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HindustanTimes Thu,28 Aug 2014

Yes, he can: how Arvind Kejriwal became people's champion

Saikat Datta, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, December 08, 2013
First Published: 17:42 IST(8/12/2013) | Last Updated: 13:34 IST(5/1/2014)

On October 6 last year, as Arvind Kejriwal walked into Banaram's house in Delhi's modest Tigri colony to restore the power connection, a new language of election campaigning was being scripted. Today, as the debutant Aam Aadmi Party notches up an impressive 32% of the popular vote share in Delhi's assembly elections, it is an epochal moment in India's robust electoral process.

It would be fair to argue that Kejriwal learnt his lesson of campaigning from his street-fighting years when he was heading the campaign to oppose Shiela Dikshit's plans to privatise water supply. That was a key moment for his NGO, Parivartan, which spearheaded the campaign using the recently-legislated Right To Information Act. They dug out details hidden in file notings, showing how water charges would jump by 800% if the privatisation plans were to come through.

From street agitation to lobbying, Kejriwal was creating a brand of citizen-activism that was hurting the politico-bureaucratic nexus in ways that had not been seen in Delhi since it achieved partial statehood in 1993.

Much of it would be seen when Kejriwal and his closest lieutenant, Manish Sisodia, switched gears from an impromptu Lokpal agitation that began to embed itself in the national consciousness, beaming live on TV, creating a political movement that would ride on the steadily-building mood of anti-incumbency.

The giant killer: Kejriwal stuns political rivals barely a year after launching AAP

Perhaps a way to understand Kejriwal and his campaign would be examine how he understood the language of mass media better than other political heavyweights.

First, he was far more accessible to the media than the others. It was a subtle message to readers and viewers that he was, in fact, far more accessible than the established political parties and their leaders.

Second, Kejriwal understood better than others that dramatic moments worked better than studio debates which established parties were comfortable with. So using the good offices of Left leaders, the trio of Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan and Sisodia would hold a string of press conferences, taking on those perceived to be the mightiest in the land. From key political personalities to corporate groups, the Kejriwal canon would fire indiscriminately, but consistently, and script a new language of drama rarely seen these days.

Third, Kejriwal also understood the subversive better than the others. This was because he was the subversive in many ways. He wouldn't have a fancy car, drive his Maruti Alto, wear his shirt untucked, and wear his "clerk" look that left opponents confused and his admirers stunned. Here was a small man dominating the big picture. This man would use the Delhi metro trains to storm Vijay Chowk and India Gate, while his political opponents were busy travelling in their Toyota and Mitsubushi SUVs.

READ: Cong, BJP must change or perish, says upbeat Kejriwal

As the campaign went into full swing, the AAP would ignore local municipal rules to start hanging banners illegally from flyovers across the city. As the state machinery would swing into action, ironically, to uphold the law, the AAP would notch up victories in the byte-wars of TV news channels. The AAP would also consistently ensure that every time the Delhi Police arrested their cadres, they would launch publicity campaigns to underscore the point that they were the underdogs taking on the establishment. Crucially, when it came to funding, they ensured that the donors were listed on websites and receipts issued promptly, driving home the message that they were the “real” party with a difference.

But while the media was being used effectively to enter living rooms that mattered to AAP's future, Kejriwal was also hitting the streets like no other political party has done recently.

READ: How Arvind Kejriwal became the little, big man of Indian politics

This came from his years of experience of taking the RTI to slums to demand ration cards and accountability of an archaic public distribution system which had angered the people who had diligently support the Congress for 15 years. It was a key element that would pay dividends as soon as the Election Commission granted them the symbol of the "jhaadu" (broom).

While a broom was an age-old symbol of sweeping out the corrupt, it also had another potent identity that many failed to see initially.

The jhaadu was the sole means of livelihood of the oppressed, the Dalits, who lived in the hovels of Delhi that the Shiela Diskhit government had tried so hard to hide during the Commonwealth Games. This army of voters had cleaned the streets, manually scavenged and recycled trash, quietly biding their time for a moment such as this.

While Mayawati's Bahujan Samajwadi Party had tried to appeal to this voter for decades, Kejriwal's language gave them voice. With the upper and the middle classes already with him, he now had the people who really mattered in every election - the people who had the highest hopes and the biggest disappointments in election after election.

Finally, there was Kejriwal, quietly practicing identity politics in some parts, but also visibly stepping away from it when it mattered.

READ: AAP will be a constructive opposition: Arvind Kejriwal

By picking up Shazia Ilmi for the RK Puram seat, he was sending out a message that woman's empowerment meant more than her identity as a minority candidate. Taking on a former deputy mayor like Anil Sharma of the BJP, Ilmi would hold her own and lose by a wafer-thin margin.

But in a Delhi shocked into shame and anger by a horrific gang-rape of a gutsy young woman, Ilmi represented a campaign language that other political parties clearly lacked. Forged in the fire of cynicism, anger, frustration and aspirations, the language of the AAP campaign will remain the cornerstone of a vibrant democracy at work.


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