Never a bore: How Arvind Kejriwal kept us hooked to his politics

  • Manu Joseph, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 10, 2015 09:35 IST

These days, when I am in a huddle with writers who are moaning that something called literary fiction is in a crisis I expect to hear the voice of The Raccoon from the film 'Guardians of The Galaxy' say what he said when he had entered a righteous pact, "Look at us jackasses, standing in a circle". But what I often hear is writers saying that the world is filled with jackasses. There is an artistic view that most people are fools. That is the explanation, we are told, why there is a distinction between what is marvellous and what is popular.

Activists too have a similar lament. In a world that is so frivolous and materialistic, how can they draw attention to, say, rural affairs. About a week ago, the journalist Rajdeep Sardesai told a large gathering in Bangalore, in the way of explaining the difficulty in telling important stories, "How do I create drama in urea?" It is a problem most editors have - how to tell a story that is important but not sexy. Activists find the question disturbing. They say, 'If it is important, what more do you need?'

Not surprising then that art and activism often seek refuge in each other and complain about the world that has gone astray seeking pleasure.

But then the world is not stupid, nor insensitive. It is merely indifferent, but open to being startled into paying attention. For that to happen what is important has to be converted into what is interesting. The conversion need not be a corrupt process, especially in the hands of the genius. Masters in every sphere of art have demonstrated this. Arvind Kejriwal, in the modern age, has demonstrated it in activism. No matter what happens on Tuesday, what is clear is that he and his party are far from dead.

As an activist he is exceptional but not unique. What makes him extraordinary is that he has found a way to win elections. Even two years ago nobody would have believed that a political party in India could win elections without the help of thugs, liquor and enormous amounts of black money. By elevating activism to pure drama and broadening the story that he wishes to tell, he has made his cause relevant to a vast section of Delhi's population.

The anti-corruption movement, like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, died for a number of reasons. Chiefly, the movement could not hold the attention of people. People may be ashamed of being bored by significant things but the fact is that they do get bored. A revolution usually begins when the public misunderstands its true nature. People are infatuated with their own fantastic meanings that they have ascribed to the phenomenon. And a revolution usually dies when people return to their senses.

Kejriwal resurrected Anna Hazare's doomed movement by taking it into electoral politics. Hazare said that Kejriwal was committing a blunder. Because, Hazare said, politics was "dirty". Literary referees hold the same view about popular fiction. It is "dirty". But Kejriwal, like Haruki Murakami, for instance, demonstrated that it is not impossible for integrity to go mainstream.

The writer Anton Chekov once stated (there are a few versions of what he is believed to have stated)--"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

Why didn't Chekov say, "Write whatever comes to you from your heart. That is art". Because he was not a bore. Encoded in great artistes is the accidental humility that pushes them to reach out and win the attention of the audience instead of assuming that the world has to be intelligent enough to come find them.

Kejriwal used music, dance, festive street protests, Wagon R, exaggerations, entertaining allegations against India's richest, spoofs on himself and even the ill-fated march to Narendra Modi's house as dramatic devices to reach out to the masses. He made his activism more entertaining and engaging than everything that preceded it. He was experimenting with the tools of a mainstream artiste.

Hazare did not know how to contest elections and he misunderstood his inability as righteousness. Do modern literary writers, too, misunderstand their limitations as art? It is not a pleasant question, it is merely important. What if the world is not filled with jackasses, what if the world is filled with people who indeed want to enrich themselves but have been made cautious by the phoney?

The aspiration of both art and activism is to move from the fringes and expand their reach. Art usually achieves it by negotiating its way through the treacherous requirements of entertainment. Good cinema and novels, for instance. Activism has traditionally achieved it by pretending to be journalism. Journalists themselves are activists, or they are fed by activists. But increasingly, except in matters concerning gender, activism is being exorcised from journalism. Kejriwal has shown a more effective and a permanent way - even a natural habitat. Activism has to negotiate its way through election campaigning.

Kejriwal, the politician, has often laboured to inform the elite that just because he is an activist it does not mean that he would be the curse of businesses. "Let me first clarify some of the allegations against us," he told me in an interview before the 2013 assembly elections. "Last year we made an exposé… against HSBC, Reliance and others… HSBC was involved in money laundering. We had evidence against them. We got the evidence from income tax files… That night I got an SMS from the editor-in-chief of a very prominent [television] channel in the country saying, 'So you are a socialist?' If a corporate indulges in wrongdoing and you demand an honest investigation against that, you are called a socialist. I want to make it very clear: We are not wedded to any ideology. Second thing: We are very clear that government has no business to be in business. As far as the corporate sector is concerned… trade needs to be encouraged. We want honest businesses. Certainly, the corporate sector has a big role to play in the country. Let me also tell you, barring a few people, most businessmen themselves are victims of corruption and not perpetrators."

For long, activists thought it was cheap to enter politics, or that they would be diminished in the eyes of their admirers and peers, or that it was futile to contest elections because of what it required. But Kejriwal has shown how to do it. Among other things, never bore your audience.

(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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