nosedive.
Kejriwal compounded matters by upgrading his rhetoric from righteous harangues to sanctimony. When you set impossibly high standards for others, you should be prepared to held to those standards yourself. For example, he alleged that politicians like Narendra Modi were subsisting on the largesse of conglomerates like Adani and zipping around in their helicopters for free in return for sops. He followed that up by taking a private plane ride to attend India Today’s Conclave citing time constraints and that it was paid for by India Today Group, completely ignoring the irony of accusing others of taking free rides.
And then, they gave up Delhi. Forty-nine days into a disastrous stint of governance, Kejriwal resigned because his cherished Lokpal bill didn’t go through. He chose to give up immense responsibility for a constitutional abomination. This wasn’t idealism, it was opportunism. There’s no question in my mind it was a carefully planned move aimed at freeing up time and resources to effectively battle in the upcoming General Elections.
Another aspect that irks me personally is his constant need to project himself as a martyr and a revolutionary. For example, after a recent incident where he was slapped in public, allegedly by a BJP supporter:
Perhaps it’s my disappointment at how after giving up Delhi, he stopped being a man of ideals and became just another pretender to the throne. Despite that, his sanctimony hasn’t abated, bringing to mind a wonderful dialogue from “Patton” in which Patton remarks about Montgomery
I know I’m a prima donna. I admit it. What I can’t stand about Monty is, he won’t admit it.
When his stunts became more outlandish – like turning up unannounced outside Modi’s house, then stating Modi was afraid to meet him – the media coverage shifted from breathless reporting to ridicule. It didn’t take long for Kejriwal to commit what might be his biggest mistake yet – accusing the media of being influenced by vested interests. Another U-Turn that had us yawning. Their campaign is now at a stage where Kejriwal is using Twitter to stir up any baseless controversy possible. In other words, he’s now just another politician.
Despite all the effective self-marketing by Kejriwal, what do AAP really stand for? I don’t think they’re quite sure yet. Their manifesto is a hodgepodge of progressivism (accountable policing, healthcare, education, gender justice), populism (reservations) and insanity (Jan Lokpal, public investment in AYUSH – Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy). Their economic agenda is also poorly spelt out and their opposition to FDI doesn’t bode well either.
Nonetheless, Arvind Kejriwal has singlehandedly challenged the status quo and demonstrated the possibility of a successful political movement guided by transparency, a solid vision, based on progressive values and led by citizens who are conscientious and committed to the idea of a strong nation. He’s gotten us involved, he’s gotten us debating and for a brief moment, elevated politics above the cynicism that shrouds it. For that alone, we should be thankful.