Arvind Kejriwal: Can he make an impact in politics?

By Parthasarathy Chaganty, IANS,

No individual has dominated the Indian political space more than Arvind Kejriwal in recent weeks. The reason is that he has done the unthinkable: levelled corruption charges against the family of Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful woman in India, and Nitin Gadkari, the Bharatiya Janata Party president. Next in line was Reliance Industries Ltd of Mukesh Ambani, the richest Indian. The allegations may or may not stand legal scrutiny but there is no mistaking their rattling effect.

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A Magsaysay award winner and a former Indian Revenue Service officer, Kejriwal shot into prominence last year when he joined social activist Anna Hazare. Their agitation attracted unexpected and massive public support, forcing the UPA government to bring out a Lokpal (ombudsman) bill to tackle corruption at the political and bureaucratic level with an added sense of urgency. That bill, rejected by India Against Corruption (IAC), is now with a Parliamentary Standing Committee but is no longer a pressing issue now.

The anti-corruption movement began to lose its momentum. Kejriwal realized there was no shying away from the political process. As Hazare was reluctant to enter electoral politics, Kejriwal decided to set out on his own with some IAC members and has finalized plans to launch a new political party. Launching a party may not be difficult but making it count can be challenging, more so when it seeks to be driven by a single-point agenda of rooting out corruption.

The truth is that issues like fight against corruption can appeal to urban middle class and occasionally succeed in mobilizing flash mobs but are unlikely to serve as foundation for a political party. For instance, Communists in India are for the most part untainted by corruption but they never go to town about it. Their support base has more to do with ideology than perceived probity.

In a space crowded by seven national parties, 30-odd state level parties and a multitude of unrecognized parties, it is no mean a task for a new party to carve out its own constituency. Further, election strategies in India are based on the composition of the electorate in terms of religion and caste and promises of sops and caste-based job reservations. Fighting elections is an increasingly expensive proposition.

If Kejriwal’s new party wishes to stick to its high morals and is content just to make a formal entry into the political arena, such a foray is not going to make any difference for several years to come, if ever. However, given his unmistakable ambition, Kejriwal is more likely to come to terms gradually with the realities of electoral politics and forge pre-election alliances with select parties without being unduly concerned with their source of funding or type of candidates they field. Since he has chosen to jolt both the Congress and BJP, it is evident he will try to position his party in the Third Front space.

It is in this context Kejriwal’s ideology and views on important matters merit attention. His opposition to market mechanism and profit motivation, unqualified faith in the wisdom and integrity of village committees to decide how to spend development funds and outrageous statements attributed to him like “If you want to change the system, you have to break laws”, and such other pointers are cause for concern. It is possible his views are still at a formative stage and amenable to change through constructive interaction. Since the basic intent of the crusader is laudable, every effort should be made to draw him out through persistent engagement so that his views on issues like inclusive growth and empowerment are not divorced from reality and he commits to respect democratic institutions and the rule of law.

(06-11-2012-Parthasarathy Chaganty is a Mumbai-based commentator who has worked as a management consultant. He can be contacted at [email protected])