He came, he saw, he was ignored. Thus is the story of Anna Hazare's press conference which attracted a couple of cameramen and a handful of reporters. The damp-squib atmosphere offered a stark contrast to previous media outings, including his last sojourn to Delhi, which have typically been crowded and chaotic, reflecting the fever-pitch interest in all things Hazare.
Standing alone and mostly ignored, the man from Raleghan Siddhi looks like a has-been, the losing partner of the sensational split with Arvind Kejriwal.
During the Lokpal movement, popular consensus was that it was Kejriwal who needed Hazare. The genial, beloved face defined the anti-corruption movement, and was essential to its success. Most expected Kejriwal, therefore, to splutter back into obscurity in the wake of the divorce, flailing without the star power of Hazare, Kiran Bedi et al to attract and hold the attention of the urban middle class, and therefore the media.
Conventional wisdom was wrong. Kejriwal has instead emerged from the ashes as powerful and relevant than ever, while Anna is reduced to holding barely attended pressers.
It is far too early to count out Hazare — or count in Kejriwal who is playing a high-risk media game — but there are important lessons here about the art of modern Indian politics.
One, it's all about the media. No modern political movement, party, or leader can succeed without an effective media strategy. You have to figure out how to grab eyeballs and hold on to them. It may be dangerous to ride the tiger, but also mandatory. And no one knows that better than Kejriwal who was the brains behind the Lokpal movement's most spectacular victories and losses. The first two fasts in Delhi were cinematic blockbusters, but they quickly lost their sheen. It took two big duds — one in Mumbai and the most recent in Delhi — for Kejriwal to finally get the message. But when he finally did so, Kejriwal pivoted quickly to the next big thing. His new modus operandi — sensational exposes of big names — is once again engineered to guarantee a media feeding frenzy.
Kejriwal's key virtue is this: he may overdo, but he never stops doing.
In comparison, Anna is a media innocent, unwilling or unable to tailor his strategy to the demands of the media script. He may bask in the glow of the spotlight, but he does not know how to command it — nor does he have anyone by his side who can do it for him. A press conference to issue a vague statement about a new IAC panel — without naming names or an agenda — is not the kind of stuff that makes headlines or dominates the TV talk shows. The near-absence of coverage today is a measure of Anna's naivete in holding a media event without anything to say.
Two, relevance trumps personality. Before Kejriwal came along, Anna Hazare had been waging his own long battle against corruption with modest success. His Lokpal movement was the first to grab national attention because it was perfectly timed. One, it came in the wake of several spectacular corruption scandals, including 2G and Commonwealth Games. Two, the government had just gutted the first draft of the Lokpal bill. The two taken together offered a powerful indictment of a ruling party at a time when popular anger was rising to a boil. Kejriwal's additional stroke of brilliance was to employ a mode of protest — i.e. the public fast — that took the UPA entirely by surprise.
Anna may have inspired the slogans, caps and t-shirts, but his ascendance to cult status would have been impossible without a political message that was carefully framed to tap into the here and now. Kejriwal's greatest strength is that he is finely attuned to the pulse of his base, i.e the urban middle class.
The anti-establishment appeal of Lokpal finally sputtered out once it became mired in parliamentary process, and became part of political business as usual. The bill has now been usurped as a campaign promise for the ruling Congress party, with Rahul declaring, "We will get the (Lokpal) bill passed in Parliament soon. Wait and watch." It's why Kejriwal jumped the Lokpal bandwagon and moved on to the next incendiary strategy: naming and shaming. He chose each target to ensure immediate relevance, to articulate what was on the top of everyone's mind. Robert Vadra to tap into the rage against the Gandhi brand of dynastic politics. Nitin Gadkari to cash in on the intensifying power struggle within the BJP. And Mukesh Ambani to capitalise on the rising ire of a middle class trapped by stagnant salaries and rising inflation even as the very rich continue to make hay.
The Lokpal war has been fought, and partly lost. The battlelines have already moved elsewhere. And all of Anna's Gandhian charm will not keep him in the spotlight if he continues to fight yesterday's battles.
Three, location, location, location. Politics is like real estate. It's about 'where' not 'what.' Anna gets all the attention for fasting on a public dais in Jantar Mantar while Irom Sharmila wastes away in a hospital in distant Imphal. Location has now become Hazare's big disadvantage. Without a presence in Delhi, he is out of sight and out of mind. Kejriwal, in comparison, has firmly hunkered down in the capital, which remains his primary stage, irrespective of detours to Haryana, Farrukhabad et al. It will also be the arena for his political party's entry into electoral politics. No election in Delhi is local.
Ralegan Siddhi once burnished Anna's reputation as a simple man of the people, underscored his folklike charms. But by remaining in the village, he has the added burden of making every Delhi visit count. And when one such visit fizzles out — as this one did — it becomes twice as hard to ensure that anyone will pay attention the next time he is in town.
He did announce plans to set up a Delhi office in his presser, but mere boots on the ground won't do the trick. He needs a true comrade-in-arms with the political talent of a Kejriwal to make sure that he and his movement remain in the spotlight. None of the names mentioned as prospective allies — be it Kiran Bedi or VK Singh — possess those skills. Worse, they will be competing with Kejriwal for the very same eyeballs on the very same issue.
Four, aim first, recruit later. Anna's press conference may not have offered much by way of information, but it revealed a critical blind spot: ignorance of the first rule of political activism. In the wake of the movement split, Hazare has focused on recruiting: urging people to sign up as volunteers on his blog; and restructuring: reconstituting the IAC panel with new members.
All this reorganising will, however, fail without clear defined, achievable goals. Why would anyone sign up to join the Anna bandwagon when they don't know what he plans to do? Yes, he wants to launch an apolitical anti-graft movement, but aimed at doing exactly what? He won't run for elections or fast again. And he has not indicated any plans to take to the streets. In which case what are people volunteering for? The Lokpal agitation gained momentum, crowds, and celebrity endorsements after it was launched, as the small gathering in Jantar Mantar grew into a mass phenomenon in Ramlila. Anna now wants to put the cart before the horse, pull in the crowds and big names before he launches his movement.
Right now, Anna seems like a good man with a cause, but without a battleplan. And that makes him far less attractive than Kejriwal to any aam aadmi wanting to join the anti-corruption crusade. Kejriwal always offers his followers a clear plan of action: come to the fast, take to the streets, and soon, join the party cadre to win an election. People don't join movements without something to do.
Back in the glory days, the relationship between Anna and Arvind was simple. One was the rock star, the other his manager. Kejriwal was the brains behind Hazare's affable brawn, sometimes lauded as a genius, other times dismissed as a controlling stage-mom. No one expected him to take centre stage. Now he has, and successfully so. Kejriwal will never inspire the cult-like adulation that Anna once enjoyed. And he may never attract the kind of A-list endorsements or allies because he is a bit of a loose cannon. But he doesn't need to because in Indian politics, political smarts apparently trumps personality. Who knew!