Kejriwal is riding a tiger; his strategy can’t work for long

by Oct 15, 2012

Given the pace he has been setting, and the number of enemies he is creating for himself, Arvind Kejriwal is going to burn out very fast.

Over the past one month, ever since Kejriwal separated from Anna Hazare and launched his own crusade against corruption (preparatory to setting up a full-fledged political party), he has been targeting one politician after another.

A few months ago, he put out a dossier on 15 ministers. A few days ago, he went after the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, and the rest of the media took the story forward by looking closely at various aspects of the DLF-Robert Vadra deals.

Police detain India Against Corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal and his supporters at Janpath in New Delhi on Friday. PTI

Four days ago, Kejriwal went after Law Minister Salman Khurshid over alleged misappropriation of a few lakhs in one of the trusts managed by his spouse.

In a day or two, Kejriwal has promised more disclosures – this time probably focusing on the BJP, apparently to send the message that he does not head the B Team of the BJP in targeting Congress corruption.

In short, Kejriwal is now going after the two most important political forces on the national scene—Congress and BJP—in the hope that the middle class constituency he is courting will see both with the same lens and back him as an alternative.

Will this strategy work?

Let’s see where it has worked, and why it may not work over the long term.

Thanks to the novelty of the idea, Kejriwal currently has the media following him like Mary’s lamb – from his efforts to stitch the power connections back for those disconnected by the Delhi administration for non-payment of bills to his broadside against Robert Vadra and his latest targeting of Khurshid.

The media has nothing to do right now, and hence Kejriwal is the cynosure of all eyes.

But the urban middle class is fickle, if nothing else. This business of going after Khurshid, a suave and urbane politician, is not going to go down well both among minorities and the overall middle class – since the money involved is so less.

Moreover, there is only so much the middle class can take in terms of prime-time serials on corruption. The middle class is unhappy about big-ticket corruption, but it is too self-indulgent to be permanently thrilled with Kejriwal’s antics. If the Kejriwal show ends up disrupting all feeling of normality in business and society, the middle class will be the first to dump him. A disrupted society is against the interests of the middle class.

As Swaminathan Aiyar wrote in The Times of India yesterday, the middle class may "like a scam with a star celebrity, one that can be spun out in installments , with new revelations providing fresh titillation day after day," but "if different allegations are levelled at a dozen politicians, TV anchors and the middle class will suffer from data overload, and their eyes will glaze."

Anna Hazare, who grabbed everybody’s attention around mid-year in 2011, was reduced to a has-been by the year-end. By this yardstick, Kejriwal’s show will implode even more quickly.

The media certainly is not going to give him top billing once the Gujarat and Himachal elections start gaining momentum. Right now, by promising a disclosure a day or something "big" on a specified date later, Kejriwal has the media eating out of his hands. This will end by mid-November, when election fever will start peaking and the focus shifts to what happens in Gujarat.

Moreover, not every corruption scandal is going to look as juicy to the media. Vadra worked, because it went to the heart of the Congress power centre. Khurshid does not look like drawing the same media attention – though Khurshid’s unnecessary targeting of one segment of the media was ill-advised and self-defeating.

From figures of Rs 1,76,000 crore and Rs 1,86,000 crore in the 2G and Coalgate scams, Vadragate came down to a few hundred crores. And now Khurshid’s alleged scam is down to a few lakhs. The media is unlikely to keep biting the bait as it gets smaller. How long will it be before it starts biting the hand that is feeding it its daily byte of scandal – Kejriwal’s?

The biggest danger Kejriwal is courting is that he is taking on all politicians on all fronts. He is fighting a multi-front war and trying to pose as the enemy of all politicians, and this gives them an incentive to band together to cut him down to size. How that will happen is anybody’s guess, but in 2011, the Congress managed to create enough doubts about the Bhushans and Kiran Bedi to take the sheen out of their clean images.

The BJP, which was one basking in Team Anna's attacks on corruption, is now calling Kejriwal a "muckraker", as Nitin Gadkari told The Economic Times today.

A muckraker can be a lone crusader like Subramanian Swamy—who, like Prashant Bhushan, brought the UPA government much grief over the 2G scam—but ultimately muckrakers cannot succeed in politics.

To succeed over the long-term, Kejriwal has to focus not on individuals and the media, but on bringing broader systemic issues to the public’s consciousness—and this could mean he has to find at least some backers among current political parties—either at the centre or in the states.

Kejriwal has created too enemies too soon to succeed. He has mounted a tiger that could end up eating him if he tries to unmount.

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