Kejriwal as Fake News

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Maybe it’s easier to identify a false messiah in a country that happens to have the world’s most popular outsider in power

WHY DO I think of Emmanuel Macron when I think of the descent of Arvind Kejriwal? With the election of Macron, whose movement En Marche! shares his initials, the fall of Europe has been averted, globalism has been given a new lease of life, and the Brussels bureaucracy won’t be unemployed anytime soon—or so we have been told by the good people alarmed by the rise of populists from both sides of the ideological divide. Macron, a former banker known for his multimillion deals and networking skills, is an accidental politician, and in a country that has historically indulged leaders with a brooding philosophical bent, he, at 39, is an open-minded member of the global elite who has no time for Gallic exceptionalism, except maybe in romance. In the final hours, his victory was more of a European necessity than a French urgency. The populist insurgency has been contained by a rootless toff. There is more to it. Traditional parties made themselves redundant to make the way for the neophyte.

In another time, in another place, there was a man who was far from being a first-world dandy. He in his marketed idealism was a Mofussil Mandela aspiring to be a Capital Mahatma. The India of his mind was a Maha Panchayat in which every citizen would be a government, a moral custodian, a civic tribunal, and, of course, a revolutionary model. Power for him was a permanent struggle against politics as usual. And when he, an apolitical politician, made himself heard in the city of the entrenched and entitled, the alternative was not an ideal but an urgency, and here was this man, an ordinary man, all set to redeem politics from professional politicians. Middle class drawing rooms loved the idea: here comes a Harry to dirty his hands for our sake. The ghettos loved the idea, too: the voice of the voiceless.

The political context suited the text of the outsider. The dynasty was unravelling, and the prince was still meditating on the crown rather than going for it. His vacillations, without the benefit of a Shakespeare, looked more and more incomprehensible. The Congress, after a decade in effete leadership and institutionalised corruption, proved to be a rare example of how power, when in wrong hands, can lead to irrelevance. On the other side, Narendra Modi was only a possibility, and his party was still wallowing in defeatism even as the space for the Right lay unclaimed. It was a time when politics was a profession incompatible with trust and credibility. Kejriwal, a little man of change in a big bad world, swayed the idealistic, the angry and the impatient.

Power banalised him. He was not, as the power of the powerless proved elsewhere in the world, a variation of ‘living in truth’. His government was not a moral rejoinder to the pathologies of politics-as-usual. For a while it was a bad joke featuring a nominal chief minister as a kitschy street fighter. Then he was the first among a gaggle of amateurs blinded by their own aura as the new power elite. Today, he is a chief minister with a massive mandate—and the worst one India has ever had. He is not just the little man-turned-little dictator. He is not just a betrayer of his own cause. He is more than India’s most self-righteous politician in power. He is living in a huge lie, sustained by paranoia and simulated victimhood. Any political system built on a fairy tale of noble ruler pitted against evil spirits is a make believe. At the moment of unravelling, as it is for Kejriwal today, lies are the only comforts a falling autocrat is allowed.

The failure of Kejriwal is the failure of the outsider too. We still don’t know whether his story is a tragedy or a farce, but it will remain an enduring parable of how power undid the original citizen idealist. Maybe it is easier to identify a fake in a country that happens to have the world’s most popular outsider in power. Narendra Modi, even after almost three years in power, is not an insider. He certainly realises the uses of power in an India polarised not by politics but poverty, but still, he can afford to maintain a philosophical detachment. The outsider in power is having a tougher time everywhere, and Kejriwal is a bad parody. It gets unbearable even for himself at a time when the alpha outsider makes fake messiahs redundant.