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The 'K' factor
Rookie politician Arvind Kejriwal did the unthinkable last week. He pointed an accusing finger at Gandhi family son-in-law Robert Vadra for amassing huge wealth in a short span of time through questionable deals with real estate giant DLF. As all hell broke loose, both the Congress and the BJP were left shell shocked. They were stunned, not so much by the revelations about Vadra (which have been a hot topic of political gossip for over a year now), but by Kejriwal's audacity. For, the new kid on the block had just broken the Omerta code of Indian politics: never rake muck about family members of top leaders in public. Kejriwal was unapologetic about crossing the Rubicon, the line observed by most mainstream parties, and dragging the country's first son-in-law into his line of fire. "Some people in this country are holy cows. People are scared to speak up about them, " he told Times Now. "We want to expose these holy cows so that people have the courage to talk about them. " But the political class was not amused. "There are some unwritten rules of our politics, " a senior BJP leader told TOI-Crest. (He did not want to be identified. ) "We never spare our opponents but we make it a point not to make an issue of their personal life unless there is open abuse of power. We help even opposition leaders with medical treatment, with school and college admissions. I don't want to take names but there are innumerable examples of such give and take in our politics. "
There was always something daringly different about Kejriwal. When he was outside the tent, pissing on the system through a unique social media inspired anti-corruption movement with gummy old Gandhian Anna Hazare as a mascot, he was reviled as an anarchist and anti-democratic. Now that he's inside the tent, having announced his intention to form a political party, he's still pissing on the system with wanton disregard for conventional terms of engagement. If the political establishment thought it could tame him by daring him to join electoral politics, it had clearly read him wrong. Kejriwal is the ultimate maverick, determined to break several eggs and shake things up.
Is he then the game-changer India's moribund politics has been waiting for, the piped piper who will lead the rats to their destruction with sniper shot exposes of corruption? Or is he just a flash in the pan, a rootless wonder without a base, an organization or staying power? These and other questions will be answered in the months ahead as Kejriwal kicks off his new party and challenges the established political order. But there is no denying that he already has the Congress and the BJP running for cover, the Congress because of corruption charges that lead to the very top and the BJP because it has come out looking weak, ineffectual and thoroughly compromised in the war on corruption.
It is ironic that Kejriwal's Vadra salvo should have hit both national parties equally hard, albeit in different ways. The Congress is extremely rattled, as is evident from its flip-flop defensive strategies, first sending out top ministers to defend Vadra and then withdrawing them when there was a backlash. This seemed to be Bofors Mark 2 without Rajiv Gandhi's huge majority in Parliament to buffer them.
But the BJP too is shaken. "Yes, Kejriwal has stolen our thunder. And rightly so, " admitted a party leader and strategist. Last year, the BJP had in its possession the same documents Kejriwal waved at his press conference but after an intense discussion, the leadership decided not to rake up the issue in Parliament even after submitting a motion in each House asking for a discussion. In an oblique reference to the Omerta code of silence, Sushma Swaraj is supposed to have insisted that children not be dragged into political controversy while Rajnath Singh apparently said that most political leader's offspring are involved in real estate deals.
In hindsight, as Kejriwal hogs the limelight and tickles a middle class appetite for exposes on corruption in high places, the BJP realizes that it missed an opportunity to regain a constituency it had lost to the Congress in the 2009 election. Instead of the main opposition party, the face of a yet-to-be-born party is grabbing eyeballs in urban India.
Kejriwal has two things going for him: his knack of picking up issues that resonate with middle India which is the core voter base of both national parties;and his bid to take political protest back to the streets in novel ways. The BJP opted to stall Parliament over Coalgate and battled the Congress on familiar turf. Kejriwal jumped on the graft charges against law minister Salman Khurshid and threatened to gherao Sonia Gandhi's residence till he resigns.
Or look at the way he stole the bijli agitation from under the BJP's nose. Invited to join the BJP protest against the recent electricity tariff hike in Delhi, Kejriwal took the mike and lashed out at the party for colluding with the Congress government in the capital city. BJP leader Vijay Goel, who was standing helplessly next to him, was virtually in tears. He complained later that Kejriwal was "weakening" the fight against the Congress. While Goel did the usual dharna, Kejriwal turned up at the house of labourer whose electricity meter had been disconnected due to non-payment of an inflated bill and with much fanfare, first tore up his bill and then reconnected the meter. It was a great photo op and has since become a talking point in the city.
Those who have known Kejriwal from his early years as an activist say he is terrifyingly ambitious and hugely publicity-hungry. He always wants to be in the spotlight. There is no question that Kejriwal's recent stunts have been geared to snatching as much television time as possible. But then a fledgling politician fighting big guns like the Congress and the BJP probably has to be over-the-top to be noticed. In a communications era, the name of the game is publicity.
This is just the beginning. Kejriwal has consistently maintained that his entry into politics is not about winning or losing elections. It's about changing the way politics functions in the country so that it becomes people-centric and participatory instead of top down. He has his task cut out for him. To sustain his campaign till the elections roll around, when the Kejriwal effect will be put to test, he will have to ensure that he is always one step ahead of the Congress and the BJP, that he maintains a constant flow of novel ideas and that he doesn't slip as he climbs higher. It's a gamble. If Kejriwal has the stomach and stamina, political engagement could be a whole new ball game in the future, without any holy cows and codes of silence.
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