The Missionary in Politics

2013 was the year of the aam aadmi,as Arvind Kejriwal came out of nowhere and suckerpunched the political establishment

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan | Published: December 29, 2013 3:46:11 am

A nyway you cut it,this was indisputably the year the little guy took on the system and won. In the space of 12 months,barely a breath in politics,the Aam Aadmi Party has gone from being considered something of a circus act,to a surprising new contender,to finally laying rightful claim to Delhi. That makes Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal the most successful political entrepreneur in recent times.

Kejriwal’s triumph is so sudden and so emphatic that it seems like the stuff of ’80s Hindi movies,but the 45-year-old has been making himself over in the Mr India image for a while now. After a degree from IIT and a brief stint with Tata Steel,he joined the Indian Revenue Service. That’s where he and his comrades began Parivartan,a Delhi-based non-profit that fought for transparency in the government. A couple of years later,he joined the emerging Right to Information campaigns,holding social audits in Delhi,publicly testing the municipal corporation’s claims. “Sarkar hamaare aapka,nahin kisi ke baap ka,” was the resounding slogan. Kejriwal used RTI to glean details on water privatisation plans in Delhi,on corruption in the public distribution system — becoming a thorn in then CM Sheila Dikshit’s side,and winning the Magsaysay award for public service.

But soon enough,Kejriwal began to feel that RTI could not extract meaningful accountability from governments,long accustomed to evading citizens. The answer,in his view,lay in a Lokpal bill,an entire edifice to root out corruption. And so began Kejriwal’s big gamble,the televised revolution for a Jan Lokpal helmed by veteran activist Anna Hazare. In a demonstration-sated society,what made this one campaign catch fire? A breathless media that took it at its word,and a remarkably short-sighted central government that actually invited Team Anna to draft its desired legislation. From then on,Kejriwal and Team Anna became larger than life,their visionary priorities seemingly at odds with the compromised political system. In the inevitable confrontation that followed,Parliament co-opted the Lokpal agenda,and Team Anna drifted apart,but Kejriwal’s destiny became clear. He would put his street cred to best use,and he would wade into the swampy politics he railed against.

Kejriwal then began a series of blockbuster press conferences,taking on politicians and industrialists,exposing existing choices as an illusion,setting himself up as the righteous counter. As always,he was fighting and winning a war of perceptions,adeptly building buzz through polls and referenda,staging media-friendly interventions like cutting power cables. He chose a deeply resonant name and symbol for his party. And then,commendably,he managed to tap into an existing reservoir of grievances and connect it to his chosen transformation. To poor voters in jhuggis,he said that corruption was the grit that made it hard for them to access their due. To those bothered by violence against women,he said that the Congress had failed to stop rape. He promised to halve electricity bills and provide free water,that legislative priorities would emerge bottom-up,from the people. In a brilliant ad,when asked what he would do if he lost the election,he flipped the question: “What will you do if I lose?” He was not offering a change in government,he was offering change in the very nature of governance. It was a heady idea — we could not only make things better by electing AAP,we could make ourselves better.

And,wondrously enough,AAP won where countless small parties have failed. With 28 out of 70 Delhi assembly seats,it reduced the Congress to a mere eight,and blocked the BJP from forming the government. It reshaped the political field,it established transparency as a genuine political cause. Kejriwal,after unseating three-time CM Sheila Dikshit,was quick to say it wasn’t him,it was us,the aam aadmi who could rattle the foundations of power.

Now,CM Kejriwal faces a new challenge — keeping the large promises he made,keeping his halo intact,and proving himself in the national arena in a few months. The slow gains of governance call for a dedication that is quite different from the grand transformation he has offered. But having made full use of every chance so far,he can be relied upon to know what he’s doing,or at the very least,doing it with dramatic flair.

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