Let's raise a toast to the ordinary!

In terms of politics and national affairs, 2014 promises to be the year of the ordinary prevailing over the privileged and the established – the aam aadmi preceding the traditional politics

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BV Rao | January 11, 2014




It was the counting day, December 8, outside the Aam Aadmi Party office. The story of AAP’s spectacular electoral debut was unfolding and all of Delhi’s television cameras had descended on the scene. As they were busy capturing the celebrations and gathering bytes, one young man pushed through a crowd of rapturous AAP volunteers and shouted into the mike: “Isske baad koi neta aam aadmi ko chunauti dene ki zurrat na karen (Let no political leader dare challenge the aam aadmi ever again).”

This is my pick for the quotable quotes of 2013. I would have loved to identify the young man but he came uninvited, he didn’t leave his name, I can’t even remember his face and he didn’t linger around for a second more than was necessary to proclaim the arrival of the man on the street on the centre-stage of national affairs. Perhaps it was better that way, that in a year which will be remembered for the rise of the AAP, the most memorable quote came from an unidentified aam aadmi rather than a celebrated political leader, political analyst or a political psychologist.

ALSO READ: Aam aadmi finds a voice in Bihar

In terms of politics and national affairs, 2013 was the year of the ordinary prevailing over the privileged and the established. The old order was hardened, impregnable, and opaque, and had firmly shut itself out of reach of the ordinary. At the first hint of challenge (the Anna movement) it stupidly heckled the ordinariness of the aam aadmi and dared Arvind Kejriwal cockily to what it presumed was an electoral battle which six decades of fossilised politics had fixed in its favour. When he said that no politician will ever again dare scoff at the lay person, that unidentified aam aadmi was reacting to this cockiness and contempt of the ruling class. The same aam aadmi had powered Kejriwal to collapse the wedge between the ordinary and the privileged within one spectacular year, a distance that most true-blue politicians cannot hope to cover in a lifetime of politics. Thus, when Kejriwal was inaugurated as Delhi’s chief minister at noon on Saturday, December 28, it should have been the closing ceremony, or the death knell, of the arrogance of the traditional political parties. But, no, they are not going to give in or open up their exclusive club so easily for all and sundry.  So the next round of cocky challenges is already underway.

The next round

Just as one swallow does not a summer make, one freakish electoral victory does not make a political party. That is the considered wisdom under which traditional political parties are taking refuge while mounting a fresh wave of attack on the ordinary challenger. The attack goes something like this: “A motley group of ordinary persons may have won the election but let’s see how they run a government and how long they can run….Running a government is not a joke, they will fall on their face. Fifty percent cut in electricity tariff, 700 litres of water free for all, where will they find the money for all that, money doesn’t grow on trees. Political realities are far different from civil society idealism…Direct democracy, ha! So what’s next? A referendum on whether Kejriwal should have tea or coffee to start the day?”

Those questions don’t matter now. The entire political class stood as one against a feeble nobody and lost a battle not in a remote corner of the country but right here in Delhi, their fortress. However sound their logic about the futility of Kejriwal’s audacious run on the raj, it will seem like the whining of a sore loser.

There are, of course, very legitimate questions about the ability and competence of AAP to run a government. They will not disappear as easily as Kejriwal simplistically dismisses them, saying nobody is born a minister or chief minister. Kejriwal’s future beyond this government depends on how well he can insulate his group of well-meaning nobodies from acquiring the characteristics of entrenched politicians or the latter infiltrating his ranks to bring him down from within.

In the sphere in which Kejriwal is now operating, that will be fair game. The odds don’t seem to be in his favour, but then when did we ever think they were? Logic and reason don’t explain the last three years in Indian politics. Emotion and sentiment do. And on those Kejriwal is riding high at the moment. He is playing the underdog to perfection, while outwitting the political parties at their own game as with his uncanny manoeuvres to get both the national parties on the mat in the matter of government formation. The Congress doesn’t know whether it is supporting or opposing AAP and the BJP still can’t decide whether AAP is the B team of Congress or Congress the B team of AAP!

Kejriwal came to power on the promise of honesty, integrity and simplicity. None of these require experience in governance; actually experience is our problem. Right now he can win hearts just by sticking to these simple virtues. The moment the chief minister moves into a small flat of his own rather than a plush bungalow in Lutyen’s Delhi and moves around without security and red beacons, he will have introduced a new culture of power without privileges and perks. That is scary for the average politician and it is enough to unsettle our reigning political monarchs for whom politics is about big white bungalows, black cat security and exemption from paying Rs 21 at the Gurgaon toll gates.

