Someone like Arvind Kejriwal by MC
I have to pretend that sitting in a nearly permafrost basement in Naperville and watching India’s politics coming to a frequent boil before the general election somehow gives me a unique political perspective. In reality, one is really struggling to remain relevant as a journalist. Hence this post.
Arvind Kejriwal is precariously close to being the craftiest politician onstage in India today. His resignation as Delhi’s chief minister in barely 50 days of taking charge is an inspired political move by a man who claims to abhor expedient politics. In a manner of speaking, he has pulled it out just in time after a marathon session.
After speaking the name that shan’t be spoken—namely that of India’s richest industrialist Mukesh Ambani and, in popular albeit exaggerated folklore, someone who practically owns the entire political system—Kejriwal managed to burnish his credentials as a renegade bomb-thrower on behalf of the powerless Indian. In failing to get his version of an ombudsman bill even tabled in the Delhi assembly because of the opposition by both the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party Kejriwal scored a huge success for his carefully plotted narrative.
All signs suggest that he knew that the ombudsman bill would be severely opposed by the two established political forces for their own reasons. So he built up a momentum and happily went off a political cliff. Here is a man who has no problem pushing the self-destruct button in a compelling demonstration of the Indian belief that regeneration ought to follow dissolution. The perception Kejriwal wants to plant in the popular mind is that he took on the forbidden and the formidable—both of that would be Ambani—and paid the price while trying to uphold the interests of the ordinary Indian.
“Main bahut chhota aadmi hoon (I am a small fry),” is an expression that Kejriwal uses frequently in his speeches and general public interaction. In many ways this confected humility is a uniquely Indian trait. Only those who have reached a certain level of consequence in their chosen field tend to make that assertion. Humility is a powerful pose in public life. While I am on the subject of creating a persona that plays into whatever grand design that Kejriwal has created for himself, either he is genuinely suffering from a chronic case of cough or that too is in aid of projecting vulnerability associated with hapless Indians roaming the country’s smoky streets. His woolen scarf covering his head and neck has become his trademark. I wonder what he would once the winter recedes and the summer creeps in. That might disturb his look. But then he can always replace the woolen scarf with a cotton one.
It is easy to mock Kejriwal and be dismissive of what can seem like antics. However, the fact remains that his emergence—in no small measure facilitated by the broadcast media—has rudely disrupted cozy power arrangements in the nation’s capital. As someone not invested in the existing political structure, Kejriwal enjoys enormous freedom to be reckless and nonconformist. That is why he can afford to quit in less than 50 days of taking over and say things like he and his colleagues have not slept for those many nights and still get feted and fussed over.
In a sense, he was lucky that the Congress and the BJP behaved predictably in not supporting his signature legislation. There was a possibility that the two parties could have checkmated him by going along with his bill. That is where Kejriwal took a judgment call and resisted the temptation of overestimating the two parties’ ability to be renegade in the same mold as himself. If nothing else, Kejriwal may have succeeded in creating a perception that he went down fighting for the ordinary Indian who elected him in the first place. Of course, it is a matter of debate whether that perception can be sustained for any length of time and scaled at the national level as he apparently prepares to take the national stage during the coming general elections.
An opportunity came his way in the form of an unclear mandate after the Delhi state election; an opportunity to strengthen his image as an angry, ordinary outsider breaking down the barriers of entrenched political interests. Everything that Kejriwal’s government did during its brief stay as Delhi’s government was to iterate that image. The conclusion of part one of the Kejriwal Theater Company’s first stage production was perfectly contrived in his resignation.
He addressed his followers from the window of his Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) office on Hanuman Road. The theme was that the entrenched political players did the ordinary Indian in as expected. They now have a new narrative that the entrenched players joined hands to save the billionaire Mukesh Ambani. As a bogeyman goes, Ambani is an effective one from the vantage point of the AAP whose members are both genuinely ordinary and now even perceived to be so. They are going for the rough hewn political look that works perfectly with their overall theme. It is true that most of what the AAP has begun to look like has come together fortuitously but I suspect someone with branding knowledge is now helping them. Kejriwal’s coughing too seems right on cue.
It may not seem like it so far but as a dispassionate outsider I am grudgingly applauding the rise of a political force in India that the entrenched players are struggling to deal with. Of course, one must not overestimate the political establishment monster’s capacity to eventually coopt the Kejriwalites. So far though the indications are that this man of messianic ordinariness is successfully ransacking through the manicured lawns of Lutyens Delhi much to the chagrin and empty rage of its comfortable occupants.