By Ajaz Ashraf
It is possible that the pugnacious Aam Admi Party leader, Arvind Kejriwal, could emerge as Delhi’s Barack Obama before the city elects its state assembly in December 2013. It is precisely why his decision to call off his fast tomorrow shouldn't be perceived as a setback for him and his fledgling outfit.
Five years before Obama became the first Afro-American President of the United States, he had caught the popular imagination there through his stirring speech in the Democratic Party convention in Chicago. Yet, nobody had really believed the young promising politician offering a dream could eventually become the president of a country torn by racial prejudices.
This history Sheila Dikshit and Vijay Goel should remember as they prepare their respective parties—the Congress and the BJP—for the year-end assembly election.
In Delhi, the mainstream political parties and political pundits dismiss Kejriwal as an idealistic rabble-rouser who fights for causes without a pause. They often superciliously ask: Can AAP even find candidates for all the 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly? They can’t field Kejriwal everywhere, can they?
These questions assailed us as a friend and I wended our way from another part of Delhi, crossed the Yamuna, and lost our way as we missed a turn to Sunder Nagri, where, in its slummy quarters, Kejriwal sat fasting against the extortionately high electricity and water bills. Now, traversing on a route different from what we had chalked out from the Google map, with neither our vehicle nor mobiles GPS-enabled, we took the precaution of asking and confirming directions every 500 metres or so.
At more than the 12 spots we stopped, not everyone we asked knew where Sundar Nagri was. But when told we wished to reach where Kejriwal was fasting, every person, barring two, knew the shortest way to it. The journalists in us prompted us to ask such questions as: Have you been there? Do you support him or his cause? The response was unanimous: Yes.
Of the two who did not know the way was a teenager on a scooter, English-speaking and quite possibly a Facebook or internet addict. And to think Kejriwal is supposed to have his biggest support base among the social media zombies!
The other person who did not know the AAP leader was a rickshaw-puller, who impassively shook his head at our question but, to our immense relief, said that we had indeed arrived in Sundar Nagri. We crawled another five metres before stopping, believing someone in the vicinity of the site of Kejriwal’s fast should surely be able to direct us to him. The rickshaw-puller came bounding to us from behind, stooped to level up with me at the window, and said, “Aap ko Kejariawala ke paas jana hai? -- Do you want to go to Kejariawala?”
At the site of Kejriwal’s fast, located at the mouth of an alley, the crowd, as expected, is decidedly non-middle class. For more than an hour we stayed, people walked in, placed their electricity bills on the desks at which the AAP volunteers sat. They signed a form declaring their intention not to pay one electricity bill (presumably the most recent one) or two bills (the next one too) or not to honour any bills unless the government reduces the rates it charges from consumers.
On the day we visited Sundar Nagri (30 March), the number of those pledging not to pay electricity bills had crossed the five-lakh mark, and on Monday morning had ballooned to a whopping eight lakh, the huge spurt because of the 'holiday-dissenters' turning up in substantial numbers here as well at other AAP centres in Delhi on Sunday. I did not personally count and verify the forms, and it is quite possible these figures could have been exaggerated.
But our idea of visiting Sundar Nagri was to check whether there was resonance on the ground to what we had been hearing from the ever-expanding fraternity of psephologists. A political party commissioned a Delhi-based pollster to conduct an opinion survey among the voters of Delhi. He was surprised to discover that AAP could muster anywhere between 14 and 18 percent of votes, a commendable feat for a party established only a few months ago.
Since the poll was conducted 45 days before Kejriwal went on a fast, it won’t be off the mark to predict that AAP could soon breach the important barrier of 20 percent – the figure beyond which support begins to translate into votes. Should this indeed turn out to be the case, the vote share of the Congress and the BJP would dip below 30 percent, at which point they will begin to lose seats in far greater proportion than the swing against them would have ordinarily caused.
Further, this opinion survey asked the voters to list their preferences for chief minister of Delhi. No names were provided; it is the kind of question for which a substantial percentage of respondents tick the Don’t Know/Can’t Say box. Nevertheless, Dikshit topped with 16 percent of votes, Kejriwal was second with 11 percent, and Goyal lagged behind with just 5 percent. The pollster’s questionnaire also asked the respondent to choose from a list of names the person who they thought would be best for Delhi. Kejriwal received the maximum votes.
We, obviously, didn’t go around Sundar Nagri and its vicinity asking people for their order of preference among Dikshit, Goyal and Kejriwal. But this much was palpable even to us: the support for Kejriwal and company has percolated below the middle class, to precisely those who are fired less by promises of turning our cities into Shanghai or New York and more by rhetoric hoping to make their tomorrow a tad more tolerable.
Perhaps comparing Kejriwal to Obama is inappropriate in a parliamentary democracy which, unlike the presidential system, is theoretically said to be impervious to the charismatic influence of individual leaders. But in India we have seen leaders spearhead their parties to victory on their individual steam. Think of the impact Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi have had on the fortunes of the Congress. Or look at the BJP cadres clamouring for Modi, believing the party under his leadership can only triumph.
AAP’s growth, as also its ambition, could still get nixed for various reasons. For one, the perception that a party, however well meaning, doesn’t stand a chance to win often prompts even its diehard supporters to cast their votes in favour of one of the two parties whom they consider as a lesser evil. Second, it is still uncertain whether AAP’s politics of interest, as seen in its agenda of bijli, pani and corruption, can neutralise the irresistible lure of the politics of identity—caste and religion—invariably has for the Indian electorate.
Written on a vehicle that AAP is using for its campaign are the following lines: First they laugh at you/Then they challenge you/Then they watch you succeed/Then they wish they were you.
Because the political class of Delhi is insular, arrogant and accustomed to thinking in categories they are habituated to, they can't see in Kejriwal an Obama-like threat. But Dikshit and Goyal need to have their eyes wide open from now on. Kejriwal's fast, now called off, could well see him breach the 20 percent-barrier.
The author is a Delhi-based writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org