Imagine the impact the day the chief minister’s convoy stops at the toll gates to pay tax. An SMS joke already doing the rounds is about a Mercedes Benz knocking down a scooterist.
Mercedes Benzwallah: “Do you know my father is the police commissioner?”
Humble scooterwallah: “I see, but do you know I’m the home minister of Delhi?” That is the Kejriwal effect. His symbolism has worked like magic. He himself could perhaps have retreated into the barracks of anonymous civil society activism if only the political class had conceded symbolic defeat by passing the Lokpal bill in 2011. It could have taken the fizz away. It has had to do that anyway in 2013 when nobody asked for it and it did not matter anymore.

So, the question is not about whether Kejriwal can run a good government – it’s a bonus if he can – but what he has already achieved. It is about the fear of the aam aadmi that he has instilled in the political parties and how they will change hereon. How he now performs is of interest to him and us, but for the political parties, the damage is already done. 

They can no longer boast like this senior leader who told me about his fetish for chartered flights: “I have not used a scheduled commercial airliner in the last 15 years.” Scratch that sentence from your resume, netaji!

Sleeper cells

The impact on the political parties is, of course, more fundamental and deeper. Already we are getting to hear about victorious candidates in other states going door to door to thank their voters and the party cadres have started asking questions of their leadership. At a conference organised by the BJP’s intellectual cell recently, it was the AAP that was the elephant in the room though the topic of discussion was something else: “Rise of the BJP and decline of the Congress”!

When the floor was opened for comments and questions, worker after worker stood up to question the leadership on why they have moved so far away from the common man and why they pick the candidates they pick. A few of them went straight for the jugular of party president Rajnath Singh.
“How can the national president of the BJP say that we should ask people to vote for Narendra Modi and not the candidates?” asked one. “We need to pick at least 272 Modis if not all 543,” said another and a third questioned: “The BJP has always stood for collective leadership, how can it now propagate personality cult?” This prompted one of the organiser to whisper into my ears in awe: “We are sitting here at the BJP’s national headquarters and party workers from a local unit are directly questioning the national president of the party. This is what Kejriwal has done to political parties.”

These sleeper cells of party workers and leaders who hold the same idealism as Kejriwal exist in every party, except that they have been side-lined. They will raise their heads and will find new voice when the time comes for selecting candidates for 2014. Mulayam Singh’s outburst against the goondaism of his party workers does not stem from any sense of remorse for allowing that culture to creep into the Samajwadi Party’s DNA but a mortal fear of the electorate rejecting criminals and goondas in 2014.

The challenge for Kejriwal will come from within, from the very basic nature of human beings to internalise power and restrict its spread. Take this small exercise that Hindi news channel Samay did, for example. Because AAP came to power on the promise of “service” of the people and not power-mongering, the channel asked all 27 AAP legislators if they had stepped up voluntarily to relieve Kejriwal of the burden of choosing a cabinet of six from 27. It turned out that only one MLA, Surendra Kumar of Delhi Cantt, had done so. All the others gave politically correct answers about how they are disciplined soldiers and would accept the decision of the leadership. This reveals two things: one, how fast the ordinary can aspire for the special and, two, that ambition makes no distinction between the two. Idealism is not an easy test to pass and that will forever be Kejriwal’s bugbear now that he is a career politician.  
But for the immediate now, Kejriwal – that is, what he represents – is a national phenomenon that will have a huge impact on the 2014 elections, both in the way that the electorate will behave and in the way that political parties will exercise extreme care in choosing allies and candidates. It is for this reason that it will not be easy for Narendra Modi to re-admit Yedyurappa into the party. We can say with near certainty that the party’s gates are closed to notorious criminals, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, at least for 2014.

But political parties need not despair. Because AAP has captured the imagination, the deeper message of the Delhi election has been lost. The BJP was never in the race right up to six weeks prior to the election. It was always going to be AAP vs the Congress. Only when Harsh Vardhan was projected as the chief ministerial candidate and Modi campaigned intensively, the BJP came into the game. AAP’s internal surveys showed them winning hands down with about 48 seats. (This was borne out by the fact that AAP got 28 seats and came second in 20 – in 18 of them behind the BJP). This accurate pre-poll survey seemed to have unnerved the voter at the last minute about catapulting a debutant right up there. So, unlike popular belief, it is not the AAP that stopped the BJP but the other way round.

This is the positive takeaway for traditional political parties. If it showed that the electorate is sick of politics of intrigue, corruption and criminality, it also showed that if a traditional party offers credible leadership the electorate will repose more faith in the proven than in the sudden.

So expect to find more PLUs (people like us) to figure on the list of political parties this summer because the ordinary has just trounced winnability at the hustings. Actually, it is the new criterion for winnability. The ordinary has never been so exciting, so invigorating and so full of promise. This New Year eve then, raise a toast to the ordinary. Because that’s the new extraordinary.

(This story appeared in the January 1-15, 2014 issue of the print magazine. The article first appeared in the Economic Times)

 

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