Arvind Kejriwal had tapped into a crucial anger. As chief architect of the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement, he could have leveraged real change despite political resistance.¬†Revati Laul¬†assesses what his sudden change of course means
PERHAPS IDEALISM,¬†conscience and a keen sense of righteous rage are not enough. Perhaps intransigent ego ‚ÄĒ even a modicum of megalomania, a small zone of blindness ‚ÄĒ are necessary traits in a would be revolutionary. How else can one make the leap and believe powerful vested structures can be overthrown overnight and supplanted with one‚Äôs own?
At THiNK ‚ÄĒ TEHELKA‚Äôs event in Goa ‚ÄĒ last year, there was one man international guests like¬†The New York Times¬†columnist Tom Freidman and astronomer Mike Brown wanted to meet more than any other. A short, stout, earnest man in trademark loose grey pants and chequered shirt. And an even more trademarked earnest face. A man around whom zealous crowds had swelled last year, teeming seas of humanity, shouting anti-corruption slogans in ‚ÄėI‚Äôm Anna‚Äô caps. All along though, it was clear to everyone that the real face of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement wasn‚Äôt Anna Hazare. It was Arvind Kejriwal. Anna was the mascot. Arvind was the architect.
In cruel contrast, in July this year at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, Arvind the architect was no longer the most sought-after man. As he sat on an indefinite fast from 25 July, a reluctant media, tired from last year‚Äôs breathless coverage, turned up in a tepid trickle. Cameras dangled searchingly from cranes to reveal pockmarked aerial shots of much thinner crowds. Critics pronounced the Anna movement as last year‚Äôs story. Until halfway through the fast, it didn‚Äôt even make the headlines. Arvind, diabetic and weak, was losing weight and his health rapidly. Then the weekend was upon him. Anna joined the fast. Even so, a sceptical media continued to ask: if the Lokpal Bill wasn‚Äôt the agenda this time, what was the fast really about?
Arvind said it was to get the UPA government to set up a special investigation team against 15 Cabinet ministers whom Team Anna had accused of corruption. This did not quite meet the eye. Why would a government that had spent all of 2011 playing combat games with Anna and Arvind over the Lokpal Bill now give in to demands that even affiliates saw as mere posture? That too under pressure from a team whose previous fast in December 2011 had been a complete washout? As one hard day of fasting rolled into the next, even Arvind sounded like he expected nothing to happen. So, as he kept reiterating his favourite line at Jantar Mantar that he had no faith in the government, the question that kept surfacing on the same TV screens that had propped up the movement in the previous year was: what on earth was the point? On the other side of the split screens, smug politicians said to cameras ‚ÄĒ ‚ÄúLet them do what they want.‚ÄĚ
And then, sure enough, something did happen that forced the TV cameras back into position. In a masterstroke that enabled him to save his face and end his nine-day fast and Anna his five-day one, Arvind announced that the IAC crusade was now going to morph into a political party. Some called it the death of India‚Äôs most watched anti-corruption movement. Others said it gave it fresh blood. Arvind and his co-strategist Prashant Bhushan termed it as total revolution. Anna ambiguously blogged his displeasure. And two days later, disbanded his team.
So, what really had happened? Why had the crowds fallen away from Arvind in the past few months? Was this round of fasts a premeditated exercise to moult a skin that no longer fit? What changed in one day, and how, is not just a straightforward story of the Anna Hazare movement in a new bottle. It‚Äôs a complex and paradoxical account of the inner workings of one man. Arvind. And his ability to conjure a crowd from a consumer class and a party from a people‚Äôs movement.
FOR ALL¬†his purist rhetoric, a great irony that dogs Arvind Kejriwal is that, in many ways, he exactly mirrors the qualities he criticises in the political class. He is a canny strategist: that is what helped him build one of the most high-visibility movements in recent Indian history. But for all his talk of extreme transparencies, virtuous processes and absolute truths, he can be very expedient and fluid with the truth himself. And consensus building is clearly not his strength. This is what made him blow the movement he had built.
