Even as the demerger of Brand Anna from Brand Arvind Kejriwal gathers momentum, the issue that comes up is this: what is Brand Kejriwal? What does it stand for, and who does it appeal to?
At Firstpost, we have always maintained that Anna Hazare was an afterthought to Kejriwal’s India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign — two separate streams had merged into one for a brief while in the Jan Lokpal cause. But, in hindsight, one can say that it was only an alliance of convenience or circumstance. The two were not made for each other. Both streams have to reinvent themselves, now that the Jan Lokpal Bill is on the backburner.
While it is clear what Anna Hazare stands for — a moral anti-corruption crusade — it is not at all certain what Brand Kejriwal is all about, and what it needs to become to gain political traction. He has a vision document, but it is not exactly something that will set the Yamuna on fire.
However, we do know where it found its past resonance: among the urban upper middle and middle classes, those who felt angry and disempowered by current-day politics and corruption. Kejriwal’s IAC was intensely urban in its appeal.
Santosh Desai discusses the dilemmas of Brand Kejriwal as it seeks a future in politics in a column in The Economic Times today. As Desai tells it, Kejriwal’s original appeal was to the TV-watching middle class, but this is a very narrow and politically insignificant segment. In reality, there are several middle classes, and the bottom end of this group is easily attracted to any party that promises a welfare state: from subsidised LPG cylinders to cheap power and fuel.
Kejriwal can thus try and widen his middle class constituency to make space for his new political party — which is what he tried to do by threatening to organise an agitation against power tariffs in Delhi and the diesel price hike. But, as Desai points out, “The problem with its new positioning is that it is far from unique; the left-of-centre welfare state worldview has been pretty much the heart of politics in India today. Arvind has no particular advantage in this area and needs to build a constituency ground upwards, which is going to be extremely difficult. What is particularly important for Brand Kejriwal is to be mindful of its limitations and define its ambition within this context.”
However, the dissonance with Kejriwal’s original TV-viewing, Facebook-fan following is that it is not too concerned with mundane issues like power tariffs. Desai seems to suggest that even this class is good enough for a start, and this is where Kejriwal should be aiming instead of expanding his canvas to all kinds of populist rhetoric. He says: “Representing a small, visible and very vocal urban middle class segment and winning even a toehold in electoral politics can potentially give it disproportionate clout. Attempts to widen the base may end up losing the following it has won so far.”
In short, Desai’s advice to Kejriwal is Think Small. A small, but devoted, constituency is more potent than a large and diffused appeal. Less is more.
This writer would broadly agree, but to develop a broad enough constituency to make an electoral impact, Kejriwal cannot be so niche.
The core constituency that Kejriwal defines has to be broadly inclusive, but need not be all over the place. It must have the following ingredients: an urban appeal with anti-corruption and transparency as its core ideology, and an economic philosophy that ties all major consuming classes — the bottom end of the middle class to the middle middle and upper middle — into one reasonably coherent whole.
Above all, to make an immediate impact, Kejriwal needs something that can unite the various middle classes together without being an impossible populist that can only court economic ruin.
It needs one issue — just one — to bring these classes together. In politics, less is always more. You need one emotive-rational cause that will bring in a critical mass of votes.
If elections had been held last year, the Jan Lokpal Bill would have been a great campaign strategy. But the Lokpal Bill is in limbo — and Kejriwal needs a new catch-all cause that appeals across the middle-class spectrum. What could this be?
This writer would venture to suggest that he should focus on the “makaan” aspect in the roti, kapda, makaan trio. Roti and kapda are not really emotive middle class issues, even for the lower middle classes, but makaan is.
For all the middle classes, homes are simply not affordable for purchase or rent at reasonable rates in any urban centre. This could be one central issue around which Kejriwal’s party could make its mark. Here are five reasons why:
First, land and property is where maximum corruption exists. By focusing on a real estate-based anti-corruption crusade, Kejriwal will find a responsive audience at both ends of the middle class. Remember, all political scams — from Adarsh to BS Yeddyurappa’s misadventures — relate to land. No less a person than Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan told The Economist that there is a “deep nexus of property and political funding.”
Second, the finance ministry is dusting up a plan (suggested by Vijay Kelkar) to sell the surplus land held by public sector companies to cut his fiscal deficit. The land is owned by the railways, the port trusts, and the defence ministry – most of it in urban areas. Kejriwal should take on this idea and say if urban land is to be sold, it should be used for affordable urban housing. The Supreme Court recently said that scarce resources need not always be sold by auction: Kejriwal can use this opinion to say that land should be auctioned only for the rich, and the profits from these should be ploughed back into mass housing, including rental housing, in urban areas.
Third, and this is the clincher, Kejriwal can even propose that all land in urban areas which is not already privately-owned will be deemed to be public, and will not be sold to anyone. It will only be leased to users, and for pre-determined blocks of time with automatic resets of rentals based on market rates for the rich, and more moderately in the case of housing for the poor.
Fourth, in places like Mumbai, where redevelopment of slums is the norm, the above policy should specify that land will be owned by government, but builders can bid for projects on the basis of construction and rehabilitation costs. This way there will be no hijacking of the poor man’s land for the rich – and then sold at extortionate prices even to the latter.
Fifth, here Kejriwal can even bat for industry, and say that all land owned by the public sector in non-urban areas, will be offered on lease rentals for setting up industry. Thus, no major land acquisition costs, no huge social problems in displacing farmers or tribals, etc. This can be one part of a National Manufacturing Competitiveness Policy and even sound modern.
Taking up issues like high electricity bills or LPG costs is fine, but an all-enveloping sabko-makaan slogan that will target the politician-land mafia nexus can yield high immediate electoral dividends — or at least enable Kejriwal to set the urban political agenda.
There is one simple reason why this is so: since almost all political parties are up to their necks in land scams, Kejriwal can pose as the real outsider to the corrupt system who is taking or the crooks.
Over to you, Mr Kejriwal.