Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi are both youthful public figures in their 40s. Sadly, that’s where the comparisons end. One is now a political rockstar, the other is in danger of leading his party into oblivion; one is the story of middle class aspiration, the other of elite entitlement; one comes from a professional family in Hisar, the other bears the most famous surname in Indian politics.
Acknowledging the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) phenomenal performance in the Delhi elections, Gandhi said: “The Aam Aadmi Party involved a lot of non-traditional people and we will learn from that and will better it in a way you cannot imagine.”
Since the way forward has been left to our imagination, let me script the lessons a dynast who is inheriting a 128-year-old party can learn from a commoner who launched a political party only a year ago.
The first lesson lies in the willingness to take risks.
From taking a break from the Indian Revenue Service to setting up an NGO, from being the architect of the Anna movement to entering politics and contesting against a three-time sitting chief minister, Kejriwal has never shied away from a fresh challenge.
By contrast, Gandhi has studiously refrained from taking on a major responsibility. Yes, he is vice-president of the Congress and is in charge of its youth organisations.
But what would have tested his mettle is if he had chosen to head a significant ministry in the Manmohan Singh government. If, for example, Gandhi had such strong views on the Bharat-India divide, why didn’t he take charge of the rural development ministry and prove his credentials?
The second takeaway lies in the power of communication. If Gandhi has ‘Ma’ (mother) by his side, Kejriwal has the ‘media’. There is little doubt that the AAP has benefited from the relentless media exposure. It is to the credit of the ever-accessible Kejriwal and his team that they used every communication weapon — Facebook, Twitter, television — to create a larger-than-life image for the party.
By contrast, Gandhi has remained imprisoned behind the forbidding gates of Lutyens’ Delhi, not giving a single proper interview, refusing to take hard questions, staying away from the social media.
The third lesson for Rahul lies in recognising the need to harmonise idealism with a clear agenda for change. Kejriwal was once derisively referred to as a “jholawallah”; Gandhi too is accused of being a political NGO. Truth is that any political ideology — Left, right or centre — needs to blend with ground realities. The reality is that idealism in politics cannot operate in a vacuum, it needs to relate to the urgent concerns of the voter.
Kejriwal’s thrust was on his anti-corruption Lokpal campaign and demand for ‘swaraj’ through mohalla sabhas. Neither idea is original, perhaps even unworkable, but they were instantly appealing to an electorate tired of the same slogans. Sadly, Gandhi’s agenda has remained trapped in fine words (remember his grandiose ‘power is poison’ remark?) not in a genuine manifesto for change.
Fourth, Kejriwal realised the importance of creating a distinctive brand in a highly competitive marketplace. Take the astute use of the Gandhi topi as headgear and the jhadoo as an election symbol by the AAP. As political weapons, they achieved for Kejriwal a sharp identity as the challenger brand: his was seen as a voice that stood out in support of the common man against the VIP ‘lal batti’ culture.
It’s the kind of anti-establishment image that appeals to a younger, restless India. By contrast, the closest Gandhi has come to striking out on his own was his brief, but dramatic intervention on the ordinance to protect criminal legislators.
Fifth, Kejriwal has shown that politics is ultimately about mass contact programmes and cannot be fought through computers and excel sheets. Through the long, hot Delhi summer, when Gandhi and most government ministers set off for cooler climes, the AAP leadership was on the streets, staging dharnas, tearing up power bills, agitating for cheaper water.
By consistently taking up people-centric issues, Kejriwal was able to project himself as a mass leader in the slums and colonies of Delhi. Gandhi made a singular attempt to do so when he took up the Bhatta Parsaul farmers agitation two years ago, but then backed off rather than taking the movement to its logical conclusion.
Ditto the case with his raising the plight of Vidarbha’s farm widows in Parliament. As a result, he was typecast as an occasional politician rather than a much-needed 24x7 neta.
Finally, Kejriwal has made a conscious attempt to open the doors of politics to new faces and fresh energies. Several of his newly elected MLAs are under 40, an age group that has felt alienated from the political process. Many of the volunteers who campaigned for AAP also belong to a younger India.
Gandhi, by contrast, has spoken of shaking up the Congress hierarchy, but the fact is, he has met with limited success. Most of the young Congress MPs, for example, are the sons and daughters of Congress leaders, thereby perpetuating the dynastical traditions within the party.
To be fair to Gandhi, it is easier to innovate and break with the status quo when you are a political start-up like AAP. A party that has been around for decades like the Congress will always be more resistant to change.
Which is also perhaps why there are some, including the party’s permanent backbencher Mani Shankar Aiyar, who believe that only an electoral defeat in 2014 will force the Congress into even attempting to re-invent itself. Maybe Gandhi can afford to take the long view because he has a family legacy to cocoon him from political reverses.
Kejriwal, by contrast, does not enjoy this luxury: anarchist or idealist, his time is now.
(Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network)
The views expressed by the author are personal