Arvind‚Äôs sudden decision to float a political party has scattered the IAC, dismayed many of its core members, and brought simmering frictions into the open. According to Arvind, the idea of sitting on a door-die fast this time had a dual purpose. ‚ÄúIt exposed the government‚Äôs injustice in the eyes of the public and also prepared the public for the next stage of the battle.‚ÄĚ What was this next stage? Was the decision to turn the movement into a political party then taken much before the fast and not spurred by popular demand as he had claimed at Jantar Mantar? Was the fast merely a stage prop constructed to provide the backdrop needed to announce his party? ‚ÄúNot at all,‚ÄĚ says Arvind vehemently. ‚ÄúIt was not planned from before.‚ÄĚ
But several IAC core committee members have a different story. Activist Akhil Gogoi, one such member, says the idea of going political was seriously discussed at a meeting on 22 April, three months before Arvind‚Äôs latest fast. ‚ÄúI opposed it. At least five other core committee members agreed with me. Then there was a second core committee meeting where this was decided. I wasn‚Äôt present and wasn‚Äôt asked.‚ÄĚ
Justice Santosh Hegde, another key Team Anna member, also admits he was against starting a party and was not consulted about the decision. ‚ÄúI cannot tell you how much I regret the disbanding of this movement. The Lokpal Bill that is under consideration in Parliament is not everything we wanted, but it was 70 percent there. We could have accepted it and slowly built pressure to amend it bit by bit. But I think some psephologist told them that there is an Anna wave in the air, so you can win if you float a party.‚ÄĚ
Perhaps Gogoi and Hegde were genuinely outvoted by other team members but what their statements confirm is that the proposal to form a political party did not unfurl entirely as Arvind pronounced at Jantar Mantar. It also raises another important question. If forming a party was being considered as far back as April, why was this not shared with ‚Äúthe people‚ÄĚ Arvind claims he works on behalf of?
It‚Äôs a question many disgruntled core committee members are asking. Devinder Sharma, a veteran grassroots activist, in fact, goes a step further. He says Arvind paradoxically has a lot in common with Sonia Gandhi, his key adversary, in how he runs his team. Sharma says he had dived into the Arvind crusade with great enthusiasm only to find that ‚Äúhere too, it‚Äôs only the high command that decides‚ÄĚ. High command: The words are intended to sting Arvind, who has often shrilly denounced the Congress‚Äô top-down style of functioning and claimed the IAC has no such power structure and is driven purely ‚Äúby the people‚Äôs will‚ÄĚ.
The sudden decision to float a party has scattered the IAC, dismayed many of its core members, and brought simmering frictions into the open
Is Arvind the crusader and anarchist then most well suited really to be a politician? Insight comes from a fourth core committee member. Sunita Godara, sportsperson and activist, and winner of the Asian Marathon in 1992. In 2010, when Arvind was looking for a suitable sportsperson to file a PIL on corruption in the Commonwealth Games, Godara came handy. ‚ÄúInclination towards a mainstream political formation was there for the past six months,‚ÄĚ says Godara. By her reckoning, the idea was Shanti Bhushan‚Äôs, former Union law minister and Prashant‚Äôs father. ‚ÄúShantiji¬†always used to say, till when will we keep fighting like this? If they are not changing the system, we will have to get into the system to fight.‚ÄĚ Arvind puts this down to ‚Äúvarious discussions‚ÄĚ the team had, part of the ‚Äúchurning process‚ÄĚ. However, he insists the decision to go political was finally taken only on 1 August.
But even on that day, according to Godara, the crucial decision was taken only by a few. ‚ÄúIt was clear that only a select lot ‚ÄĒ two or three people ‚ÄĒ will decide whether we go political or not,‚ÄĚ she said.
Arvind rebuts these accounts, placing the onus of the decision to go political on Anna and narrating with standard polemic why things unfolded the way they did. ‚ÄúThe government was not passing the Jan Lokpal Bill,‚ÄĚ he says, ‚Äúbecause there are 15 ministers in the Cabinet with serious allegations of corruption against them.‚ÄĚ In the meantime, Anna had got some damning feedback that people were saying they still had faith in the movement‚Äôs leadership but had lost faith in the movement. People were asking, what was the point of a fast? ‚ÄúWhen hope dies, people stop coming out on the streets,‚ÄĚ explains Arvind.
