Kejriwal says sorry: A personality crisis for the Aam Aadmi Party | By Barkha Dutt | columns | Hindustan Times
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Kejriwal says sorry: A personality crisis for the Aam Aadmi Party | By Barkha Dutt

The Delhi CM’s apology spree erodes the very foundation on which his party was built

columns Updated: Mar 24, 2018 07:41 IST
A file picture of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
A file picture of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. (PTI)

If a ‘sorry’ stands between you and survival — perhaps many of us would choose apology over agitation. So the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to cut his losses and extricate himself from more than 30 expensive and energy-consuming defamation cases is prime facie commonsensical, even if personally embarrassing. And anyway, it’s routine for India’s politicians to somersault from stated positions with more agility than trained trapeze artistes. I think Kejriwal had no option but to take this route.

So then, why the fuss? Let me explain why: Kejriwal’s apology spree erodes the very foundation on which his party was built: anti-establishment anger. We may not remember it now, but India’s youngest political party (not counting Kamal Haasan’s recent entry) took root in middle-class disillusionment with corruption. For urban professionals who typically kept away from electoral politics, Kejriwal positioned himself as their kind of guy, only braver. Here was an industrious IIT graduate, an honest civil servant, a self-made outsider who was unafraid to take on the rich and powerful. He said out loud what were till then, only drawing room whispers. He promised the end of politics-as-usual. He vowed to not let pragmatism become a synonym for base compromise.

Now the Aam Aadmi Party leader’s hasty withdrawal from every single charge he levelled — against a slew of leaders including Arun Jaitley, Kapil Sibal, Bikram Majithia and Nitin Gadkari — makes this narrative entirely disingenuous. Kejriwal clearly picked a fight he was never capable of sustaining; leave alone winning. It’s sort of like Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young Vijay running out of Zanjeer heat and opting for family drama roles instead. Kejriwal’s attacks now seem more in the league of hit-and run attacks than the strategic guerrilla warfare of insurgents. After the apologies, all that anger, first from the India Against Corruption platform and then on behalf of the AAP, has begun to seem more like adolescent angst than revolutionary rage. While the Aam Aadmi Party was never ideologically coherent — since its inception it was a coalition of the Left and the Right — the latest developments make its essential personality fuzzy and unclear as well. In other words, it’s hard to say what a mellower and more apologetic Arvind Kejriwal stands for today — either philosophically or personally. A marketing mind may ask: What’s the product? And awkwardly for him, the next time he makes a fiery speech from the stumps no one will believe he will stand by his words.

But why restrict our judgment to Kejriwal alone? His retractions bring home both the perils and limitations of the outrage industry. The denouement of all the headline-grabbing press conferences also has warning against the instant verdicts, smear campaigns and hectoring hash tags that the Indian media has become accustomed to. It isn’t the AAP alone — but also India’s TV media — that first created this environment of ‘sab chor hain’ (everyone is a thief). In fact, till their relationship soured, one could argue that there would be no AAP without the media that saw the crusading anger of the live-tweeting, news-watching consumer as a solid selling point. Today the heroes of their script may have altered but most media, mainstream and social, still look to feed off prejudice, despair and armchair judgments. In fact the wall that used to separate irresponsible, but essentially private, gossip from what any decent person would say in public has collapsed. This coarseness is what imparts momentum on Whats App, photoshops on Twitter and outbursts of television anchors who bang tables and wag fingers for emphasis. And none of it is used to interrogate power or hold the mighty to accountability; instead it’s all about innuendo and insults driving the discourse in multiple echo chambers. As Arvind Kejriwal tumbles from his pedestal, it should be a cautionary tale for all those who use lazy indignation to whip up frenzy — the story never ends well unless it is rooted in substance. Even in the age of fake news, in the end, facts triumph. Or the law does.

The diminishing returns of AAP’s old (and now stale) anger formula also expose the essential fickleness of cause celebre politics. The demand for a Lokpal legislation gave birth to Kejriwal’s brand of politics; today Anna Hazare’s hunger strike for the same issue evokes a collective groan of boredom and disinterest. That is how the cookie crumbles. And that — even in an era of data breaches and social media-driven politics — is why the tale of Arvind Kejriwal is a reminder that disruptions and black-swan moments by very definition are one-off events. After that even new-age politics needs old style structures — and substance.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal