Kejriwal, middle class radical: Five lessons for Arundhati Roy

Just like Roy, Kejriwal too is attacking the system, connecting the dots between land grabs and suicidal farmers, exposing corporate malfeasance, and the joint culpability of all political parties. But unlike Roy, he's speaking to and on behalf of the middle class.

hidden November 01, 2012 17:10:20 IST
Kejriwal, middle class radical: Five lessons for Arundhati Roy

by Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy

At the end of his press conference yesterday Arvind Kejriwal was asked what his next target would be.

"The system," he said, completely seriously.

It was an oddly Arundhati Roy moment for a very non-Arundhati personality. Kejriwal is hardly the mango person’s Arundhati Roy. He is an activist. She is a writer. But in his plain-spoken style, he has forced the nation to pay urgent and immediate attention to issues that Roy’s diamond-sharp prose consigns to an exquisite fringe.

Just like Roy, he too is attacking the system, but with far greater success. Where Roy divides, Kejriwal tries to unite. Roy dismisses the middle class, Kejriwal speaks directly to them. Roy insists all is lost, Kejriwal claims there is much to be gained. Kejriwal gives his audience hope that another world is not only possible but within their power to create. Arvind Kejriwal didn't channel Arundhati Roy. He outdid her, and here are five reasons why.

Aam aadmi no more

Arundhati Roy has long railed about the power of the oligarch – judges, bureaucrats, politicians. “They in turn are run like prize racehorses by the few corporations who more or less own everything in the country,” she writes in Trickledown Revolution. “They may belong to different political parties and put up a great show of being political rivals, but that’s just subterfuge for public consumption. The only real rivalry is the business rivalry between corporations.”

But she was just being Arundhati – who sees the enemies of the people in every corporate corridor. All her ranting did little to dent the popular image of the corporate tycoon as middle class role model. In post-liberalisation India, the businessman was not the source of corruption, but the politicians who ruled the roost. India Inc was just like any other decent everyman who is forced to give a bribe to the babu at a government office to get a file to move.

When the Anna campaign against corruption caught on like wildfire, India Inc was quick to jump onto that bandwagon as an enthusiastic cheerleader . “We are sick of corruption,” said Bajaj Auto chairman Rahul Bajaj.  Adi Godrej chimed in, "Industry cannot go on streets. Yes, corporate India does support his cause. We are with him." Since Anna was directing his ire solely at the government, India Inc was happy to feel the pain of the aam aadmi as a fellow victim of corruption.

What Kejriwal effectively did at his press conference was expose the obvious: industry is not just a victim of corruption, but actually thrives on it. There’s rishwat and there’s rishwat. The middle class professional pays the bribe because the government clerk won’t give him what’s his due. Industry pays crores because it turns around and makes thousands of crores out of sweetheart deals.

He made all the same arguments about business corruption as Roy, but did so with far greater impact. Where Roy was dismissed as Maoist for railing against the Ambanis, Kejriwal took on RIL and made national headlines. And he successfully communicated what Roy has long belaboured to make clear: Mukesh Ambani is no aam aadmi.

Regulation is not the enemy

Kejriwal middle class radical Five lessons for Arundhati Roy

What Kejriwal effectively did at his press conference was expose the obvious: industry is not just a victim of corruption, but actually thrives on it. AP

In the post-liberalisation era, the lefty argument about corporate malfeasance has fallen on deaf middle class ears, and for good reasons. One is the free market consensus that regulation is the enemy of entrepreneurship, and the road to economic growth lies in dismantling socialist-era controls that have kept business firmly under the thumb of the state. A second reason is the shared knowledge that regulation is and has always been the petridish of corruption. A law or policy is no more than a moneymaking opportunity for the politician and his attendant bureaucrats.

Flouting the law — i.e. bribing your way around it— therefore has long been seen as the price of doing business in India. And cheating a corrupt government, say by overcharging it or fudging tenders, in such a context is hardly a mortal sin. Besides, where the netaji took the bribe without doing his job— i.e. govern — the corporate tycoon offered the bribe in order to do his job. i.e. make profits. It's why no one paid much notice of allegations about the Ambanis. Who cared as long as RIL makes its bonanza profits, and we all get to share in the wealth as stockholders. The Arundhatis of the world could whine about corporate fatcats, but India Inc distributed its largesse in the form of salaries, raises and dividends -- unlike the politician who stashed away his ill-gotten wealth in some Swiss bank account.

The moral argument against corporate misdoing is a losing one for Kejriwal's middle class constituency. It is why he shifted the terms of discourse: The RIL contract is egregious not because it's "bought" but because its price is being paid by the aam aadmi at the petrol pump -- not by the UPA government or Mukesh Ambani. Kejriwal described RIL's crimes in language his urban supporters could readily understand: "hoarding like petty traders"; "If you are fine with an unfair hike in your electricity bills then it is okay." Both netaji and corporate bigwig prosper at the expense of the common man. And those high-yield shares -- much like the NREGA handouts -- are just sops to keep us lulled into complacency.

In changing the argument, Kejriwal also shifted the popular perspective on that old bogeyman, "regulation." Corruption is not caused by regulation but by its failure, as when a Jaipal Reddy is kicked upstairs for enforcing the terms of the original contract. Transparency is required precisely to enable laws and policies to work as they are intended.

