The Swift Rise and Fall of Arvind Kejriwal


The Swift Rise and Fall of Arvind Kejriwal

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Back in 2011, when I was scrolling black-and-white computer screens to make a buck as a techie, my flatmate and bestie broached the subject of a people-led movement that was heaving at the heels of the government. I was only 23 then and didn’t have much of an opinion. Like many others, my disinclination to follow Indian politics had much to do with how consistently hopeless and disappointing it had become.

A few days later, my friend marched with thousands of others – all young, working-class millennials like us – which struck me as an oddity. People who couldn’t care less about the Indian political landscape, preoccupied as they were with their weekend game of bowling or their defunct relationships, were suddenly animated? Why were they mobilising and gathering, going against the tiredness of their back-breaking, thoroughly uninspiring jobs for a minuscule placement on the charged political narrative arc of this country?

I didn’t know it then, but a low-grade seismic movement had begun. And emerging from the ashes of the India political system – split at the national level between a hideously fossilised, dynastic party and a shamelessly communal, opportunistic one – was a phenomenon we’d never witnessed before. Arvind Kejriwal. That year, the Caravan magazine labelled him “The Insurgent” in their cover feature.

A year on from that fuming middle-class exfoliation in 2011, I was the one taking an interest in politics. I had been re-initiated, not as much into the politics of people, but the people in politics. At worst, Kejriwal represented an option to the stasis of Indian politics; at best, he was the common-man-shaped future chief minister of the capital. To me, Arvind Kejriwal was an anomaly, a curious moment in Indian political history. He appeared at a time when we were galled by the undersigned privilege of the Congress but hadn’t yet been seduced by the BJP’s chaiwallah-strongman narrative.

More than anything, Kejriwal was relatable, and not always in a good way. In his loose-pants-half-sleeved-shirt babu chic aesthetic, he was the man next door – but vocally dissident and often off-kilter with his political intrusions. The guy from the neighbourhood we love and hate in equal measure. Maybe love a little more, because he had the same mistrusting opinion of politicians, who he insisted were “rapists, murderers, and looters”.

Kejriwal must have wished he had chosen his words more carefully, for less than a year later, he was due to join the ranks of the rapists, murderers, and looters he so loathed. From its name to the generalised middle and lower-middle-class paranoia that the AAP channelled, the party – formed in November 2012 – appeared to embody an egalitarian structure. At that point, AAP was like the acoustic version of every ear-splitting, cacophonous muck we had ever heard. It was like a familial gathering at the dinner table; they showcased a clean board and drew straight lines.

There was a hope, however naive, that he would rise to become this Nayak-inspired figure who’d disrupt the status quo with his single-minded dedication to the common man and his woes. He would be everything that our leaders were not and then some. Much like the heroic Nayak, he would change laws, change lives, and change the face of politics.

But with great hope comes greater disappointment.

The failure in Punjab and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections, indicates Kejriwal’s second slide down the hill.

Kejriwal resigned from the post of chief minister – a mere 49 days after we put our desperate faith in him – in a rush-of-blood moment that in Indian politics is usually reserved for causing offence or underlining ineptitude. Kejriwal’s contemptuous operational sense underscored the kind of political experience that comes from settling quibbles between drivers on the DND Flyway. It was clear that the CM was going to stick to the persona he had cultivated during the Jan Lokpal movement. He remained the perpetual dissident, protesting against the government he was part of: He remained the man holding the Molotov cocktail in one hand and a matchstick in the other.

A year later, having wizened up, he emerged rather more streetwise, but less insular to the grunge of power. Yet the first brushstroke in the electorate’s viewpoint, where he painted a minor legacy for himself, had not faded.

AAP’s second pick from the hat, was more a rabbit than a sound political decision. Up until the victory in 2015, Kejriwal was India’s Renaissance Man that the chefs of the Great Indian Political Potpourri began to take note of (and also fear). The victory, though, also initiated Kejriwal’s decline. In 2016, as he successfully completed a year in power, Open magazine anointed him “The Showman”. Ni surprises there. But from the Insurgent to the Showman, from the underdog and the noob to a shrewd political player, Kejriwal’s transition was complete.

Around the same time, I watched a TV interview in the company of my grandfather. Kejriwal came across as unabashedly biased in his own vision and an overzealous self-declared champion of anti-corruption, discounting the likes of Anna Hazare, Yogendra Yadav, and Prashant Bhushan. All peers and colleagues he had eventually left by the wayside.

“Politics aise nahi chalti. Varna sabhi ban jaate (politics does not operate like this, else everyone would be a politician),” my grandfather had remarked. He appreciated the man’s honesty, but politics was simply, not a function of the truth. Kejriwal’s slide began when he accepted what my grandfather had so casually suggested in passing. Instead of enduring, he began stepping on the feet of others. From the grand survivor, he became the chief provocateur.

The failure in Punjab and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections, indicates Kejriwal’s second slide down the hill. So far, it has been an ungraceful one. In the muck that is Indian politics, Kejriwal has not only picked up on the mudslinging, he has recalibrated to a more devious grin. And in the process, he has been slapped, shoved, and downright rejected. In a prescient 2014 column, Shekhar Gupta had praised him as a risk-taker, but had also cautioned: “As he grows in stature as an elected member of the establishment now, and fights on a much higher stage, it is a matter of time before he also imbibes that essential lesson of our politics: that you must continue to engage with all, particularly those who argue with you.”

That’s a lesson Kejriwal is yet to learn. His incendiary nature, heart-to-mouth recitation, and morbidly average-man sensibility has ensured that he is constantly howling at the moon, constantly picking at the scab of a massive victim complex.

But maybe this isn’t so much about Kejriwal as about us, the Indian electorate. We are used to a format: the kurtas, the dhotis, the strongmen and the messiahs who govern by acronym. In a way, we made Kejriwal. We created him from our longing of a compelling anti-narrative, the idea of anti-establishment unicorn in power. And in doing so, we probably failed him just as much as he failed us.