Sunday, January 26, 2014

The papier-mache Mahatma

By Swapan Dasgupta

On December 23, 1987, incensed by the Faizabad district order opening the locks of the disputed shrine in Ayodhya, Syed Shahabuddin and the newly-formed All India Babri Masjid Conference gave a call for Muslims to “not associate themselves with official functions”.  Although the call was quickly withdrawn following a national outrage, it was perhaps the first time a non-secessionist body had called for a boycott of Republic Day.

Few things in India are sacred but all political parties and all citizens who believe that their “idea of India” must necessarily include faith in the Indian Constitution accord a special place to the country’s two national days. It is a measure of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s astonishing recklessness and arrogance that he felt no inhibitions threatening the disruption of the Republic Day parade by “lakhs” of Aam Aadmi Party supporters.

What is equally mystifying that this grave threat was issued because his demand for the suspension of four SHOs had not been entertained by the Lt-Governor of Delhi. When Shahabuddin craved for attention 25 years ago, he did so for a big, albeit misplaced, cause. Kejriwal’s iconoclasm was centred on the fact that lowly police officers had dared to say no to one permanently angry Rakhee Birla and one Somnath Bharti who is more caricature than real. His anger knew no bounds and TV resonated with gems from Kejriwal: “If they don’t listen to ministers, who will they listen to?”; “Who is (Home Minister) Shinde to tell the Chief Minister of Delhi where to sit. The Chief Minister can tell him where he can sit.” Frankly, Cartoon Network couldn’t have done better.

Kejriwal is an interesting human being. Like many self-professed messiahs who appear from time to time, he believes that he and only he has the monopoly of truth and virtuousness: those who contest his intellectual infallibility are either Congress/ BJP agents or, better still, plain dishonest. From swearing by his children to pretending that some things just didn’t happen because he says it didn’t, Kejriwal is contemporary India’s papier mache Mahatma.

Mohandas Gandhi, the other Mahatma, was one of the wiliest politicians who left his opponents both angry and mystified. From Viceroy Lord Irwin to the sun-hardened India hands in the colonial service, there was no agreement as to whether Gandhi was a saint who had unwittingly strayed into politics, a familiar seditious lawyer who had improvised his dress or a plain oriental humbug. There was never any unanimity as to what Gandhi stood for and, indeed, the man India venerates as its sole Mahatma stood for different things at different times. Like most people engaged in politics, philosophical or even issue-based consistency was not the hallmark of the ‘Father of the Nation”.

For many of his new-found supporters, Kejriwal is indeed the new Gandhi—and they say so in their slogans. In many ways, AAP’s supreme leader consciously cultivates that image. Like Gandhi, he has made a virtue of simplicity which, given the lifestyle excesses of India’s political class, is an admirable attribute. Like Gandhi, he has learnt the art of appearing to be obstinate, particularly in his relationship with his colleagues. He often conveys the impressionable that he is blessed with the monopoly of both the truth and tactical wisdom. At the same time, his version of truth is negotiable and susceptible to periodic revisions. When he contested the elections he did so never imagining that one day he would need Congress support to form a government which his support base desperately wanted. Consequently, he pretended that the past go-it-alone-at-all-cost assurance never existed and still doesn’t exist. It is a different matter that a confused, Rahul Gandhi-directed Congress constantly gives him the opening to persist with the charade.

Kejriwal boasted he was an anarchist and seemed to ready to man the barricades. The very next day he went back to work, with his smooth-talking ideologues swearing their undying allegiance to the Constitution. What had changed? The answer lies in Kejriwal’s ability to effect a tactical retreat when the occasion so demands. Compromise and intransigence seem to go hand in hand with him. On the question of funding of his party and, earlier, his movement, Kejriwal maintains a need-based flexibility that may, in future, land him in a spot of bother. He can replace the skull cap with the AAP cap, feign outrage at the “fake encounter” at Batla House and preach an inclusive secularism. At the same time, he can turn a blind eye to the worst verbal excesses of a Kumar Vishwas and a Somnath Bharti and even embrace the regressive logic of a khap panchayat. And he piously proclaim his supporters join him for a do-or-die battle and when the turnout proves hugely disappointing, he first tries to manufacture a confrontation and, when that fails, quietly negotiate a face-saving settlement—and proclaim it as a huge victory.

Kejriwal seeks to change the rules of the political game just as Gandhi did. The “useful idiots”—one of Lenin’s memorable descriptions of the do-gooders who backed the brutalities of the Bolsheviks—go along with him and wish for a bout of honest disruption. The turbulence is backed by a media that gives AAP unprecedented and sympathetic publicity that in turn encourages Kejriwal to press the accelerator harder.

Yet there is a difference. Gandhi was fighting for national independence and self-rule. Under the guise of participative democracy, Kejriwal is seeking to go beyond reforms. He wants to unsettle India and keep it in a state of permanent turbulence. That is an agenda most Indians can do without, even if it is articulated by a self-righteous man who wears honesty on his sleeve.

Kejriwal is making a difference: he is transforming the coming electoral battle to a choice between anarchy and growth. May the better cause win. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, January 24, 2014

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