During the Sixties, the students’ movement exploded across developed countries. After a dozen years of full employment and steady growth, students took to the streets to fight the Establishment. The elders were bewildered. At first they ignored, then abused the students, but soon they found that this was new politics. They conceded defeat. The anti-Vietnam War movement prevented Lyndon Johnson from seeking a full second term. In France, Charles de Gaulle had to resign his presidency. The Prague Spring made a mockery of the Soviet Union’s fake charges against Alexander Dubcek.
Yet, few of the then leaders entered politics. Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, is one, but he has dynasty on his side. Danny Cohn-Bendit, the hero of Sorbonne, is now a European MP. Movements that were effective in throwing off big regimes melted away once the objective had been achieved; as one generation graduated, the next one could not care less.
India has an assembly line whereby political parties recruit students for their student wings and these ‘leaders’ try to get to the top. I cannot recall many top leaders who began in student politics, but there are some names. In the Congress, you don’t need to be a student leader, you are born into a leading family and that alone is necessary. Rahul Gandhi’s Gen Next team is all yuvarajs and no aam aadmi.
Movements which rise on the spur of the moment and harness public anger do sometimes throw up leaders. The student heroes of the JP movement, Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Nitish Kumar, are now veteran politicians, though one should not remind them of their idealism when young. Movements thrive on constant pressure, total action and a lot of suffering for the devout. They move away from one topic to another. They have no patience. As one slogan during the LSE troubles of 1968 said, ‘When you concede our demands, tomorrow we will think of new ones’.
But what about the Aam Aadmi Party? Here is a movement which is refusing to become a party. To its surprise, it has become a government about to celebrate its first month in office. Within that short time period, its fortunes have waxed and waned faster than its own actions. The dharna outside Rail Bhavan tried many a Delhiwallah’s patience. People began to write Arvind Kejriwal off on January 20, but by the 21st, he had effected a nifty retreat and survived to fight another day. It was the retreat rather than the dharna which was a clever ploy. This man will not go on fast unto death like Anna Hazare. He knows his weaknesses and knows how to leverage the small power he has. He will, I have no doubt, begin to govern properly one of these days. But where is the hurry? He has a tight window till the general election and needs to stay in the public eye continuously. It is not as if previous new governments taking power had set a 100-day programme or done much of note even by the end of their first year. The established parties were gleeful when they saw citizens being inconvenienced by Metro closures and thought the people would begin to go off AAP.
This is to misjudge the game Kejriwal is playing. People have lost faith in the institutions of government thanks to UPA and so, if Kejriwal does not behave like other CMs, no one will blame him. It is normal ‘dignified’ behaviour — getting in and out of lal batti cars, with dozens of security personnel, jobs for their supporters and contracts for their financiers — that people resent. This is the big sea change that the Congress as well as the BJP cannot fathom.
The BJP has an outsider at the top, a chaiwallah whose status brings tears of laughter and contempt to the pristine Brahmin eyes of Congress leaders. Narendra Modi still has much to pick up from Kejriwal if he is to win and rebuild trust in institutions. He must remember that the Janata Party, which came to power in 1977 at a historic moment when India’s first experiment of Fascist rule was defeated, failed because the winners could only contemplate their navels. This time, the outsiders must move in and rebuild the rotten structures.