The game changers
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The game changers

As corruption grows and politics swings between the venal and bizarre, the mango people are likely to become receptive to someone who breaks from the herd. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Nov 22, 2012 21:13 IST

Whether you like Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra or not, it was hard not to chortle at his spectacularly ill-timed, possibly insensitive, definitely elitist and subsequently deleted Facebook post: 'Mango people in a banana republic.'

But as Vadra's bête noir, 43-year-old Arvind Kejriwal recognises, this is the age of India's mango people, a droll literal translation of aam aadmi, the apolitical, toiling common man. Kejriwal, the face of a new party whose name you will soon hear, is someone old-school politicians should fear - if not today, then tomorrow; and if not him, someone like him.

As corruption grows and politics swings between the venal and bizarre, the mango people are likely to become increasingly receptive to someone who breaks from the herd. If you argue that India against Corruption (IAC), the movement Kejriwal founded with Gandhian Anna Hazare last year, is a fleeting, marginal urban phenomenon, you may be right. Except it was never as marginal as the pundits said or mainstream politicians hoped. Using the quintessential Indian penchant for missed calls (supporters were asked to give a missed call), the IAC's technology provider has a database of more than 20 million "unique numbers" at its computers in Mumbai, a representative of the movement tells me.

That appears insignificant in an electorate that exceeds 700 million people, but it is not a small number for something that began only last year. And those who dismiss Kejriwal as an urban, middle-class phenomenon would do well to recognise that India's elite are growing in number and influence.

An unpublished paper written by Indian Institute of Management (Bangalore) professor MV Rajeev Gowda notes that elites now decide the electoral fates of more than 100 urban constituencies, nearly a fifth of parliamentary seats. As Gowda explains, the retreat of elites from political life is a relatively recent phenomenon. They controlled the Congress party roughly till 1967, when the Green Revolution heralded the rise of the farmer, until the 1990s, when a host of formerly marginalised communities swept into politics.

The retreat of the elite - mainly the then small middle class - coincided with the decline of national parties. "This phase has been characterised by political corruption and the decline of ideology, resulting in disinterest and cynicism among elites with regard to politics," writes Gowda.

The rise in aspirations fractured politics. In 1977, parliamentary elections saw 2,439 candidates from 35 parties; by 2009, there were 8,070 candidates and 207 parties (with independents grouped as a single party), academic Devesh Kapur and researcher Milan Vaishnav calculated in a 2011 paper.

Kapur, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, predicted in a previous paper that the middle class retreat from politics would be reversed as urban elites become aware of their power and reconnected with politics.

To be sure, this does not mean elites are an ethical, homogenous group in search of the messianic qualities that Mahatma Gandhi possessed and Independence-era India revered. But, overall, emerging India - elites and everyone else - is impatient for a better politics and politicians.

As professional qualifications, integrity and experience go, it is hard to fault 'Kejri', as his friends call him. A mechanical engineer from the elite Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kejriwal is a former income-tax officer and an enemy of status quo. He started his battle for change while a government officer. With others, he launched 'Parivartan' (change), a citizen's movement that led public institutions in Delhi to be more transparent and responsive. In 2006, Kejriwal resigned from government service. It was the year he won the Ramon Magsaysay award, sometimes called the Asian Nobel, for his work on India's landmark Right to Information Act.

Beyond today's attention-seeking exposes, Kejriwal's 'vision document' - released this month for public discussion - offers broad, unexceptional policies: universal health care, free, "equal and quality" education, devolution of power to village councils, special attention to farmers and the destitute, more affirmative action and an end to female foeticide. Kejriwal's populist economic agenda faces ridicule from economists, but the manifesto of almost every Indian political party echoes many of these views.

Where the party breaks the mould is in its code of conduct and organisational vision. Examples: party officials and election candidates will be chosen by party workers and "local people", not by a "high command"; no official will serve more than two terms; the party's elected representatives will not yield to the trappings of power, such as cars with red lights and discretionary quotas, railway tickets and gas connections. This may sound utopian, but in an age of cynicism, that is no bad thing.

Yet, the uncompromising Kejriwal is no messiah. His plans to end corruption do not extend beyond a magical ombudsman, a Lokpal. A recent Caravan profile also suggests that he ignores advice from associates and tends to use people, even crowd-pullers Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare (who had a public falling out with Kejriwal). The magazine quotes Ramdev aide Acharya Virendra Vikram: "He smartly used our platform and then turned his back at a crucial time."

"The real challenge for Kejriwal will be to find credible candidates, people who have a rapport with the public," IIM's Gowda tells me. Chairperson of IIM Bangalore's Centre for Public Policy and a long-time aspirant for a Congress ticket, Gowda is helping politicians get acquainted with the middle-class discontent that Kejriwal uncovered. This month, Gowda finished a 47-day training course for female politicians (in zilla panchayats, or local councils). The women came from 10 states and six political parties, including the Congress, BJP, NCP, Shiv Sena and Janata Dal (Secular); they learned political marketing, the power of opinion polls, agitations and how to use technology in politics. A new politics is coming, and it isn't only the mango people who think so.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Oct 10, 2012 21:19 IST