Why Kejriwal will thrive despite the controversial leaked video
In the video, Kejriwal explains to the journalist that he avoided getting drawn into a discussion on corporate India lest he give the impression that he was anti-privatisation which would end up alienating the middle class. Sushil Aaron writes.ht view Updated: Apr 02, 2014 15:16 IST
It is not quite the John Edwards moment in the Indian election, but the leaked video which has Arvind Kejriwal requesting an Aaj Tak journalist to play up parts of his interview is an awkward issue for the AAP leader.
It is not an indiscretion akin to a US Senator admitting to fathering a child out of wedlock that finished Edwards's career in politics, but it can modestly dent Kejriwal's reputation among the middle class.
In the video, Kejriwal explains to the journalist that he avoided getting drawn into a discussion on corporate India lest he give the impression that he was anti-privatisation which would end up alienating the middle class. That is not a issue really: politicians are entitled to make messaging choices, but towards the end he requests the journalist to play up some parts more than others.
This risks changing perceptions of Kejriwal from being an incorruptible national figure - heading out on well-publicised campaigns, firing questions at Narendra Modi and getting the Gujarat machinery to panic and arrest him - to coming across as just another politician cheesily seeking favours from journalists.
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Kejriwal will want to recover moral ground with the middle class and reset power equations with journalists as these two constituencies have been crucial to mythmaking about him and (indeed Narendra Modi). He would be better off conceding that asking for favourable coverage was a lapse of judgment, which he will not repeat - and then underline that this proved that he was not instinctively anti-business after all. He could talk about the mischief of his opponents releasing the video weeks after it was recorded just when his own national campaign was gaining momentum.
Kejriwal is well placed to roll out this message through customary one-on-one interviews, a format he excels in. The AAP leader is adept at debates, unlike Modi and Rahul Gandhi who are uncomfortable tackling television anchors. Kejriwal may be friendly to journalists offline, but assumes a serious posture on air; he speaks with a signature directness in Hindi that feeds his reputation as a crusader - and he has the interesting ability to slow down interviews to his comfort level rather than be played by frenetic anchors. An IRS officer turned campaigner, he is nobody's fool on the detail of government processes or the workings of crony capitalism. Kejriwal's representational skills can, in time, contain the fallout of this episode and redirect attention to the wider import of AAP's politics.
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Kejriwal has other things going for him. Liberals in the media and middle class want him and the AAP to succeed as a future foil to Modi. Think back to the second half of last year. Modi had managed to generate an inexorable victorious air with highly visible speeches, relentless criticism of UPA's record and portrayal of Rahul Gandhi as an inexperienced, privileged greenhorn in administration. Modi had also sidelined L K Advani, secured endorsements from corporate India and there was little the media could do but watch the juggernaut roll on till May. There seemed to be no other story in town worth covering.
Kejriwal has changed all that and commanded attention of constituencies that Modi had come to take for granted through extended theatre of his own. These involved separate acts of reluctantly becoming chief minister of Delhi, introducing eye catching measures like freebies for the poor, sting operations on corrupt police and officials, adopting a firm line on power companies, staging a dharna over suspending cops and finally resigning over Delhi Assembly's failure to pass the Jan Lokpal bill. He subsequently kept up news momentum by immediately announcing AAP's high-profile candidates for the Lok Sabha to take on prominent Congress and BJP figures.
The AAP is also introducing newer dynamics to the election, which can outlast the effects of the leaked video. By bringing in candidates like Medha Patkar, Yogendra Yadav, Rajmohan Gandhi and others, the AAP is qualitatively setting the pace for other parties to follow. Inducting new actors into the political elite generates interest in a competitive media market and periodically takes the attention off Modi. The AAP is also mainstreaming a cohort of leftwing actors who might otherwise never get a chance in national politics. In many ways, the AAP is becoming all the Congress could have been - but didn't muster the nerve for.
And Kejriwal and AAP's appeal for the urban poor will endure. Delhi's auto drivers have, anecdotally, emerged as the emblem of AAP's support base. They ply their trade waiting on roadsides not only exposed to pollution and extreme weather but also the police who harass them for minor offences and officials who demand bribes for various forms of paperwork.
That Kejriwal's rhetoric on corruption resonates with those who rage against the state everyday speaks to AAP's long-term potential. It is not clear if urban anger yet radiates to communities in rural India and informs their electoral choices. But it is clear that the AAP is the most broad-based left of centre alternative to the Congress that urban India has been looking for. If AAP were to get within striking distance of winning about 50 seats in the Lok Sabha, then both Modi and the Congress have serious cause for worry. The leaked video can perhaps do only so much damage.
(Sushil Aaron is director of projects at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. These are his personal views.)