Arvind Kejriwal was always regarded as the mastermind behind the Anna Hazare fever that swept India last year. But he carefully made sure he was not its public face. The face was Anna – reassuringly familiar, old, Gandhian. Kejriwal was the behind-the-scenes bureaucrat-type who worked tirelessly to make it happen – efficient but colourless, professorial but mousy.
Well, now the mouse has roared. And he is sounding more and more like India’s Julian Assange. @KejriwalFC, his Twitter fan club asked his followers if they agreed with that characterisation. "Yes Yes and a BIG Yes" responded Vishwas Tiwari.
Even Kejriwal acknowledges the comparison – by denying it.
In an interview with the Economic Times he demurs:
I have respect for that man (Assange). The work we are doing is very small compared to what he has done. That is what his job is but that is not what our job is.
But it’s clear Kejriwal has learned well from the Wikileaks model of riding the news cycle. He announces upcoming scoops like television schedules, turning one explosive news event into a cliff-hanger television mini-series. He keeps his opponents guessing about what else he has up his sleeve. Jayanthi Natarajan wonders querulously why he does not reveal all he has in one go.
It’s also clear that to the public he has indeed become, like Julian Assange, the go-to guy to expose all that’s rotten in the state. He is uncompromised and uncompromising. He tells India Today that people from all over the country are coming to him offering information about Robert Vadra and his shady deals. Asked who these people were India’s aam-aadmi-in-chief tells ET “Very ordinary people. Bureaucrats, some very senior bureaucrats… The second set that came to us on Robert Vadra and DLF came from farmers.”
The media should be squirming as R Jagannathan points out on Firstpost. Kejriwal, like Assange, has taken over their traditional role because whistleblowers think the media these days is more lapdog than watchdog. But once Kejriwal applies his megaphone to an issue, the media has no choice but to cover it – often with redoubled vigour as if to make up for their earlier timorousness. This week almost every Indian news weekly has Robert Vadra on its cover. Calling him India’s Julian Assange, MD Nalapat writes in the Pakistan Observer that “because of the popularity of those involved in the anti-corruption crusade, media outlets are afraid to censor the Kejriwals.”
Kejriwal is being modest when he calls his work “small” because he takes on scams in NGOs and land deals in Haryana while Assange exposes the secret cables of nation states. But as Sandipan Deb writes in Mint, Kejriwal really changes the game because he shatters the “wink-wink nudge nudge conspiracy of silence” status quo of the political class. Just like Assange.
As a friend pointed out, documents relating to political and bureaucratic corruption are floating around all around the country, in the hands of people who don’t have the wherewithal to bring these issues to wide public attention. Now they have someone they can approach. I predict that within months, if not weeks, India Against Corruption will be flooded with enough documents to make Julian Assange, cooling his heels in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, very envious indeed. This could well turn out to be every Indian politician and bureaucrat’s worst nightmare.
Both Kejriwal and Assange are able to be such disruptive forces in politics because they are both outliers. They have nothing to lose because they were not part of the cozy incestuous circles of power anyway. Both can provoke the political establishment by making inflammatory statements. Both have turned damaging disclosure into a potent weapon of political activism and in the process become a clearinghouse for even more leaks.
But that is where there paths diverge because Kejriwal wears one cap that Assange does not. He has clearly identified political ambitions. “You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere,” says Assange. For him, it’s all about exposing the truth, so he releases great information dumps of secret cables and lets the media have at it. He says he wants to cooperate with publishing houses instead of competing with them. FreeAssange.org is clear that Wikileaks is “a new model of journalism”. Its ultimate goal is a “healthy, vibrant and inquisitive journalistic media” that lives up to the US Supreme Court’s ruling on the Pentagon Papers where it said “only a free and unrestrained press can effective expose deception in government.” “We agree” writes FreeAssange.org.
But Kejriwal’s goal is different. “We will need to change/break down the system immediately,” he tells ET. This is not about a “new model of journalism” but something far more ambitious — a new model of governance. And that’s where Kejriwal has to be ten times more careful than Assange. Assange has no dog in the fight. He does not have to target an Obama to balance out any embarrassing disclosure about a Bush. But Kejriwal cannot afford to cherry-pick his targets because every decision of his will be judged through a political prism. Why pick on Khurshid? And not a Jayalalithaa or a Mamata, for example? Are they clean or is he hedging his political bets? He needs to take on a Gadkari (and substantially) just to prove he’s not only a Congress-baiter, but an alternative to the BJP as well. “We are not BJP’s B-team,” he tells India Today confidently. “Soon, they will be our B-team.”
Assange is an equal opportunity flamethrower but Kejriwal has to be a bipartisan flamethrower.
Kejriwal understands that by jumping into the political fray, he has raised his own stakes. “I will confirm and cross-check everything,” he promises. “Only then will I bring them out in the public domain. It is a question of my credibility.” Assange didn’t need to protect his credibility in quite the same way. So the attack on him was personal — about sex and consent, not the motivations of his leaks. By being both an insurgent and a political player Kejriwal is now both more powerful and more vulnerable. He is more powerful because he can actually siphon off votes from all the parties instead of just being an irritant. He is more vulnerable because if he trips he will have no friends since he has exposed both the pusillanimity of the media and the avarice of the politicians.
There will be no Ecuadorean embassy for Arvind Kerjiwal. India’s Julian Assange will have to rise or fall in the no-holds-barred akhada of down-and-dirty politics.