For all his purist rhetoric, a great irony that dogs Kejriwal is that, in many ways, he mirrors the very qualities he criticises in the Indian political class
Amidst this pall of despondency, came the letter signed by 23 eminent citizens, including political scientist Yogendra Yadav, former army chief Gen VK Singh, former Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh and journalist Kuldip Nayar asking for the fast to be called off. This letter, suggesting that Team Anna come up with an alternative form of politics, was projected as the main catalyst.
A message went out via TV channels to Arvind‚Äôs largely TV audience. Twenty-four hours later, a Zee News poll came back with a verdict he had hoped for: 96 percent in favour of a political alternative. It didn‚Äôt seem to matter that by ‚Äúa political alternative‚ÄĚ, these eminent citizens weren‚Äôt necessarily suggesting Team Anna transform themselves into a political party.
Nayar, in fact, told TEHELKA, ‚ÄúThis has completely shifted the goalposts away from what they were fighting for until now ‚ÄĒ a strong anti-corruption Lokpal Bill.‚ÄĚ Nayar added further that the team would need to go to the masses and build itself patiently bottom up instead of what it is now ‚ÄĒ top down. But Arvind wasn‚Äôt interested in the fine print. At 5 pm on 2 August, he sipped a glass of coconut water, broke his fast and announced the formation of a political party. A seemingly disastrous situation had been turned by him into the springboard for his next big step.
Devinder Sharma blogged that this decision was a ‚Äúdeath warrant for social movements‚ÄĚ. But Arvind says without a trace of self-reflective irony: ‚ÄúYou see, the core committee is not important. The people of this country are.‚ÄĚ
As the announcement broke on the networks, many of the 2,000-odd volunteers in the IAC team were deeply crestfallen. Suddenly, without warning, all their goalposts had shifted. For a year-and-a-half, Arvind had made the Jan Lokpal Bill seem the most redemptive tool in Indian public life, but having gained serious momentum, he didn‚Äôt seem to have the patience to fight it through. For a year-and-a-half too, he had mocked the government and spoken headily about a new democratic form of functioning ‚ÄĒ where supra complex decisions would be made only with feedback from the people, and websites would solicit consultations.
Now suddenly, from Bhagat Singhs and Che Guevaras, without being told, were they all to become part of something that would one day look like the establishment? The IAC movement had been built on the backs of many people. Were they to be disbanded without even a¬†jan sunwayi?¬†Arvind and Prashant had to gather volunteers in a quick damage-control meeting. Insiders say it has had mixed results.
If forming a party was being considered as far back as April, why was this not shared with ‚Äėthe people‚Äô Arvind claims he works on behalf of?
But disgruntlement among some IAC volunteers had begun to kick in even before this announcement. One of them, Shivendra Singh Chauhan, wrote his list of woes to Arvind; the letter was leaked to the media. The gist of Chauhan‚Äôs grouse was that he had been happy to work back-breaking hours to create IAC‚Äôs Facebook page, but over time, it had become subject to an increasingly centralised style of functioning. Another disgruntled volunteer told TEHELKA they had wanted Arvind to set up an effective grievance redressal system within the movement itself. ‚ÄúWe wanted to know how the core team was being chosen,‚ÄĚ says the volunteer. ‚ÄúAnd why the donations and funds received from October 2011 onwards were not up on the website yet? But, the more questions we raised, the more difficult it became for us to function.‚ÄĚ
The story of Arvind then seems to be the story of double gyres: the capacity for creative energy, expansion and decline all locked into the same diagram. Over all of the past year, Arvind was able to whip up a public storm like few others in recent times. He was also able to corner the government into promising and tabling the Lokpal Bill. Yet, he seemed incapable of spotting ‚Äúthe peaking moment‚ÄĚ, beyond which things can only go downhill. When the Lokpal Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha, he could have urged his co-team to claim a victory, short of the absolutes, and build on it. It would have given people hope, a second wind. But by insisting on his maximalist positions, Arvind seems to have lost the entire movement. It‚Äôs not a loss that is his alone. For many Indians who believed in him and his extravagant promises, he has just made it more difficult to believe again. A new party may be birthed. But the infant movement is dead.