I FIRST MET Arvind Kejriwal two years ago at a friend’s office, while working as a filmmaker. He had written a short but powerful pamphlet for political action and change called ‘Swaraj’ (now a full-fledged book). We were discussing how to turn it into a film. What struck me then was his single-mindedness and drive. There was no Anna Hazare, anti-corruption movement yet, just a one-man dynamo and his ideas. So, when, six months later, I was at TEHELKA and Arvind had put together what seemed like a very credible movement for change, I jumped in not just as a writer-observer, but as a semi-participant.
The meetings in March 2011 at Delhi’s Teen Murti Bhavan with Aruna Roy, Medha Patkar, Santosh Hegde in attendance, painted for the first time for me, in my decade-and-a-half media career, the possibility of a ‘rising’ from our midst. My first piece, written one day into the anti-corruption movement, in April 2011, was enthusiastic — as it was perhaps a little breathless and naïve. Five days later, however, with some scrutiny of the suggestions Arvind had made, my perspective began to shift. Objections had been raised in meetings at Teen Murti Bhavan about the solutions proposed by Arvind. What would happen if one Lokpal looked at everything from ration card complaints to the coal scam? Arvind had promised to factor in the changes suggested, but thirteen drafts later, the big questions still remained. Clunky, unsorted problems that made the bill look bad.
“Tell me what you think is wrong,” Arvind would ask repeatedly. Our discussions kept circling around the same problem. Months and more drafts later, many people were saying what I had experienced: Arvind hears what you have to say, but he’s got his mind made up. He and Prashant Bhushan have a very specific plan of action, a model in their head that they are determinedly working towards.
With the amount of political ammunition Arvind and Prashant had accumulated against the UPA, I expected they would get some support from the BJP, the Left. But outside of some perfunctory public display of solidarity against the UPA, I was surprised at how unanimous the entire political spectrum was — this bill had too many holes for any party to back. Arvind used this to rachet up the agitation in August 2011 for the urban and semi-urban supporters who found in his tangible earnestness a vent for their frustration. The roadmap wasn’t so important. Neither was the actual shape of what was on offer. The spin worked. Arvind kept telling the gullible crowds there would never be a political party brave enough to accept his solution to corruption. Privately, he and Prashant would concede that a Lokpal is no magic wand. Systemic change is a slow-moving beast.
By December 2011, however, there had been one fast too many. Arvind’s tryst with backing candidates in the Hisar byelection in Haryana, coupled with a near empty show at Anna’s third fast in Mumbai, had failed to work. The press had declared the movement over. The UPA went about its business as usual. I met Arvind en route to his UP road show. This time, the openness had disappeared. The Arvind flipflop over how much consent he was getting had replaced that. “Most of us agreed we should take a political stand in the Hisar election,” said Arvind. When I asked him the question again, he corrected himself. “The working committee of six people agreed, not the core group.” Consent and backing for what was essentially his idea was gained by changing the rules of the game. First, there was a core committee. This included people from grassroots movements like Medha Patkar and Devender Sharma — both in that core group. Next, when there was dissent there, the decision-making shifted to a smaller group — Arvind, Prashant, Manish Sisodia, Gopal Rai and Kumar Vishwas.
I realised Arvind manufactured consent by changing the rules of the game to back his own ideas
By August this year, I was well aware of the Arvind flipflop. “We are fasting because we want the government to have a special investigation team to look at corruption in its cabinet ministers.” But how did that square with: “We don’t trust the government, we don’t expect them to do what we ask?” It was a merry-go-round that didn’t need any answers. By the end of the August fast, the double-speak was ratcheted up further, when it became apparent that Arvind’s original idea of a political alternative, of Swaraj, would now take the shape of a full-fledged party.
“We conducted a poll… 76 percent of the people want us to form a party.” Who are these people, asked his own bewildered supporters. To checkmate any dissent, the core group was completely disbanded as they had already started blogging their disapproval. The salvo was fired off Anna’s unwilling shoulder: “Anna says the core group should be disbanded since it was set up for the Lokpal and now we are a party,” Arvind tried in his plaintive best. Two weeks later, Anna decided to pull the plug, his own face having been appropriated for what was clearly Arvind’s cause. As soon as Anna vented spleen in public, Arvind went into damage control mode. A nine-hour closed door meeting with Anna had failed to patch things up. A hysterical media waiting outside the venue demanded answers. So Arvind had his own flock stand in the media glare and heckle Anna with questions. “Why did you say you were ending the fast with a move towards a political alternative if you think party politics is all filthy… are you not changing your mind suddenly?” Arvind’s media managers were more efficient than Anna’s. Anna was asked such questions, Arvind was asked none.
THREE WEEKS later, it was nearly time for Arvind’s official party launch. A close aide from his team met me over coffee. A final canard was spread about Anna.
“The RSS is behind this. It’s supporting Anna’s new team.” Anna’s meeting with Baba Ramdev on the evening of his split with Arvind was cited as evidence by the person from Arvind’s camp. The irony of it made me smile inwardly; but it was deeply depressing to witness. Arvind’s makeover from rebel to regular politician was so complete that he was now throwing exactly the same canards at Anna that the UPA had once aimed at him. My conversation was interrupted by a call from the other side, Kiran Bedi, who was furious about the RSS spin. It was time for Anna’s side to return with some ugly truths of their own. Arvind’s arrogance had begun to drive a wedge between him and Anna a year ago, said one. Maulana Shamoon Qasmi was asked to leave this year after he was found filming a spat between Anna and Arvind secretly, said another in confidence.
A fortnight later, Arvind’s party was launched. The draft pamphlet was waved from a stage with Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri as the backdrop. Arvind’s masterful strategy this time was to make sure sceptics like me see how many credible people backed him. There was one loyal friend in particular whose presence was calculated to impress. Political scientist Yogendra Yadav. The voice of reason, the sceptical friend of the movement who publicly endorsed Arvind’s vision to form a political party. Perhaps Professor Yadav hasn’t tracked Arvind’s double-speak the way I have over nearly two years. Perhaps he sees in Arvind’s grit, tenacity and earnestness a sea of possibility that is redemption even if Arvind’s public posturing is full of the familiar pretense. It did make me stop and think. And ask — would I vote for Arvind in an election? I looked at the pamphlet. It had the same ideas as Arvind’s original ‘Swaraj’ document I had read two years ago. But it was positioned as a document that emerged as the product of much deliberation with people. I saw nothing in there that set him apart from the politics of our time. My cynicism returned.
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.