From Kejriwal to Congress, BJP: A lesson in grassroots politics

If it ever needed validation that we are in the 'silly season' of politics, you get plenty of it in the daily back-and-forth exchange of fringe elements across the political spectrum. Collectively, self-appointed cultural policemen of every hue - from the Grand Mufti in Jammu and Kashmir to Muslim organisations outraged by Vishwaroopam to VHP leaders in Delhi and Bangalore to never-before-heard-of Christian outfits demanding cuts in Mani Ratnam's latest film - have filled up the echo chamber of media platforms with their inanities.

The mainstream national parties - primarily the Congress and the BJP - have become straws to every blowing wind, responding like cats on a hot tin roof, fighting off the frequent eruptions of fire within their own ranks, and looking to spin the news cycle to their advantage.  In all that frenzied activity, however, they have had trouble channelling a coherent message that will be the centrepiece of their campaign for the next general elections.

Although it is difficult to take Mulayam Singh Yadav's sounding of the bugle for elections by September of this year seriously, the very real prospects of early elections only show up the failure of the Congress and the BJP on this count even more starkly.

Arvind Kejriwal has raised the bar of the political discourse. AP

Arvind Kejriwal has raised the bar of the political discourse. AP

When the Congress anointed Rahul Gandhi as its vice-president, it may have picked its 'general' who will lead the party to battle  in the next election. But it appears clueless about how it will set the terms of the discourse for the next election, when it has a pretty undistinguished record of corruption and rotten governance to defend. In one of his public comments, Rahul Gandhi indicated that he would abide by "positive politics" - presumably to mean that he would eschew the politics of negativity - but since then, he's been bogged down in petty organisational minutiae to outline any larger strategy or vision.

The BJP, which is in the throes of a churn over its prime ministerial candidate, too seems to have gone terribly off-message. Party president Rajnath Singh's efforts to enforce some sort of verbal discipline within the party to cut out the daily chatter over Narendra Modi's candidture have not stilled the voices. Additionally, the party has in recent months dropped the ball and failed to leverage the UPA's record of corruption and poor governance to its political advantage.

But far more seriously, the party is at risk of having its political message swamped by venomous outpourings from the far-right fringe elements in the larger Sangh Parivar - as exemplified by the hate-mongering speech by Praveen Togadia.  There is an ongoing attempt by apologists of this fringe group to project Togadia's speech as merely a recapitulation of  the history of riots in India - and not a 'threat' in the way Owaisi's speech was. But that is an artless defence of the indefensible. Every syllable and intonation in Togadia's speech was a macabre celebration of disproportionately high Muslim mortality rates from riots in India - including in the Gujarat riots of 2002.

It is hard to fathom how such hate-mongering, even if it was channelled in response to Owaisi's equally venomous speech, can work to the BJP's political advantage. It may, of course, fire up the hardcore base in the Sangh parivar, but it comes with the very serious risk of losing ground in the middle ground of Indian politics, where the BJP still needs the support of allies. As I had argued here, a muscular assertion of Hindutva today will only work against the BJP's political interest.  In any case, a campaign with its roots in such hatred is repulsive in and of itself  - and merely ends up validating Owaisi's twisted politics.

It is in this context - where every mainstream party is being dragged down to the lowest common denominator of its politics - that the Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal stands out as a rare politician who is staying "on message" with his Jan Sabha campaign (more on that here), intended to empower voters.

Kejriwal's unblinking focus on corruption targets both the Congress and the BJP: and even though there is a vast different in the scale of corruption that the two parties stand accused of, Kejriwal has effectively burnished his credentials as an idealist young leader who will adopt a zero-tolerance approach to corruption.

But more important, unlike the Congress and the BJP, Kejriwal is actually taking up bijli-sadak-pani  issues, in the context of the Delhi Assembly elections, which resonate among large sections of voters. He is also linking these issues to the policies of the Shiela Dikshit government in a way that the BJP, which ought to have been the prime beneficiary of the anti-incumbency vote, has failed to do.

It's true, of course, that I have been in the past admitted to a bit of ambivalence towards Kejriwal's politics: as I noted here, the emotional heart says 'yes', but the rational head says 'no'. I still hold some residual inhibitions about the Aam Aadmi Party's economic  worldview.

But to give credit where credit is due, by staying "on message", without descending into pointless "culture wars" in the way that the Congress and the BJP have done, and by conducting a grassroots-level campaign focussed on people's empowerment and a zero-tolerance approach to corruption, the upstart politician Kejriwal is given the grand old parties of India a masterly lesson in reviving grassroots democracy.