The year 2011 was the year of Anna Hazare, as a septuagenarian activist was literally lifted out of near-retirement to be projected as a modern-day Gandhi. Four years later, Anna has returned to the anonymity of the village square at Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra but the torch-bearers of his anti-corruption movement are back on the national centre stage in an all new avatar and in a dramatically transformed context.
Then, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi were on the same side: Both Magsaysay award winners, their presence gave the Anna agitation a legitimacy among a middle-class that was incensed with vaulting political corruption. They were both, after all, middle class heroes. The charismatic Bedi was much the better-known, the first woman Indian Police Service officer with a reputation for being a tough, no-nonsense upholder of law and order. The feisty Kejriwal too, had made his mark as a right to information activist, an IITian and Indian Revenue Service officer who had sacrificed his career in the bureaucracy to raise people’s concerns. Both were challenging the status quo; both were seeking to dent the ruling establishment.
Then, the political class was seen as the common “enemy”: Who can forget Bedi’s rather unsavoury mimicking of politicians from the Ramlila Maidan stage, with the punchline being “sab neta chor hai”. Kejriwal too, was no less contemptuous of the main political parties, suggesting the Congress and the BJP were two sides of the same corrupt coin. At the time, staying “apolitical” gave them a certain moral superiority in the prevailing anti-politician mood; now, both Kejriwal and Bedi have dived into the hurly-burly of electoral politics, only the one-time allies have become staunch adversaries. Then, they were seeking to gherao Parliament; now they are seeking to be elected representatives themselves.
Kejriwal might claim that he hasn’t fallen for the allurement of traditional politics, preferring instead to take the tougher road of forming his own Aam Admi Party as an anti-Congress, anti-BJP alternative. Bedi, on the other hand, has succumbed to the temptation of seeking instant gratification, her move to join the BJP just ahead of the elections an example of well-crafted opportunism: She was keen for a greater leadership role and the BJP was desperate to neutralise the impression that it lacked a strong and credible local leadership in Delhi.
And yet, a potential Kejriwal versus Bedi contest for the Delhi chief ministership opens a fascinating window in Indian politics. For much too long, Indian politics has been dominated by the old-style cliques: The Congress has its dynasties who have refused to yield space to those who don’t have famous surnames while the BJP has had its leaders who zealously guard their turf. Now, we have two gatecrashers who in their own way are challenging the conventional rules of the game. Both are not professional politicians, but successful middle-class professionals who are seeking space in the political sun based on their track record in public life, not through the patron-client networks that run deep in our political process.
Kejriwal’s has been the start-up model, brimming with the energy and excitement of a spirit of voluntarism. His decision to leave government in 49 days may have sparked disillusionment amongst his many supporters, but the very fact that he is still in the fight a year later suggests that he isn’t a one-election wonder. To that extent, his continuing relevance can inspire those who want to explore politics beyond a conventional two-party system and shake up the cosy political-corporate power cliques. If, on the other hand, the BJP were to win and Bedi was to become Delhi chief minister, it would mean the end of almost two generations of BJP leaders who have hankered for the top job.
In normal times, this would have led to unrest within the BJP. But then these are not normal times for the BJP. The rise of Narendra Modi as a larger-than-life figure has meant that there is little room for dissent: While there have been stray protests after Bedi’s anointment as the BJP’s Delhi’s heir apparent, the unhappiness is unlikely to explode into a revolt. Just as actor-turned-politician Smriti Irani has found, a multiple promotion is possible if you have the blessings of the Supreme Leader who, Bedi rather sycophantically finds, has “the most beautiful face” in the world.
In the process, the traditional hierarchies within the party are being shaken and “outsiders” are being provided a foothold in what was perceived as a closed shop. Earlier, the celebrities who joined politics were seen as little more than item numbers: They were meant to draw in the crowds but had to yield to their political superiors when it came to holding important positions. Now, if middle-class icons are rewarded for connecting to the voter, it shows a shift in stance. Not all of them will be electorally successful — witness Nandan Nilekani’s defeat to an Ananth Kumar in the Lok Sabha election — but at least they aren’t being treated as marginal figures any longer.
In a sense, the success of a Kejriwal or a Bedi will offer hope to the many skilled professionals who might want to take the plunge into formal politics but are wary of being eased out by an unethical, non-meritocratic old order. Their success could also end the mood of cynicism, ironically promoted by the Team Anna movement, that politics is “dirty business” which has no place for people of talent and integrity. The Anna “revolution” may have been stillborn and failed to give the country a robust lokpal, but at least it has opened the doors to new faces in public life. Even if we don’t get a much-desired televised debate, just the presence of two Magsaysay award winners in leadership roles is enough reason to hope that what Delhi thinks today, the nation will embrace tomorrow.
Post script: While the media focus remains on Bedi and Kejriwal, the irony is that the most experienced candidate for CM is perhaps the professional politician: The Congress’s Ajay Maken. It just so happens that in 2015, he is the right man in the wrong party at the wrong time.
(The article first appeared in Hindustan times)