He is not so much the aam
aadmi as he is the caricature of an aam aadmi. He is like the Punjab
Power employee Shah Rukh Khan plays in Rab ne Bana di Jodi, who, out of a kind of shame at his ordinariness, adopts a Bergerac-esque proxy to win the love of his wife.
There is one charge, above all others, that has not left Arvind
Kejriwal’s side this election. It is that, when faced with the hard
practical reality of running an administration in Delhi, he fled the
field, returning once more to the only thing he knows: the life of
To this, Kejriwal has responded in an understandable way. He
has tried to turn a weakness into a strength. Like the writer who, made
aware of a flaw in his book, pretends it is not a flaw at all but part
of the book’s strength, Kejriwal has, on numerous occasions, spoken of
the courage needed to leave the Chief Minister’s chair in Delhi. He has
invoked the life of renunciation. Doston, inko kya pata tyaag kya hota hai!
He has compared his leaving Delhi to Ram leaving Ayodhya. It has been a
valiant effort, but, in my view, unconvincing. The charge is too
It is serious not just because it is on everyone’s lips; not just
because it has harmed him politically, earning him one of this
election’s most damning epithets: bhagoda; no, it is serious
because it goes to the heart of our fears about the Aam Aadmi Party.
These include fears of anarchy, intolerance, an inability to work with
others. But, of all these, one stands out in my mind. It is the fear
that Arvind Kejriwal is that most dangerous of all political animals:
the messiah. The man for whom any existing reality is too impure to be
corrected, and who strives for some necessarily vague Utopia, which he,
alone, by what feels like an act of faith, will bring into being.
messiah is dangerous because he is at bottom a nihilist. I have written
before, in a different context: ‘Every man who ever dreamt up a
Utopia was animated far more by the wish to purge than to build. I would
say, too, that the great flaw in any Utopia is the intellectually lazy
notion—and one capable of unspeakable violence—that if only the society
were cleansed or purged of some particular undesirable element, the
Utopia would automatically— come into being. That nothing more would
need to be done.’
In the case of Arvind Kejriwal, that undesirable element—the
fire by which all aims will magically be realised, all evils
cleansed—is Corruption. It came up again and again in a speech I heard
him give in Harsos, a small village on the rural edge of this
constituency. It was the first time I was hearing him speak, and I was
at once alarmed and fascinated.
Let me say first that it is difficult to exaggerate the extent to
which this man is physically unimpressive. He has thin long arms; a
small frame and, one suspects, a flaccid body; he wears baggy clothes in
dull colours, and carries a blue Reynolds pen in his pocket. There is
the trace of a whine in his voice. He is not so much the aam aadmi as he is the caricature of an aam aadmi. He is like the Punjab Power employee Shah Rukh Khan plays in Rab ne Bana di Jodi, who, out of a kind of shame at his ordinariness, adopts a Bergerac-esque proxy to win the love of his wife.
Yet—and this is what makes his physicality so fascinating— under this
drab diminutive appearance, this Gogolian picture of the government
servant, there lies an iron-willed monster of perseverance and
doggedness. When his party men say, “Modi will never find a fiercer,
more relentless opponent than Kejriwal,” I believe them. And when
Kejriwal himself says: “I have not run away. Antim saans taq tumhari chhati pe moong daalunga,”
I believe him too. It is, in fact, in this combination of physical
puniness and inward strength that the resemblance to Gandhi becomes
striking in more ways than one. For, like Gandhi, Kejriwal’s vision of
what he seeks to dismantle is all too real and tangible, but what he
wishes to put in its place—that kingdom of heaven he wishes to lead us
into—is pure chimera.
One never hears him utter a harsh word against what must be the
fountainhead of corruption in this country, the Indian state. In fact,
if one were to close one’s eyes and imagine Kejriwal’s India, it would
be a giant expanse, reaching as far as the eye could see, of two- and
three-storey government flats, in Sovietised shades of blue, beige and
grey, packed full of pious government servants, leading a dreary
existence on subsidised gas, housing, water and electricity.
But haven’t we—you might well ask—already rejected this vision of
India? Isn’t that what this election is about? Hasn’t India, having
already sampled the genius of the Indian state, come out in significant
numbers to say: no, we do not want that India. And not simply because it
doesn’t work or is corrupt, but because it is shabby and lifeless and
stifles the spirit. Have we not already opted for the other India?
Which, crude as it may still be, is the India of roads and malls and
IPLs—Sheila and Munni’s India!
Do we not agree that, at this stage in
our development, we have more to fear from big government than big
business? Is it not generally acknowledged that the source of corruption
in this country is a State that preys on private enterprise, rather
than private enterprise preying on the State? And is it not true that
India’s daily encounter with corruption occurs, not in the Reliance or
Vodafone shop, but in the government office?
Kejriwal—that scourge of Corruption—does not reflect this in his
politics at all. He is far more willing to demonise business than the
In fact, one of the things that has intrigued me this election is the
kind of anger I sense for Kejriwal’s brand of austerity. The AAP will
tell you that the violence against its volunteers is all
BJP-sponsored—and, no doubt, some of it is. But some of it is also
spontaneous. They seem to arouse a kind of contempt. I have witnessed it
in all quarters, now in a driver at the Harsos rally, who, on seeing
Kejriwal in his Scorpio, might say: “Yeh simplicity kuchh zyaada toh nahi ho gayi?” Now, in some BHU students, jeering at AAP workers taking a boat ride on the Ganga: “Lagta hai ke pehli baar boat mein jaa rahein hain.” Or, here, in a man who took me aside in Chitvan gym, to say: “Kejriwal se zyaada diwaaliya insaan maine kabhi nahi dekha hai. Voh maansik rogi hai.” And, even at the little protest outside my house, a BHU student muttered: “Isko toh main bhi thhapadh maar sakta hun.”
India, it seems, knows what to do with simplicity when it comes in the
form of a holy man— Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, Anna Hazare. It is far less
sure of what to do with it when it comes in the form of Arvind Kejriwal.
Still, it is something of a miracle that he exists at all. Wrong-
headed as his politics may be, there is no greater tribute to the
democracy we live in than its ability, less than two years after
Kejriwal was fasting in the streets of Delhi, to have absorbed him
electorally. I will say, too, that the people who comprise his
party—many of whom have left their jobs to serve the cause— are among
the most decent people to ever enter politics. And, whether they win or
lose, they will have forever altered the political culture of this
country. Already, due largely to their advent, there is a growing
conviction that politics need not be the province of the cynical
professional, but that ordinary people, tired of what they see around
them, can and must step forward.
This is not AAP’s election. Many of them know as much. They would
like to be, they say, Modi’s main opposition. They are hoping for
100-150 seats. They are dreaming. It would have been much better had
they stayed in Delhi and proved that their politics was more than a
politics of protest. And yet, that morning when I left them in their
small silent circle on the edge of the Ganga, and found myself swept up
in Modi’s jansailaabh, an angry flood of youth, testosterone,
hope and pride, which was, by turns, exciting and scary, I could not
help but feel what a good thing it would be for Indian democracy if, in
Modi’s hour of triumph, the man tasked with whispering ‘memento mori’ in his ear was none other than this most formidable of former taxmen.