When Arvind Kejriwal became Delhi’s Chief Minister, the media began drawing up comparisons to other frugal ministers. An instant comparison which was drawn, was to West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee. Not much later it was pointed out that the original frugal man is Manik Sarkar (it took a while for this one, since many journalists pause before they recollect who this gentleman is). The list of such personalities in Indian politics is rather long but forgotten. Before Manika Sarkar was Nripen Chakraborty who returned home after demitting office in a rickshaw. Sarat Sinha in Assam took the bus home. Elected a record number of times to the Lok Sabha, Indrajit Gupta lived in a single room in Delhi’s Western Court, an accommodation for guests of MPs. But I wish the media went beyond just the “frugal” statistics.
Like West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee , Arvind Kejriwal the new Delhi Chief Minister too doesn’t believe in Foreign Direct Investment and Walmart. Like her, he too was dragged away by the police before becoming the chief minister (Banerjee’s ousting was far more dramatic). If Kejriwal snubbed a 15-year-old Sheila Dixit reign, Mamata overthrew the 34-year-old uninterrupted Left rule driving them to collective depression. She walked to the Writers Building from her swearing in ceremony, carefully draped in the I-am-common style statement blue border white cotton saree (perhaps also the bathroom slippers she loves so much).
Kolkata had emerged from years of cynicism to a promise of “pariborton” or change, something that Banerjee promised to bring. Kejriwal too, like Banerjee, walked and took the Metro and went a step ahead requesting for the swearing in to be held in an open field. He too looks like the common man with a muffler wrapped round his head, wearing floaters with socks. Uncanny similarities – but not quite. While Mamata was engaged in student politics in Kolkata’s Shikshayatan College, Kejriwal was pursuing engineering in one of India’s most competitive institutes, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, not far away from Kolkata. When Banerjee was repackaging the Left regressive protest movement, Kejriwal was fighting against corruption which won him the prestigious Magsaysay Award. For the record, Banerjee paints (they are even auctioned!) and writes poetry (the merit of her arts shall be discussed another time). Kejriwal is not known to have pursued such “fine” arts.
The similarities don’t stop only at Mamata, though. I must take you back to 1985 when Prafulla Kumar Mahanta rode independent India’s first civil society wave and came to power as a fiery student leader (later when I met him the fire must have been doused because he hardly spoke). No security, no lal battis, said the young brigade throwing open the gates of the assembly to let common people walk in. Déjà vu? Yes. Except for the fact that Kejriwal and some of his colleagues are better educated. But education has never been a prerequisite for good politics. However, the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta government ousting the once entrenched Congress became icons of youth and change. A parallel armed group also emerged at the same time promising not just change but freedom from India which was perceived as a colonial power exploiting Assam. All these and more had very high popular mandate. It took a couple of years for the same civil society to start standing up against both these groups. Mahanta and gang virtually disappeared after two scam-ridden terms and the other gang of prodigal sons managed to kill at least 20,000 people.
None of these comparisons have any real bearing on the Aam Aadmi Party but it may be worth studying the pattern. Arvind Kejriwal’s outburst on the Parliament calling it a collection of “murderers, robbers and rapists” is actually a common refrain since the Sixties extreme Left uprising in Naxalbari. Naxals call the Parliament a pigsty. Denouncing the system and using a broad brush to taint everyone is the convention of any anti-establishment force. Since the Eighties India has been witness to several such political mobilisations.
Kejriwal is not the first and hopefully will not be the last. What sets him apart from the rest of the challengers is that his party has not been built on regional issues or sub-national assertions. Yet its body language is far too vigilante and his party runs the risk of cadre-based hooliganism which Indian politics is so used to. The education minister’s proposal to reserve 90% seats in Delhi colleges for Delhi residents reeks of a certain provincialism and chauvinism one is used to in almost every state of this country. More than half the organisations, whether political or extra-judicial, have been champions of reservation. Though Kejriwal has retracted from his promise to waive off power bills, the very idea is vigilante. The education minister has apparently created his own team of non-AAP and non-government members to inform him on how schools in Delhi function – much like a secret service.
The rise of AAP is a phenomenon and they are riding on the expectation of a nation who is hoping against hope that this time they will not be betrayed. Year after year mass leaders have come and only helped deepen the sense of cynicism in us who refuse to be led to believe that this is going to be any different. Every slip the AAP is making and will make will be tweeted and retweeted and held against them. So if Yogendra Yadav says khaps also do good work he shall be criticised. Kejriwal’s reaction after the sexual assault in Delhi this week has also not been as expected. AAP will not be able to meet up with all the expectations, what they can do is not raise any more expectations and just keep the plot simple.
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