As Kejriwal sets the agenda, it's both good news and bad

The interesting thing about Arvind Kejriwal is that, win or lose, he has begun changing the game. The betting should still be that he will burn out sooner than later, given the scale of media expectations he has raised and the number of enemies he has created in the process, but no one can deny the sheer impact of his interventions.

Looking at his actions over the past few weeks, there is a clear pattern to his progress. He knows the TV-viewing public now distrusts politicians, and possibly businessmen as well. So every time he makes an allegation, whether reasonable or outrageous, it is lapped up. He knows that the media has caught this mood as well. So he is playing to the media gallery simply by connecting the dots between known facts and possible skullduggery.

The moot point is whether this mood will persist, and whether Kejriwal can continue to hold media attention indefinitely, but it’s worth analysing in detail why he is currently succeeding before we try and see if it can be sustained.

But whatever happens, he has sent a very powerful message to Indians: If I, Little Arvind Kejriwal, can take on the most powerful in the land — from Sonia Gandhi to Mukesh Ambani to every politician in the Congress and the BJP — this shows that the aam aadmi can challenge the high and mighty if they can band together. The symbolism of this message is right there in Kejriwal’s cap which says: “I am Aam Aadmi.”

The Kejriwal show is still largely Delhi-centric, and has impacted mainly the national parties. Its real impact is thus exaggerated. AP

This message effectively robs the Big Two political parties, and their businessmen supporters, of legitimacy. The Congress’ aam aadmi rhetoric is not shot to pieces, and the BJP’s pretence that it can provide an alternative is hugely suspect now since it has not been able to take on the Congress’ scams. Instead, it has been shown to be wallowing in its own scams.

A few additional points need to be made about Kejriwal’s shows.

First, he is not breaking new ground in terms of his disclosures on “the corrupt”, but he is making huge waves because the climate of receptivity in the polity has changed. Yesterday’s “expose” on Reliance’s close links to both the Congress and BJP — and Ambani’s ability to influence policy — is a case in point. Barring the loud allegations, there is not one single fact that the Indian media did not report fully in the past.

But the difference is this. Given the sheer drop in the credibility of our leaders right now, the public is willing to believe anything Kejriwal says is true. The same facts that earlier did not have resonance are now being amplified in the atmosphere of suspicion created by various scams of the recent past.

Second, given this credibility gap, Kejriwal has simply disrupted the politics of the day. Both the Congress and the BJP have been displaced and discredited in the media, and presumably the TV audiences, and neither party has been able to give coherent responses to the charges Kejriwal hurls at them. Their political narratives stand challenged.

Like Moses parting the seas, Kejriwal has created political space for himself in the current political sea by painting both national parties as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The impact of this could well be seen in the forthcoming Delhi elections, and neither party can take anything for granted.

Neither party can succeed by pretending it is business as usual.

Third, Kejriwal has now made it impossible for the UPA to manage any of the big things it had planned between now and 2014 in terms of reforms. It is now difficult for the government to act on subsidies or reforms, and the bureaucracy will also be in two minds about the longevity of the government in this context.

The direct targeting of Reliance, and possibly other businessmen in future, means that our babus and netas will hesitate to take bold decisions that appear to favour someone or the other — which is always going to be the case, since policy decisions do impact business interests — even if the political will is there.

In a basic sense, thus, Kejriwal is bad news for the Indian economy in the short-to medium-term. If the system is cleaned up over the medium-term, he can be hailed as a messiah, but there is no guarantee of that right now.

Fourth, the Kejriwal show is still largely Delhi-centric, and has impacted mainly the national parties. It is also driven largely by the upper middle class’ distrust of politicians. Its real impact is thus exaggerated, with the media following Kejriwal around like Mary’s Lamb.

Whether Team Kejriwal will have as big an impact once the show is forced to move to the states is a question nobody can answer right now. State-level politics is far more driven by caste and community considerations, and brute muscle-power has a bigger role to play than argumentation. This is where Kejriwal will face his decisive test. What will happen if he decides to target a Mulayam Singh or Mayawati like he did Nitin Gadkari or Robert Vadra? Will he have to fear for life and limb?

Fifth, since Kejriwal has simply taken on everybody, one has to wonder if the forces ranged against him will now gang up to shut down his show. The footwear thrown at the Kejriwal press conference is one indicator that disruptions are underway. But things could get nastier.

Moreover, the law of increasing returns is currently working in Kejriwal’s favour. At some point, the law of diminishing returns will kick in, and Kejriwal may find that he has few people standing by his side at that point, including the media. He may have made a mistake by taking on everyone at the same time. He would thus do well to heed Anna Hazare’s advice — take one enemy on at a time.

And even though he has changed the game, this creates challenges even for him. Consider these issues:

* Will the seeming chaos and collapse of governance threaten the well-being of the same middle class that is currently rooting for Kejriwal? Why would the urban population – which has nothing to gain from India’s economic decline or stagnation – want to continue to support him if everything around them starts falling apart? Economic and political uncertainly only helps anarchists.

* In politics, Indian voters have not usually rewarded individuals or newcomers, howsoever clean and above board, by giving them large mandates. Small urban groups and parties tend to remain stuck to one or two seats (consider the Lok Satta party in Andhra, or the Professionals Party of India or the Citizens’ Charter parties in Mumbai. Every one of them is irrelevant to politics today.

* Kejriwal could be making a misjudgment on the Indian polity’s disgust with corruption. One suspects that Indians have a less judgmental view of corruption, and if given a choice, they may prefer good governance over corruption. The current concern over big ticket corruption has been accompanied by a sharp fall in governance standards in our cities. What the voter is really asking herself is this: why is my town without power or strewn with garbage when politicians are making money hand over fist? Why aren’t they delivering even when they have all the cash they want?

We don’t know if Kejriwal’s interventions will turn the tide in his favour or is merely preparing the ground for a more efficient demagogue to take over?

While he has flung a challenge to the traditional parties to change their ways, the next few elections will let us know what the people really think about Kejriwal and his ideas. We will also know if he can ride the forces he has unleashed, or someone else will.

Updated Date: Nov 01, 2012 12:13 PM

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