Arvind Kejriwal: Will he flatter to deceive?
If you talk to any street vendor, a fruit seller or a tea stall owner in Delhi, you'll immediately realise why the 'aam admi', the man on the street, so identifies himself with the Aam Admi Party (AAP) and, despite the flak it has been facing for the heretical conduct of the chief minister and the capriciousness of his ministers, continues to support Arvind Kejriwal and his newbie party. In fact, his constituency is only growing, not just in Delhi, but across the country with his party's membership having crossed the 10 million mark in less than a month.
Kejriwal's halo may have dimmed somewhat in the eyes of a section of the intellectual and middle classes, but he and his radical band of we-will-change-the-world activist-politicians continue to be the voice of hope and salvation for millions of oppressed Indians, living on the margins of an expanding urban India, where the interests and privileges of the upwardly mobile are often at odds with the needs and aspirations of the subaltern sections.
A taxi driver told me how Kejriwal's unorthodox anti-corruption tools were already showing results with policemen turning down gratification for fear of being trapped on mobile stings and touts disappearing from the precints of the state transport authorities, where they have for years enjoyed a cosy arrangement with the babus dealing with driving and other automobile licences. Kejriwal's methods may not be on any governance manual, but some of these seem to be working - although as Kejriwal himself says he has no empirical study to prove that corruption is down.
People who have always been at the butt end of the policman's lathi or the babu's harassment at last see in him a champion of their cause, who empathises with them and is ready to walk the talk in their support. These are the auto- rickshaw driver, the street vendor, the office peon and other low-skill workforce and services people who were finding themselves slowly being squeezed out of a flagging economy, whose meagre fruits were being plucked by the privileged and the powerful, leaving large sections at the mercy of an exploitative and callous system that, other than their vote, gave them little voice or hearing and more often than not deprived them of things that should be their civic or constitutional right.
And it is this constituency in which Kejirwal has cleverly tapped into, focussed on the implementation of some of his lofty promises and has been drawing both his political strength and intellectual self-assurance from. And it is on the assured foundation of this constituency that Kejriwal plans to expand his political base and take a shot at the national platform, realising cleverly that unless he is able to influence the legislative agenda of the nation and has a hand in its formulation, his efforts would be in vain.
The question naturally being asked is: Will Kejriwal and his AAP phenomenon endure? Or will they be just a passing glory that will implode under the weight of its own contradictions and expectations?
There are historical lessons on the fate of many such radical movements that are built around an issue but lack an identified ideological direction. One such was the Poujadisme movement in France in the 1950s, named after an unpretentious man named Pierre Poujade who shook the establishment by organising a local shopkeepers' strike to protest high taxation - just as Kejriwal did to protest high electricity bills - and the prospective visit of government revenue collectors.
Expanding his activities to other towns in southern France very rapidly, especially among the working class and the poor, he enrolled 800,000 members in his Union de Defense des Commercants et des Artisans (Union for the Defense of Tradesmen and Artisans). His support came predominantly from discontented peasants and small merchants. The main themes of Poujadisme were articulated around the defence of the common man against the elite. Verily, it was France's Aam Admi party that captured the imagination of the French struggling class against the bourgeoisie.
Before he became an activist-politician, Poujade was an establishment man - very much like Kejriwal who was a revenue officer - and had served in both the French army and the Royal Air Force in Britain, where he fled during World War II for a few years. In addition to the protest against income tax and price control, Poujadism was opposed to industrialization, urbanization, and American-style modernization (shades of Kejriwal who opposes WalMart-style foreign investment in retail), which were perceived as a threat to the identity of rural France.
The peak of Poujadisme occurred during the elections of January 1956, when Poujadiste candidates won 52 of 595 Assembly seats. Thereafter, his influence waned rapidly, in the absence of an ideological glue, and his candidates won no seats in the elections of November 1958. Though Poujadisme has faded in France, his name has come to be associated with any revolt by the marginalised in a capitalist economy and is often used pejoratively to characterize any kind of ideology that declares itself anti-establishment but lacks a clear goal.
Is Kejriwal here to say or will he, like Pierre Poujade, prove a flash in the crowded political pan of India with its myriad political parties, spectrum of ideologies and causes aplenty to espouse? There is little doubt that the man has raised the uncommon hopes of a cynical middle-class India that saw a rash of professionals leave secure corporate and establishment perches to climb his bandwagon in pursuit of what many altruistically thought was a political ideal worth pursuing for a better and caring India.
But many of his actions have raised serious questions about his ideology, methods, vision and, most important, world view. Is Kejriwal a reformer, an iconoclast or a tilter at windmills?
A visit to the Delhi Secretariat offers an interesting insight into a more transparent, accessible and non-formal style of governance run by people who appear sincere, are hard-working and seem committed to make a difference to the common people's lives. But are these virtues enough to remove the accumulated cobwebs of corruption and malfeasance that have corroded the system and eroded the faith of the average Indian in the political establishment and all that it stands for?
Only time will tell, but there is little doubt that if Kejriwal and his commoners are to blaze a new trail, they must broaden their intellectual horizons and outline their ideology so that the road map becomes clear, not just for their expanding party cadre but for millions of others in whom the AAP raised hopes of an alternate political discourse and offered a third choice for the people of India preparing to vote in a new parliament in three months' time.
(Tarun Basu is the chief editor of IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 08-02-2014)