The ubiquitous Rotary Clubs are a decent indicator of the urban upper middle class mood. Rotarians are often professionals with a conscience: from blood donation drives to charity runs, they like to feel involved with public service. One of my first assignments as a journalist in 1989 was to cover a Rotary Club event in Mumbai.
The guest speaker was Vishwanath Pratap Singh who had just left the Rajiv Gandhi government to form his own Jan Morcha. The hall was abuzz with excitement: bejewelled South Mumbai ladies and their powerful husbands were in a tizzy. “Isn’t he just the kind of man this country needs?” was the dominant chorus. My story was headlined: ‘Middle class messiah takes South Mumbai by storm!’
Exactly 25 years later, the Rotarians are excited again. Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is the flavour of the season and there is a similar air of anticipation at the coming of another Mr Clean who will wipe the dirt away from our stained polity. Is the jhadu the new Janata Dal-style wheel of hope, is Kejriwal the new age VP, is the muffler going to be a style statement like the Karakul cap was then and is 2014 a bit like 1989 all over again?
Remember 1989? It was the infamous Bofors election where VP Singh went around the country claiming that he had in his pocket the Swiss bank account number of the Bofors kickback beneficiaries, including the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Corruption was the defining agenda of the election and VP Singh rode the wave. The account number was never revealed, and a year later, the same middle class, which had embraced him, attacked his decision to implement the Mandal commission report on OBC reservations.
In 2014 too, corruption has become a central theme in the election lexicon. Twenty-five years ago, the Indian voter chose to reject the Rajiv Gandhi government out of a sense of disillusionment that someone in whom they had invested such high hopes had let them down.
Today, it’s a similar sense of anger that one perceives against Dr Manmohan Singh, once another middle class hero, now accused of being a modern day Dhritarashtra who allowed corruption to flourish under his watch.
Kejriwal has been the immediate beneficiary of this public anger against the ruling establishment. After all, it was he who made corruption a focal point during the Lokpal agitation in 2011. Anna Hazare may have been the face of the agitation, but it was Kejriwal who was its brain.
The success of the movement catapulted him from being just another well-meaning NGO activist into a politician to be reckoned with. Delhi in particular, a city burdened by an oppressive VIP culture and by screaming headlines of large scale corruption, was literally waiting for a Kejriwal-like figure. His victory, in a sense, was the rebellion of the aam aadmi against the khaas aadmi ‘don’t you know who I am’ Dilli culture.
But now, as AAP announces its national ambitions for the Lok Sabha elections, the big question is: is Delhi India? Well, not quite. Firstly, varying caste and community loyalties make winning India an incredibly difficult proposition.
Yes, there are states like Haryana where, like in Delhi, the major political formations stand discredited on the issue of corruption. Here, AAP can provide a more wholesome political alternative to the Hoodas and the Chautalas. But across India, the space for a new brand of politics is uneven.
A Delhi truly belongs to no one, with a large migrant population overwhelming local identities. But cities like Kolkata, Mumbai, even Chennai have strong regional forces that will challenge any ‘outsider’.
Kejriwal, thus, needs to show a readiness to align with like-minded, credible groups, like a Jaiprakash Narayan of a Loksatta in Andhra Pradesh, if he is to have a national impact. An unswerving ‘Ekla Chalo Re’ philosophy that views all other politicians with suspicion will not work in the age of coalitions as he is slowly finding out.
Secondly, and crucially, there is the Narendra Modi factor. The media might be obsessing with the Delhi verdict, but the other big story of the 2013 elections was Rajasthan: for the BJP to win 80% of the seats in a historically closely fought state suggests a mini wave in the saffron combine’s favour across the Hindi heartland.
To return to the 1989 parallel: don’t forget that this was the election when the BJP too made its first major national impact. Then, it was Hindutva and ram mandir that were the propellants; now it is Moditva and the promise of strong leadership.
Thirdly, there is the crucial ‘youth’ vote, synonymous with an aspirational India. This India wants high growth, decisive leaders but, above all else, good governance. Today, Kejriwal’s supporters seek to contrast their leader’s simple living with the BJP PM nominee’s rather luxurious personal tastes, calling it also a battle between humility and hubris, between a leader of the poor and one of the privileged.
Kejriwal has genuine goodwill on his side, but on the critical parameter of governance, the AAP leader is yet untested unlike Modi who has shown sharp administrative skills. If he can rise above rhetoric, promise less and deliver more, Kejriwal will be a politician to watch. But if a media driven euphoria consumes Team Kejriwal, he runs the risk that has confronted middle class heroes before him: men in a hurry who end up victims of their own success.
Post-script: In a CNN IBN-CSDS poll in October, nearly half of those who wanted Kejriwal as Delhi chief minister said they preferred Modi as their prime ministerial choice. Rotarians who now want a slice of Kejriwal were the biggest cheerleaders for Modi just a few months ago. Change is in the air: the winter may have belonged to Kejriwal, but who’ll take the summer?