He has been called all manner of things — a role model in one breath and a delinquent in another. He has been likened to Machiavelli’s prince and castigated in depth. But all said and done, there is something about the puzzling politics of Arvind Kejriwal that makes his theatre of the absurd sound so different from others in the political marketplace. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) experiment initially signalled the rise of a revolution of high expectations, but in next to no time, the trials and errors of the upstart party led to considerable disappointment and consternation among its sympathisers.
Dig deep into the Kejriwal persona and you will find that way back in 1980, when his father GR Kejriwal lost his job, the family was uprooted and taken back to their native village of Siwan in Haryana’s Hisar district to cut costs. Until a new job offer took them back to Hisar town a year later, they had to be rooted in the native village. Kejriwal used this time to study with the single-minded aim of getting into IIT. Until he went to an IIT, he says he didn’t have a clue about the world. There, he heard people having conversations in English for the first time and was shocked to hear what he did.
He survived the initial ragging with a phlegmatic resolve. He thought that he would learn speaking English fluently in the bargain. It was a hard time grappling with his engineering classes, and in course, he also learnt something more about the wider world. It was, however, only later that his journey into public life began, during a study break from the Indian Revenue Service. Then, he began to work on drafting the Right To Information (RTI) Bill.
The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, a loose federation of individuals and organisations campaigning for transparency, had already begun work on making RTI a potent tool when Kejriwal was drafted in as a member of the working committee. That was where he met his mentor Aruna Roy, with whom he was to fall out later. Others such as Shekhar Singh, who taught public administration to future bureaucrats, Nikhil Dey and Anjali Bharadwaj worked together to draft the law. Kejriwal had a stroke of stage-fright at the prospect of presenting the RTI draft at a convention, which Roy insisted he did — he thought he was not prepared too well for it. Roy was stubborn; and so was Kejriwal. However, the convention went off very well and Kejriwal would soon set up Parivartan to spread RTI.
Soon after the RTI Act was passed in 2005, Roy wrote a recommendation for Kejriwal’s nomination for the Magsaysay Award. The moment he was selected for the award, he was suddenly confident of his own abilities. Today, Kejriwal says that the intense association with his mentor gave him abiding lessons in what democracy was all about. Among the first ones to join him was TV journalist Manish Sisodia; they joined hands in the battle against an opaque bureaucracy symbolised by the Sheila Dikshit establishment. The Congress chief minister was proposing the privatisation of Delhi’s water supply. A relentless use of the RTI by Parivartan revealed dubious claims and a massive jump in costs.
Born out of the RTI and India Against Corruption movements, AAP came storming into the political arena when considerable disillusionment with the existing order was rife. AAP offered change, a political alternative and not just a substitute, only to lose the plot quite completely later. The disillusionment began with the kind of anarchism that Kejriwal favoured, which was neither a political movement nor a political party kind of intervention. AAP leaders carried out a sort of guerrilla politics, changing the rules of the game for all players; they were not expected to win even 10 seats out of 70 in the 2013 Delhi Assembly polls, but they astounded the pundits by winning 28. They easily cut into the support base of mainstream parties, and everyone from Rahul Gandhi to the Left wanted to adopt aspects of their model.
A series of stirring reverses in the attempt to wrest control of the Delhi Police, where the party showed surprising constitutional naivete, and the haphazard ways in which they tried to end Delhi’s VIP culture were one aspect of the disappointment. The other was the scandalous manner in which law minister Somnath Bharti resorted to crass vigilantism with racist overtones.
The vociferous middle classes were happy when Kejriwal delivered on the promise of halving electricity bills, but were positively outraged when he used brinkmanship to push the Lokpal Bill in the Delhi Assembly. A wiser Kejriwal later reckoned that pushing too fast was a mistake, but by then it was too late.
The celebrated dharnas came to be seen as acts of political opportunism and many of those who were part of the AAP bandwagon were secretly miffed with their leader who they said was primarily an autocrat. They hyped expectations only to deviate from their said basic agenda. The manner in which Bharti and Kumar Vishwas mocked at well-held sensibilities antagonised many. Bharti and Vishwas reflected mindsets that caused a lot of concern as they were powerful in the party.
Today, the gallant loser from Varanasi is at the crossroads, as resorting to the populism of yore may not work and the amateurish surrender that he made at the end of the first stint still rankles. An AAP leader said that Kejriwal should become more focussed and mainstream, and shed his NGO kind of image. But can he do it? There is scepticism galore about that happening. Half-baked populism may catch the fancy of the masses for a while, but good, solid governance is what Delhi is looking for. An over-hyped agenda is self-defeating but the fact is that the people have learnt to expect a certain brand of histrionics from Kejriwal. It is a classic catch-22 situation, something that would require him not to deviate from the Constitution that he would seek to uphold and not challenge if elected chief minister again.
There is systematic anger against the established order’s due processes, which often militate against the interests of the deprived. To begin with, Kejriwal utilised the rage against institutions. He will do well to learn building them if he has to have a realistic chance against his main opponent, whom he should know inside out by now.
However, it is a good question whether Kejriwal is governed by a siege from within; an enemy who is inside him.