The extra-ordinariness of being Arvind Kejriwal

Arvind Kejriwal has made it a no-brainer for those of us in the media who have to come up with the annual Newsmaker of the Year list. New Delhi’s newly-minted chief minister is on pretty much every Sunday supplement, magazine cover and television 2013 special. That also means the media is running into the Maria problem as summed up by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find the word that means Maria?
A flippertijibbet! A will o’the wisp! A clown!

None of those particular words fit Kejriwal, and even his most ardent fans wouldn’t call him a “moonbeam in your hand” though he could “out pester any pest, drive a hornet from its nest.” But finding the word that means Kejriwal is the media obsession du jour. That’s a challenging feat given that the man is famous for being rather colourless. On the campaign trail he was frequently seen in oversized drab beige or olive sweaters, the only splash of bright colour being the heavy marigold garlands around his neck. But the prose being generated about him makes up for the colourlessness of his actual persona.

Way back in 2011, Caravan profiled him as The Insurgent. Last week the insurgent took the oath of office and joined the mainstream. Now India Today calls him “the man who turned politics on its head” describing him as “the apolitical politician riding the magic broom of civic salvation”, an embodiment of what Vaclav Havel called “politics of man, not of apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis.” Outlook makes him the cover horse of the “Year of the Dark Horse.”

 The extra-ordinariness of being Arvind Kejriwal

Arvind Kejriwal during his swearing-in ceremony. AFP.

Indian Express dubs him “The Missionary in Politics” and the “most successful political entrepreneur in recent times.” Kejriwal has achieved the ultimate accolade from political writers. Others are being compared to him. At the height of the Devyani Khobragade row, a former Indian government official who had served in the US told the Business Standard that the impatient US attorney Preet Bharara was “the Arvind Kejriwal of New York” hunting for the scalps of the rich and powerful.

“There is something chimerical about the man; in him, people see what they want to,” writes Hartosh Singh Bal in Outlook. That has led to some rather odd comparisons.

For example, there’s Kejriwal the new Mamata. That sounds like quite a leap of faith. One is the quintessential mild-mannered drab bureaucrat first seen whispering into Anna Hazare’s ear. The other is known for storming the well of parliament, flying off the handle and throwing loud tantrums. But a Kejriwal aide told The Telegraph the comparison isn’t that far-fetched. “He always talks about Mamatadidi’s simple lifestyle and how she wears rubber slippers even after becoming chief minister.” The unnamed aide joked, “Mamatadidi has a competitor now.” Kejriwal showed one more Mamata-esque trait at his inauguration. He burst into song though his choice was from the Dilip Kumar starrer, Paigham rather than a Rabindrasangeet. Like Didi, however he made his ministers and the crowd sing along with him.

Bu the Kejriwal story is far more attractive to us than the Mamata story because the Kejriwal’s trajectory represents success the way most of us would want it - orderly, quick, media-blessed. Neither Mamata nor Kejriwal came from well-connected and politically powerful families but Mamata had to slog in the trenches for years taking on an old boys club in both the CPM and the Congress. She has the scars, literal and figurative, to show for those years on the outside.

Kejriwal had a far smoother road to success, a story whose telefilm narrative arc is far more in keeping with the short attention span of today’s news cycle. A couple of years ago he was man who was known as the guy who whispered into Anna’s ears. Now he is Mr. Chief Minister, reassuring proof that nice guys don’t always finish last. Mamata, in contrast, started out in the 1970s becoming general secretary of the Mahila Congress in 1976, thirty-five years before she finally took her oath of office. As Mehboob Jeelani described it in the Caravan profile, the man who became the standard bearer for the anti-corruption movement in India didn’t even have a “personal story of extraordinary suffering at the hands of corruption.”

Kejriwal, in short, does not have an inspiring chaiwallah story of humble beginnings. He cannot hold up the blood sacrifice of his grandmother for political capital. In that sense he reassures us that anyone can “come out of nowhere and sucker punch the political establishment” as the Indian Express put it. His old friends at IIT Kharagpur remember how even as the hostel’s mess secretary he never had a free meal though he could have had one as the person in charge of the mess. An appropriate story but hardly a stirring one to galvanize a huge anti-corruption movement. Kejriwal wisely never shared that story on the campaign trail.

He is left with the narrative of what Yogendra Yadav calls “extraordinary ordinariness.” But even that is slightly misleading. His career graph is actually anything but ordinary. It is a melding together of two Indian career dreams – IIT and civil service. Both have represented for us, at different points, a coveted career destination - a gold standard for a stable salaried future, the benchmark of middle class respectability and achievement, prime son-in-law qualifications, everything that politics is not.

But for Arvind Kejriwal, his IIT education did not lead to the usual destination. One batchmate tells the Indian Express “Many went abroad for studies and jobs, others went into management. But Kejriwal was clear about staying in India.” Instead Kejriwal volunteered with Mother Teresa and the Ramakrishna Mission. Eventually he joined the IRS. Apurva writes in the Indian Express “(w)hile many do this, an IIT engineer’s move to the civil services at the time was uncommon.”

An ordinary person embarking on a political career would hardly go for a high-stake gamble like Kejriwal did – taking on a heavyweight like Sheila Dikshit, the incumbent chief minister. In their “Year of the Person” profile of him the Times of India says “risk-taking seems part of Kejriwal’s DNA”. His father apparently wanted him to apply to all engineering colleges but he only applied to the one he wanted – IIT.

The muffler over his head, the non-descript attire, his refusal of the usual trappings of power from Z-security to red beacons are all being hailed as part of his common man persona, the aam aadmi who turned what TOI calls the usual “person of the year” into the “year of the person.”

But in this case the clothes do not make the man. While the muffler might indeed by common, the rest of Kejriwal is not - whether it is his career track from its IIT beginnings or his propensity to take huge risks. We might laud him for rejecting some of the visible red-beacon perks of power but few Indians, status conscious as we are, would do the same. Though he and his party understandably harp on his common man image, Arvind Kejriwal is actually quite an uncommon aam aadmi, not because he became the chief minister of the Delhi but because of the road he took to get there.

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Updated Date: Dec 30, 2013 15:26:04 IST