Arvind Kejriwal has come a long way since he burst into public consciousness with his pioneering work on the Right to Information (RTI), which won him the coveted Raman Magsaysay award, and then ignited the whole country as the chosen lieutenant of Anna Hazare during the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement in 2010-11. Today, his carefully crafted image of a crusader against corruption and for probity and principles in politics lies in tatters. In choosing Sushil Gupta and ND Gupta – the first a moneybag who crossed over from the Congress just a month ago and the second a chartered accountant of questionable credentials – as the AAP candidates for two out of three Rajya Sabha seats up for grabs, ignoring party faithfuls like Kumar Vishwas and Ashutosh, he has abandoned any residual pretensions about the Aam Admi Party (AAP) being a ‘party with a difference’ for good.
Of course, the transformation from a crusader to a man with feet of clay did not come overnight. The first signs of his overbearing nature came when he eased out Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, two of the saner voices in the party who tried to ensure that the party remained wedded to the core principles, from the party. It was the same ‘high command’ culture that the AAP once denounced that forced a thoroughly disillusioned Mayank Gandhi out of the party. The exit of the ‘conscience keepers’ hastened the transition of AAP from a party that believed in decision making through consensus to one that is ruled by the firmaan that bedevils many other parties, including the Congress. Kejriwal became the ‘supremo’ of a party born out of a genuine people’s movement.
Of course, those who worked with him in his RTI crusader days knew about his political ambitions, his authoritarian streak and his knack for hogging the limelight all along. That’s why the likes of Aruna Ray and Nikhil Dey, who did as much, if not more, for the RTI movement were skeptical about his intentions even at the height of the IAC movement. On his part, anti-crusader Anna Hazare appears to have committed a genuine error of judgment while choosing him as his lieutenant in chief during the IAC movement – and is probably repenting his decision.
But it would be foolish to write Kejriwal’s epitaph yet. He may have lost the sheen that once made him the darling of the middle class. But he still is a formidable leader with an incredible 66 MLAs in the 70-member Delhi Assembly, one of the few leaders in the country who bested Narendra Modi at a time when his popularity was at its peak. Despite the severe beating that his image has taken over the two years since then, there are no signs as yet that he has lost the support of the masses who catapulted him to the position of Chief Minister, notwithstanding the MCD polls results last year. Experience suggests that the poorer classes are less dismissive of an authoritarian streak in their leader and more forgiving of financial skullduggery than the middle classes, as long as the leader is seen as doing enough for them. [Many of those in the middle class, in any case, don’t even take the trouble of going to the booth and casting their votes on election day.] One just has to look at the example of our very own Naveen Patnaik for proof.
By all reckoning, the Kejriwal’s government’s initiatives and experiments in the crucial areas of education and health care have earned the lasting gratitude of the poor and praise from many quarters. The ‘mohalla clinic’ experiment, in particular, has been a success by all reckoning.
While he does appear to be obstinate while dealing with party leaders, the AAP boss has shown that he has the political sagacity to make necessary course correction when things do not go his way. After the fiasco in Punjab and Goa last year, he appears to have realized that his ambition of emerging as a ‘national’ leader was a bit too premature. Realising that he was trying to spread the party’s footprints too fast and too thin, he has wisely decided to concentrate on his home turf. The cut down on his daily dose of anti-Modi harangue also suggests that he has seen reason. Coupled with the visible dent in Modi’s popularity since 2014, this makes him a formidable contender in the next Assembly election in 2020 too.
But those who lent their whole-hearted support to Kejriwal believing that he was the knight in shining armour sent by God to rid the Indian polity of all its muck would certainly mourn the end of AAP as a party with a difference. The Aam Admi Party is now truly an Aam (common) party!