Decoding the ‘Modimorphosis’ of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal

Jan Lokpal was simplistic solution to corruption prevailing in India. It’s no longer in public consciousness. But slogan did catapult Kejriwal to power and is looking for a new solution to retain it

(Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
(Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Raj Shekhar Sen

The story of Arvind Kejriwal, a social activist, rising to the top of the Delhi state politics has been impressive. His victories in Delhi, more often than not, have been hailed in India and abroad as victory of transformative politics, politics that looks beyond the identities of class, caste and religion towards something far more important, growth and positive aspirational change.

However, politics has a way of changing those that participate in it. Kejriwal who once claimed to be an atheist turned ‘religious’ after winning the assembly election in 2013 and thanked ‘Bhagwan, Allah and God’ all at once. Soon thereafter, he extended his support to the BJP government in Haryana which invited a Jain monk inside the state assembly to preach. Various other religious overtures followed and now he has promised the elderly of Delhi free bus service to Ayodhya, once the temple is built there.

The journey from an atheist to ecumenism to the Ram temple has been interesting. His party’s symbol is the Jhaadu (broom) and it had been elected by promising sweeping changes in government and in day-to-day corruption an average citizen faces. Both Kejriwal and his party had come into prominence through street protests. But last year during the anti CAA-NRC protests in Shaheen Bagh, in answer to a question Kejriwal said that had the Delhi police been under him, he would have made sure that the area was cleared overnight.

The supply side Kejriwal

Politics thrives on the simplicity of the message, the more simplistic the better, and on ensuring that the political message has an appeal to the lowest common denominator of the society. That is why slogans like ‘Make America Great Again’ or ‘Acche Din’ work. These slogans sound nice enough to stay with us and are hollow enough to have us fill them with any personal meaning we want them to have. Not unlike any popular film or pop song. In that simplicity, the idea that political corruption and bureaucratic red-tape were all that ailed India fitted in neatly.

It is hard to argue against MAGA or ‘Acche Din’ or anti-corruption without getting into details and populist sloganeering cares little for details. That is why people tend to overlook corruption or crime as resulting from deeper socio-cultural issues like dowry and caste, wherein every group is used to being oppressive towards some other group. It is easier to take the path of least resistance and find solutions outside of us by blaming others. While everyone gets to think of himself as a victim of the system, in truth everyone at some point of time has also contributed to the same ‘system’ and been a villain.

It has been a decade since 2011 and although the central Government belatedly and reluctantly appointed the Jan Lokpal, it is nowhere in the public consciousness. Does Delhi have a Lokpal? And if it has, what have they been doing? The country no longer seems to be in need of Lokpal. It was seen as a neat solution with a certain mass appeal, enough to propel Arvind Kejriwal to where he is today. Jan Lokpal, while it might have seemed novel at the time, was exactly the kind of solution that the Indian state and by extension the Indian people have engaged in forever without any positive result. Anti-corruption bodies have proliferated in direct proportion to the rise and scale of corruption. Laws and punishment have become stricter but with little or no effect on perpetrators, who have been smarter. It is the same with rapes and crime against women in India. Stricter laws and stricter punishment like the death penalty have had little impact on rape and murder of women.

All forms of corruption and crime have deep societal roots and are usually borne out of inequity of power and privilege. However, Kejriwal either does not have the tools for such a self-examination or he now finds such examination a dampener to his personal ambitions. Therefore, there is little point in blaming him and others for looking at the problem of corruption as purely an administrative problem.

Jan Lokpal was perhaps not the best thought out idea. But when it comes to politics, it is never the best thought out, but the best received idea that becomes a success. The inevitable result of pandering to the most basic of our instincts is that it almost always drags us to look elsewhere for solutions, not within the society.

The Modimorphosis of Kejriwal

Arvind Kejriwal, wittingly or unwittingly, seems to have decoded this idea of simplicity. He has realized that to win elections he has to pander to the whims of the largest number of people. That is also why he is silent on his party member Tahir Hussain’s unlawful arrest or is letting his other party members speak in fairly majoritarian ways. While he maintains a carefully constructed image of what can only be described as a mould of soft Hindutva. He is walking the path of center right conservatism and it is safe to say that while he can keep winning in Delhi, if his plan is to get nationally relevant, he is unlikely to succeed by emulating soft Hindutva. He will, it is safe to predict, will always play the second fiddle.

When Hindustan Times invited Obama to give a keynote speech at a conclave in 2017, he said something that stuck with me. He said “Politicians are often reflections of forces in the society. If you see a politician doing things that are questionable, one of the questions you can ask yourself as a citizen is ‘am I encouraging this?’ If communities across India say they won’t fall prey to division, then it will strengthen the hand of politicians who feel that way

Kejriwal would perhaps be remembered as a great chief minister and may even build good facilities and a decent welfare establishment. But he shall not be a statesman and lead us into a more thoughtful future. He does not appear to be a statesman for whom the next generation matters more than the next election.

In the end, beyond all the loud proclamations of ideals and ideology, the primary desire of a politician is to win and retain power. Even BJP, the self-confessedly ideologically driven party of India, had no qualms in aligning with the PDP in Kashmir to form a government or with Akalis in Punjab.

Politicians generally respond to societal incentives and Arvind Kejriwal seems to have realised that incentives in India, which is a ridiculously conservative society and has always had majoritarian tendencies, it pays to pander. Of course, in doing so he runs the risk of becoming nothing more than a shadow of BJP. But that is in the future, for now he has firmly proclaimed his taste for a softer form of bigotry.

At the end of the day an elected politician represents the mandate of the people, a mandate that allows him very little wiggle room for personal opinions. Few politicians in India today appears prepared to go beyond the lowest common denominator and encapsulate the highest common aspirations that we can look up to. But the problem may actually lie with the people and not with the politicians.

(The writer is a Consultant based in San Francisco, USA. Views are personal)


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Published: 13 Mar 2021, 11:26 AM