Arvind Kejriwal, India’s most defamed man

  • Manu Joseph
  • Updated: Apr 04, 2016 10:49 IST
Delhi's chief minister Arvind Kejriwal takes part in a protest, New Delhi (Reuters Photo)

Somewhere in the wastelands of Ladakh there is a spectral monument. Generations of tourists and locals have been led to believe that it is a Magnetic Hill, where vehicles, even when their engines are switched off, appear to move up a gradient on their own because of the supposed magnetic pull of a distant mountain. But the Magnetic Hill is a hoax. The natural design of the expanse is such that it creates a powerful optical illusion — the seeming uphill is in reality a downhill.

This sounds like the story of our leader with an illusory magnetic field and his devout who think they are going up while they are actually going downhill. But I mention the Magnetic Hill only to point out that we don’t have to invoke god and mass delusions to understand that successful myths are all around us, in a whole hierarchy of things. They are surprisingly easy to spread. In the Magnetic Hill hypothesis there is a combination of powerful influences, apart from the optical illusion of the terrain: A higher authority seeded the idea of magnetism (until recently, on the site, there was a government notice board that announced the spurious science of the Magnetic Hill); and people wished to believe in it because magnetism is more interesting than banal gravity, and certainly more interesting than the realisation that they have been tricked by their eyes.

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The popular middle-class myth that Arvind Kejriwal ‘is a dangerous anarchist’ has been established by similar influences. In 2014, for political reasons, journalistic and scholarly authorities seeded the idea that he was an anarchist; and for political reasons, the middle-class found it an interesting idea. When I used to edit a magazine a seasoned journalist pitched the idea that Kejriwal had serious psychiatric problems and that he must be hospitalised.

Sometimes, people who do not read or watch television news end up preserving a lot of clarity. A reason why Kejriwal emerged triumphant after two elections despite losing the support of mainstream journalism. And he is going strong. He is experimenting with transformative ideas in alleviating urban poverty, providing basic healthcare and reducing pollution even as he uses cunning to survive Indian politics. A recent poll projects that his AAP would storm Punjab in the assembly elections next year.

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As we know, there was a time when Kejriwal was Kanhaiya Kumar; but that was when he appeared to be a non-political activist warring against corruption. But he realised that it is meaningless to scream ‘revolution’ in India. In a democracy the greatest mass movement is democracy itself and a revolution does occur every now and then; it is called elections. To make a change in India one cannot shun politics, instead one should become politics. That was when the middle-class opinion about him began to change. He was becoming too big.

The middle-class liked him but at the time they adored Narendra Modi. So it was convenient to dismiss Kejriwal as an anarchist. A string of events told in a particular way seemed to corroborate the view that he indeed was.

Even though he was a chief minister he went on a street protest, then he resigned, went to jail on a defamation charge and the day Modi was sworn in as prime minister, Kejriwal suffered in a cell filled with mosquitoes, but then he fought another election and shocked Modi and the upper classes.

He has since had many run-ins with an anarchist central government that has refused to let him function in peace.

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If you belong to the urban Indian middle-class anywhere in the nation you probably believe that Kejriwal is, to put it nicely, unfit to govern. You are like the somnolent in the film Inception. Some of my beloved friends have seeded a powerful idea in your head.

An amusing hint to this fact occurred in January when Kejriwal experimented with restricting cars in Delhi through the odd-even rule to reduce air pollution. Among the news reports that tried to portray the plan as a failure, there were some that claimed pollution in Delhi had actually increased on the days the odd-even rule was in force.

Now, one can argue that taking some cars off the road may have no immediate effect on air quality in a city but the claim that the banishment of thousands of cars increased pollution is not in the realm of journalistic imbecility but myth-building.

On social media Kejriwal was ridiculed more than the alleged feminist Madhu Kishwar, who had tweeted, “My car number ends with Zero. I take it no restrictions for me coz 0 is neither even nor odd It’s just 0!” (She once accused Smriti Irani of being semi-literate.)

Read | You can shake hands with ISI, not us: Kejriwal tells Centre

But Kejriwal has exceptional moral confidence in himself. He does not have to resort to posturing. This month there would be another bout of the odd-even rule. There would be much middle-class lament but, eventually, the experiment would triumph. Your ideology does not alter the fact that restricting cars in a city results in cleaner air.

His other major move is to open a thousand street clinics that would use technology to make swift diagnoses for the poor.

In his second avatar as chief minister he has greatly transformed his communication. For instance, he does not inform us of his diarrhoea anymore. But he is unafraid of being accused of disorderly conduct. When there was an internal rebellion he quelled it decisively.

Amusing though that a man of his cunning would be careless enough to let a colleague discreetly record his sensitive telephone conversations. Even editors are careful these days — for instance, they know that chap in the office with a dumb Nokia is likely to record phone conversations. It is hard to record on smartphones.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. The author tweets via @manujosephsan

The views expressed are personal.



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