We, the farmers, tribals, officewalahs all

The story of the fight over natural resources in India has always been framed in the term of tribals driven out of their land because the big bad corporation wants the bauxite, or farmers driven into the water because the big bad government wants to build a dam. What the government calls the Maoist corridor is really the MoUist corridor, laments Arundhati Roy in her usual high-falutin, weep-my-beloved-country prose :

The Kondh watched over the hills and worshipped them as living deities. Now these hills have been sold for the bauxite they contain. For the Kondh it's as though god had been sold. They ask how much god would go for if the god were Ram or Allah or Jesus Christ.

In this drama of good vs evil, the middle class were firmly positioned on the side of the bad guys. Apathetic and self-absorbed, content to watch the woes of others unfold on television, or more likely switch the channel to watch Kaun Banega  Crorepati.

In our smoky, crowded cities, some people say, "So what? Someone has to pay the price of progress." Some even say, "Let's face it, these are people whose time has come. Look at any developed country – Europe, the US, Australia – they all have a 'past'." Indeed they do. So why shouldn't "we"?

Where Roy divides, Kejriwal aimed to unite. What Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan did was try to show that “the price of that progress” was not just being paid by distant farmers or tribals, but by middle class India, as well. Even if you don’t care about ravaged forests and uprooted Adivasis because it’s the right thing to do, you should pay attention because it’s your money at stake. “The time has come for people to reclaim their resources,” said Bhushan bluntly.

By recasting "we the people" to include all disempowered Indians, including the middle class, the loot of nation's wealth became immediate, more personal and more powerful.

Down with crony capitalism

Earlier this year, Arundhati Roy took aim at Mukesh Ambani using rhetoric that was similar to Kejriwal. Where she calls Ambani "our new ruler", Kejriwal claims he runs the country, not Manmohan Singh. Both talk about disproportionate wealth earned at the expense of the average citizen, and the need to reclaim our power. But there is a difference, and it was clear to her audience:

Post her speech, a student, looking at Marxist books on sale outside the venue, summed up the evening: “Dude, I am a hardcore capitalist. I don’t believe in dismantling capitalism. But what she was talking about is not capitalism, it was crony capitalism. And that’s a scourge.”

And it's crony capitalism that ruled the day at the IAC press conference where Prashant Bhushan declared, "Crony capitalism has spread its tentacles far and wide in the country." Kejriwal echoed the sentiment: "The time has come for the people of this country to reclaim their resources. This kind of crony capitalism cannot be allowed in this country. It has eaten into the country's resources like a Frankenstein monster."

Where Roy condemns capitalism per se, Kejriwal targets cronyism. The Ambanis, he insists, have prospered not because they played by the rules of the free market, but by violating them. Antilla then is a symbol not of entrepreneurial brilliance but illegal profiteering. Moreover, the issue for Kejriwal is not capitalism, but a kind of behaviour that is chronic in any kind of corrupt system, be it socialist, communist or capitalist, where the laws don't apply to the great and mighty.

Kejriwal's argument has far more resonance with the Indian middle class who have spent all their lives playing by the rules -- again, be they capitalist or socialist. And it's an argument not about a specific ideology but universal injustice. It doesn't shame its middle class audience for their supposed apathy but articulates their sense of outrage.

Congress, BJP, same difference

Arundhati Roy has always disdained the illusion of electoral choice, and the concomitant notions of partisanship. In one of her essays, she wrote of the 2004 US election:

It's not a real choice. It's an apparent choice. Like choosing a brand of detergent. Whether you buy Ivory Snow or Tide, they're both owned by Procter & Gamble. The fact is that electoral democracy has become a process of cynical manipulation. It offers us a very reduced political space today. To believe that this space constitutes real choice would be naive. The crisis of modern democracy is a profound one. Free elections, a free press and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities available on sale to the highest bidder.

Kejriwal made a similar argument when he declared, irrespective of who is in power, it is Ambani who really runs the government because "both the Congress and the BJP are in his pocket." Describing the two parties as "two sides of the same coin," he argued, anyone who votes for either on hope of change is in fact voting for the status quo. The argument is, of course, self-serving since Kejriwal is positioning himself as the alternative in the 2014 elections. But it is more effective because he blames not the democratic system of elections but the political parties who dominate it. And in doing so, he holds out the possibility of change: that the system can work if the right people are elected into power. And surely that is the hope of every citizen who goes to cast his ballot. In contrast, Roy's high-minded disdain for electoral democracy leaves its listeners with no recourse -- and conveys a certain contempt for their paltry exercise of power.

Arvind Kejriwal's political success marks the mainstreaming of ideas that have long been dismissed in post-liberalisation India as radical or marxist. The demonisation of Roy is one symptom of the disease, but she too has done her part in ensuring that these challenges remain marginalised, much as she has. By taking on India Inc, Congress and the BJP alike; revealing Vadra, Gadkari and Ambani as creations of the very same system; connecting the dots between inflated petrol prices, land grabs, and suicidal farmers -- and with such success -- he may be doing something far more radical and unprecedented than Arundhati Roy could conceive. He has done so speaking to and on behalf of the middle class.

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