Plato noted that one of the penalties for refusing participation in politics, is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. In 1999 when Arvind Kejriwal began his 'journey for change', believing that "change begins with small things", he may have had Plato's words in mind. However, fifteen years from then, one wonders today, what has become of him?
This is a critical time in India's political balance – not only one when nations are taking personalities in international circles; but also one when India needs to define its political face after decades of regional spats within and sitting-on-the-fence abroad. Politically, it isn't the first time when an 'electoral insurgent' has emerged – J.P. Narayan ousted Indira Gandhi and V.P. Singh, her son.
However, it is critical, considering the problems at home and the opportunities in the international corridors. A balanced, sustainable treatment of both is what is expected of any leader at helm, today. Can political activists deliver? As a political optimist, one may say, maybe – and if given time, definitely. Can an activist like Kejriwal live up to such expectations and demands? The answer seems to fade away with every passing day.
There are three things to consider before you judge activists like Kejriwal: how did they start; what have they achieved; and where do they stand? Kejriwal, an IIT-pass out, served the IRS before entering citizen-movements that later transformed into political-activism, then briefly political-ambition and now maybe best termed as political-abba-jabba-dabba. His educated, 'clean' personality and eagerness to improve the system, worked as long as he did. While lambasting him publicly or forwarding his memes online, many forget that Kejriwal was awarded the Magasaysay Award (other Indian recipients include Vinoba Bhave, Verghese Kurien, M.S. Swaminathan and even J.P. Narayan) for his work with the RTI movement. So far, he had been a man who had delivered on clear promises – although fruits of what he had delivered were yet to be seen. But he had become the people's alternative – a man who could get things done.
This brings us to the second question – of his achievements so far. After exposing the fake-ration-cards scam, the RTI movement lost shine – while simultaneously, Kejriwal chose to join Anna Hazare for the Jan Lokpal Bill, hoping his RTI success would snowball into a political facelift of the country. Or at least that was what the masses largely were made to believe.
Thousands thronged in his support and news channels beamed out images of jam-packed crowds to an audience that had not seen something like this happen in the country ever before. At least not together - as a country; on respective television sets, in respective languages, at the same time - for hours. This career-high popularity prompted the media to compare Kejriwal's chaos to previous movements like J.P. Narayan's and V.P. Singh's and even the Indian freedom struggle! RTI – and even activists Hazare and Kejriwal – became tools for political maneuvering between political camps. Today, no one talks about the RTI, the Jan Lokpal, or Hazare. Or the activism. Although surprisingly, riding on popularity, Kejriwal became the Delhi CM. And that is when it all came to light.
So far, Kejriwal's movement had relied on mocking politicians in-general on the conventional 'right issues'. Firstly, even though he addressed the in-vogue issue of 'black money' and the ever favourates 'corruption' and 'poverty'; Kejriwal never recognised 'ways' and 'methods' to achieve their goals – largely restricting their promises to.. well, promises! There was never any method under his assurances and no 'defining personality' at all. The only personality Kejriwal ever gained was "not like others". But what exactly is 'he' himself like? He promises to "not fail" like others – but what does he himself assure of doing and how?
Then, there was the problem of tact. Earlier, both Narayan and Singh – during their movements – had cleverly attracted support from factions of the Opposition. In Kejriwal's case, anything close to 'politician' was bashed - helping bolster him as the alternative; but also ensuring he was left alone.
And then, the problem of the reach. Congress failed to realize that despite the heroics in 2009, it was still in a country of coalition politics – its reliance (more like hope) solely on Rahul Gandhi's leadership is, by now, well documented and discussed. On the other hand, BJP has been expanding its vote bank all over the country. Even now, Modi is busy in promoting BJP in Ladakh, uniting families and adopting godsons. In Arvind Kejriwal's story, much like they say about things and Mexico, happened in Delhi and stayed in Delhi. It never had a Chennai chapter, or a Mumbai-manush face; nor a Bong connection. In fact, AAP happened in Delhi but couldn't even stay there!
When handed a five year term, he jumped to a dharna. Recently he challenged opponents in Delhi's electoral ring only to later sheepishly request more time? So finally, where does Kejriwal stand today? In the name of political activism, Kejriwal has come a long way – showing indeed how a political activist can enter mainstream politics and at least get the chance to make a difference – if not really make it. Perhaps in the hands of an able planner and leader, one may have seen the change he had promised. The 'aam aadmi' who once started out to make small changes that could bring about big transformations, is now ridiculed and caricatured.
Clearly, now Plato's words and Kejriwal appear in a completely different light.
Another negative tide that Kejriwal left after his failed attempt to 'take over', has been the dilution of credibility of political activism. Issues raised by activists were anyway ignored by most channels – getting headlines only when the Patkars and Roys were involved. Occasionally an Amir Khan may have catalyzed things a little. But largely no one really bothered about activism by the likes of Irom Sharmila, Teesta Setalvad, Aruna Roy, S.P. Uday Kumar or Jean Dreze.
And after the Kejriwal drama, one can dismiss any mass involvement for any kind of reforms that the country needs. There, we had an instance of collective-belief – for a cause they thought may have revived them. Instead, they now face the truth that though strongly supported, their movement was but a cocoon.
In such a scenario, we again chose a hero – like we have always had and needed . So, Modi now leads a touted 'one man show' and we look at him with beggarly hopes of changing things for better.
And as brought out by Kejriwal's case, as far as political activists entering politics is concerned, it is more a question of 'why' rather than 'should (or shouldn't)'. Political activists in politics is a welcome scenario as long as they don't lose their plot. However, "political activists" like Kejriwal, were best away from such responsibilities.
Best, for the people
(Based out of the NCR, Rohit Rohan is a blogger and an artist, who also moonlights as a marketing professional)