In its short existence and even before it comes up with a name, the new party announced by Arvind Kejriwal has given notice of its gameplan. It has released its vision document, with all manner of pious intentions and it has also gone into attack mode, targeting - to begin with - Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law, Robert Vadra. Both these moves indicate that it is yet to fully get out of the activist mode it is used to and make the shift towards becoming a political party. This is an important distinction since, as a party, it should be aiming to win in elections rather than just raising issues or pointing fingers.
Though India has scores of political parties, some too small to even make a difference, not many serious and influential independent parties have emerged in the last two or three decades. Parties such as the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) are both breakaways from the parent organisation, the Congress. Similarly, Raj Thackeray left the Shiv Sena in 2006 to launch his own Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). All of them centre around the founder who maintains an iron grip and also provides direction and leadership. It is impossible to imagine the TMC without Mamata Banerjee, as much as it is Raj Thackeray who is the most visible symbol of the MNS. Both, however, learnt their political skills elsewhere before they branched out on their own.
The one exception to this rule is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which Kanshi Ram founded in 1984. He was not an experienced politician and the BSP grew out of social organisations that he formed and nurtured. It took him years of hard work to give the BSP some shape and electoral clout. Mayawati became chief minister for the first time in 1995 in a coalition but had to wait till 2007 before winning the Uttar Pradesh elections on her own. Even today, despite its massive presence in Uttar Pradesh, the BSP has not managed to establish a significant power base in other states.
Kejriwal, who is the latest to join the political arena, comes from a background very different from Pawar or Thackeray. Indeed, he would hate to be compared to them. But he could do well to learn from the examples of those who have come before him. Banerjee was a street-level activist who gave the ruling CPI(M) sleepless nights in West Bengal while Pawar, too, began at the grassroots in Maharashtra before moving up the ladder. The Thackerays do not stand for election but Raj knows all about ground level politics from his days in the Shiv Sena. Kejriwal's intentions are noble and grandiose - he wants to cleanse the political system - but that is no substitute for organisation building, ideology and plain simple hard work. To this can be added leadership and, of course, fund raising. Merely mouthing platitudes about selecting clean and incorruptible candidates means little if the voters don't know anything about them or do not buy into the message. The vision document speaks of doing away with red lights on top of official cars and letting the 'people' decide on every piece of legislation, but will that convince voters?
Ultimately, that is going to be the real challenge. No political party can amount to anything if the voters do not back it. That is after all the raison d'être of a political party in a parliamentary democracy - to win seats to enter the legislative process, whether at the city, state or national level. For this, its programmes, its ideology and its leadership have to enthuse voters. Anna Hazare may dismiss the voters as a bunch of sheep who get swayed by money or liquor, but time and again Indian voters have shown their maturity by chucking out those who got too complacent and handing surprise victories to those who they felt would do a better job. The voters want hard deliverables and respect those who make that effort. Kejriwal and his cohorts may want to perch themselves on the moral high ground but will soon realise that civil society movements are vastly different from political ones. The very same followers who join such campaigns may not be particularly taken up by the idea of politics, more so since Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and, of course, Hazare have continuously told them that politics is a cesspool and politicians are venal and mendacious.
In today's India, it is not just roti, kapda, makaan or even bijli, paani, sadak but also security, jobs and access to a better life. The expectations of voters are increasing; hurling accusations at people may get headlines, but will that translate into votes? One seriously doubts it.
Does Kejriwal have it in him to convert those who believe in the anti-corruption cause into voters? He has certainly shown an ability to organise and in media relations, he could teach professional politicians a thing or two. Perhaps he even knows some alchemy which will allow him to campaign without money. But unless he is prepared for a long haul, which could go on for years, and come up with solid ideas that will improve the lives of citizens, his effort will soon flounder. The television mikes will follow him for some time, his social media savvy followers will ensure Twitter buzz, but voters are likely to remain unimpressed with both, his high-profile attacks and his pie-in-the-sky notions of 'real democracy'. And without the ability to win significant votes, Kejriwal's party will be doomed to be a marginal player in the political stakes.
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story
The views expressed by the author are personal