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Political Pitch

The party pooper?

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MAKING CAPITAL: By announcing that his party will contest next year's Delhi state polls, Kejriwal (right) has shrewdly made the capital his high-visibility battleground

BSP was the last party born out of a movement, and it's still confined to UP. Can Kejriwal hope to succeed where many others have failed?

The mainstream political parties rather patronisingly welcomed Team Anna member Arvind Kejriwal's foray into electoral politics last week. Oh, everyone has the right to join politics and form a party. That was the complacent refrain from leaders of both the Congress and the BJP as they privately scoffed at a possible threat to their dominance from the yet-to-be-born party that Kejriwal promises will be one with a difference.

History would suggest that they have a point in being so dismissive. Independent candidates without backing from established parties, even those as high profile as multinational banker Meera Sanyal (who contested the South Mumbai seat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections) and aviation entrepreneur Captain Gopinath (who stood from South Bangalore in the same election), have usually fared poorly in elections. Both Sanyal and Gopinath lost their security deposits. And the last party born out of a movement, not splinter groups of mainstream parties, the BSP, took 20 years to win power. But it remains confined to UP, its efforts elsewhere in the country barely creating a ripple despite some solid backing from dalit groups.

So why then is Kejriwal grabbing eyeballs and getting disproportionate media attention, to the extent that his announcement at a smallish rally in Delhi was covered live by some TV channels? Was it a hangover from the excitement that the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement generated all of last year? Was it because his party could be the first political outfit that promises to represent the interests of the middle classes who have been feeling neglected and ignored in the rise of identity and caste-based politics in the Mandalised decades of the 1990s and 2000s? Or was it just the novelty factor, which will vanish in a few months, as both the BJP and Congress seem to believe?

These questions will be answered as Kejriwal tests his luck at the hustings. But till then, the upcoming party is showing signs of developing into a cracking headache for the BJP and the Congress in their citadel, Delhi.

There are shrewd calculations behind the decision to make the capital the battleground. Delhi was the epicentre of the Anna movement and Kejriwal & Co obviously hope that their party will have immediate traction here. In addition, the city's sensibilities are largely urban middle class, which is the constituency they are appealing to. Thirdly, they would be challenging both national parties in one sweep. And of course, high visibility in the capital gets them top-of-the-line publicity.

Kejriwal fired his first salvo at the Congress on Friday, leveling corruption charges at the country's first son-in-law, Robert Vadra. He accused him of taking undue favours from real estate giant, DLF, and in the process, has touched a sensitive nerve and put the Congress in a spot. In addition, he has also unveiled an action plan of agitations and civil disobedience in Delhi against the recent hike in electricity and water tariffs. Starting with dharnas and protests, at which they will burn bills, the team plans to go on to defy the authorities by forming "defence" groups to reconnect power and water lines disconnected for non-payment of bills. Then, in a further demonstration of people's power, spokesman Manish Sisodia said they would dare the departments concerned to take action by sending photographs of the reconnected lines. And if Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit still refused to lower the tariffs, they would gherao her residence and wave placards asking whether she was an "agent" of private utility companies.

This is hot stuff. Delhi has not seen such agitations since the days of the anti-Mandal stir. And both the Congress and the BJP have become flabby and are out of practice in street situations. It's highly unlikely that they will be able to counter the new challenger on the block.

Kejriwal announced that his party will definitely contest next year's Delhi state polls. It will be interesting to see whether his party proves to be a game-changer. There are three possibilities. It could end up cutting into Opposition votes, thereby damaging the BJP's hopes of dislodging the incumbent Congress government, which is what the Congress is hoping. Or it could end up polarising the anti-Congress sentiment in favour of the BJP, like Rahul Gandhi inadvertently helped sweep the anti-Mayawati mood towards Akhilesh Yadav and the SP in UP earlier this year. This is what the BJP is eyeing. Or, the new party could emerge as a third force in a city that could be looking for a change from both the established parties. Let's not rule out a fourth possibility. It could flop.

Political scientist Yogendra Yadav, who has joined Kejriwal, was careful not to pitch their ambitions too high for now. He said that if they can ensure a shift in the political agenda or get the mainstream parties to drop tainted and corrupt candidates, it would be a huge victory for the cause. As Kejriwal himself stressed, the idea is not to win elections. The idea, he said, is to change the nature of politics.

ARVIND'S AGENDA

Highlights of the vision document, which Kejriwal has promised will be amended, if necessary, after public debate and discussion: Free and equal education for all Universal healthcare Employment for all Effective mechanisms to stop female foeticide and violence against women Prior permission of women of local communities necessary to open liquor vends Exclusion of creamy layer from SC/ST and OBC reservations Remunerative prices for farmers Rural development plans to be framed by those who live in rural India, not in capital cities Effective mechanisms to protect Muslims from suspicion and discrimination and ensure equal opportunities for backward Muslims Independent and effective Jan Lokpal at the centre and Jan Lokayuktas in the states Broad-ranging electoral reforms including reforms to eliminate role of money and muscle power Locus of decision-making to be shifted to the people. Only those powers should be left for upper tiers that cannot possibly be exercised by local communities Broad-ranging and fundamental administrative, judicial and police reforms to eliminate bribes and delays Recognition of right of local communities to all natural resources. State will not acquire land except in exceptional circumstances and private monopolies in natural resources will not be permitted.

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