2013, Essay, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

2012: The Big Crossover Bid–From Rishi to Raja

Jan 1, 2012: The hubbub of political power in India, or its predecessor entities, has seldom existed unaccompanied by the corrective — and often contrary — decibel of the moral voice. Rajas had their rishis, the sultans their sufis, even the merchant-kings of Europe came informed by more than just the motive of profit; they had the Church and contentious burdens of the White Man.

Kejriwal: Rishi? Raja?
Kejriwal: Rishi? Raja?

Elected Prime Ministers have civil society. Under the current one, the moral voice is an entity called the National Advisory Council, institutionalised under the tutelage of Sonia Gandhi, dowager-regent of the UPA. It could well be that such co-option of civil society created a counterblast whose implications we are probably yet to fully understand.

When the Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal duo raised their standard of reform two years ago they grabbed the nation’s eyeballs and the Establishment’s neck. It was a stir that led many — from callow idealists to disruptive town criers — to mistake it as India’s Tahrir Square, a burgeoning bivouac that would close siege on the institutions of state and eventually impose on them a new Magna Carta of “people’s power” whose central edict would be the “Jan Lokpal”.

The institutions held. The sit-ins melted. The Lokpal became a disputed phantom desperately seeking incarnation in the Houses of Parliament. The Hazare-Kejriwal tandem came apart. Then Kejriwal did what few of his preceding ombudsmen of power politics have bothered with or dared. He joined power politics.

Mohandas Gandhi, whose name and symbolism Kejriwal clearly wanted to invoke — his crossover was formalised on October 2 — never ever did, choosing to remain across the moat from power, even suggesting, however weakly, that the Congress should disband itself now that it was done with achieving its objective of independence for India.

Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), who became the rallying force of what many called India’s second freedom struggle — the campaign against Emergency in the mid-1970s — similarly eschewed power. He swore the Janata Party government to commitments to Gandhi’s ideals at Raj Ghat in 1977 and quietly watched its swift and messy descent from his deathbed in Jaslok Hospital.

Kejriwal claims the fibre of Gandhi and JP — a moral voice raised against derelictions of the political establishment — but he has cut himself a different cloth. He no longer believes it is quite enough to try and inspire changes from the outside; politics is best changed — or not changed — by politicians. It’s a lesson he may have learnt from the incomplete course of the “Jan Lokpal” effort — the political class made promises that were all well-meaning, never really meant.

What Kejriwal is in the process of attempting is many things. To many among his civil society colleagues, Kejriwal has cleaved a path they dispute. Hazare recoiled quickly from the idea of active politics; Kiran Bedi, another lead act of the “Jan Lokpal” stage, pulled away, noticeably equivocal on whether she will embrace politics at a later stage.

Others like Aruna Roy, Medha Patkar, Shekhar Singh and Rajendra Singh have chosen not to comment but their outlook remains distinct from

Kejriwal’s because they have displayed no copycat temptation for power politics.

But what the Gandhi-hatted spearhead of India Against Corruption is attempting is also singular and unique.

Government servant to lobbyist to protester to disobedience activist to politician is a transition few have even attempted, much less achieved. Ever so often candidates for crossover have erupted on the public skyline — a G.R. Khairnar, a K.J. Alphonse, an Arun Bhatia — but none of them had either the energy or the ambition to attempt a crossover.

At 44, Kejriwal is arguably India’s most powerful politician without a single vote to his name. Or a political party to call his own. He has presented himself to be reckoned with, a man who faults nearly everything that has so far transpired in our multi-party democracy; a man who purports, almost single-handed, to right what he rails against.

He will hope to do better than his proxy foray into the Hisar by-election in October 2011, for he has now entered an arena that will demand more of him than just raising questions and flinging darts. He will be asked questions, he will have darts flung at him; he is now one with those that he has so far been lavishing with derision — the political class.

It’s a hard club: they ask for tickets at the gate and those tickets only come from electoral success. Kejriwal needs a vote to his name, many more, in fact, than just one. Each one will test him, and he will probably learn that very few are given away solely for displaying white-capped virtue. The transition from rishi to raja will require more than a new cut of cloth.

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