A BEND IN THE GANGES

The runaway messiah

Aatish Taseer new novel, The Way Things Were, will be published at the end of this year. His weekly despatch from Benares will appear through the elections
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Arvind Kejriwal is the most dangerous of all political animals: the messiah. The man for whom any existing reality is too impure to be corrected
On the morning Narendra Modi was to file his nomination papers from Benares, and the mythical jansailaabh was still but a trickle, Arvind Kejriwal sat in a great sulk outside my house on Assi Ghat. It was a scorcher of a day; the city was getting ready to come out in vast numbers for Modi; and Kejriwal’s gathering, even by AAP’s modest standards, was small. Fifty odd people, of which half were policemen and journalists, sitting in sombre silence under a peepal tree. The protest was being held in honour of Somnath Bharti, Delhi’s former law minister, who, the night before, had been attacked by men thought to belong to the BJP. (These clashes, by the way, between knots of men in white and saffron caps have become something of a nightly occurrence on the Assi ghat, and the atmosphere is now distinctly medieval; one is either a Guelph or a Ghibelline, Lancaster or York.) Kejriwal, swollen-cheeked, with two garlands of marigolds round his neck, was emerging from an hour of silence, and beginning to address the press in low tones. His supporters, with the air of men at a wake, looked vacantly about them.

Just then, a voice was heard. It carried up from the river and, with something of the faraway quality of a Delphic utterance, it disturbed the tranquil melancholy of this scene. A boatman, making his way up to the ghat, made a casual but devastating remark. He said, in a voice loud enough for all to hear: “Ajeeb baat hai. Dilli mein itni badi kursi chhodh kar, Kejriwal Benares chale aaya.”

It was a blinding moment; or, at least, it should have been. This passing Tiresias had said the thing that was on everyone’s mind. And, in that instance, it was plain for anyone with eyes to see that Kejriwal’s plan to leave Delhi and come to Benares had been an act of madness. But the AAP men, even if inwardly they recognised the wisdom of the boatman’s words, did not let on. They looked away as if nothing had happened. And I remember thinking then, as I had a few times before, when I first began attending AAP meetings, that for all their talk of receptivity, this was far less flexible an organisation than it seemed; that somewhere under the cloying sweetness of those gatherings, the question-and-answer sessions, the jholawala concerns, the air of kumbaya, there lay the soul of a petty despotism. It did not surprise me. For the experience of two centuries tells us that every time the name of the People has been invoked for political purposes— whether it be the People’s Tribunal or the Janata ki Durbar— it has been shorthand for tyranny.

There is one charge, above all others, that has not left Arvind Kejriwal’s side this election. It is that, when faced with the hard practical reality of running an administration in Delhi, he fled the field, returning once more to the only thing he knows: the life of protest. To this, Kejriwal has responded in an understandable way. He has tried to turn a weakness into a strength. Like the writer who, made aware of a flaw in his book, pretends it is not a flaw at all but part of the book’s strength, Kejriwal has, on numerous occasions, spoken of the courage needed to leave the Chief Minister’s chair in Delhi. He has invoked the life of renunciation. Doston, inko kya pata tyaag kya hota hai! He has compared his leaving Delhi to Ram leaving Ayodhya. It has been a valiant effort, but, in my view, unconvincing. The charge is too serious.

It is serious not just because it is on everyone’s lips; not just because it has harmed him politically, earning him one of this election’s most damning epithets: bhagoda; no, it is serious because it goes to the heart of our fears about the Aam Aadmi Party. These include fears of anarchy, intolerance, an inability to work with others. But, of all these, one stands out in my mind. It is the fear that Arvind Kejriwal is that most dangerous of all political animals: the messiah. The man for whom any existing reality is too impure to be corrected, and who strives for some necessarily vague Utopia, which he, alone, by what feels like an act of faith, will bring into being. The messiah is dangerous because he is at bottom a nihilist. I have written before, in a different context: ‘Every man who ever dreamt up a Utopia was animated far more by the wish to purge than to build. I would say, too, that the great flaw in any Utopia is the intellectually lazy notion—and one capable of unspeakable violence—that if only the society were cleansed or purged of some particular undesirable element, the Utopia would automatically— come into being. That nothing more would need to be done.’

In the case of Arvind Kejriwal, that undesirable element—the fire by which all aims will magically be realised, all evils cleansed—is Corruption. It came up again and again in a speech I heard him give in Harsos, a small village on the rural edge of this constituency. It was the first time I was hearing him speak, and I was at once alarmed and fascinated.

Let me say first that it is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which this man is physically unimpressive. He has thin long arms; a small frame and, one suspects, a flaccid body; he wears baggy clothes in dull colours, and carries a blue Reynolds pen in his pocket. There is the trace of a whine in his voice. He is not so much the aam aadmi as he is the caricature of an aam aadmi. He is like the Punjab Power employee Shah Rukh Khan plays in Rab ne Bana di Jodi, who, out of a kind of shame at his ordinariness, adopts a Bergerac-esque proxy to win the love of his wife.

Yet—and this is what makes his physicality so fascinating— under this drab diminutive appearance, this Gogolian picture of the government servant, there lies an iron-willed monster of perseverance and doggedness. When his party men say, “Modi will never find a fiercer, more relentless opponent than Kejriwal,” I believe them. And when Kejriwal himself says: “I have not run away. Antim saans taq tumhari chhati pe moong daalunga,” I believe him too. It is, in fact, in this combination of physical puniness and inward strength that the resemblance to Gandhi becomes striking in more ways than one. For, like Gandhi, Kejriwal’s vision of what he seeks to dismantle is all too real and tangible, but what he wishes to put in its place—that kingdom of heaven he wishes to lead us into—is pure chimera.

On that hot day in Harsos, surrounded by freshly harvested fields, he said his aim was to defeat Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Because, he stressed: “The BJP and the Congress are two faces of the same monster. Defeat Rahul and Modi and the monster will be utterly decimated. And from this decimation will come a new kind of politics.”

But when, I wanted to ask him, has that ever happened? When, in the history of any stable democracy, have its two major political parties simply withered away, and a new politics come spontaneously into being? This is not the language of electoral democracy; this is the language of revolution. It is what makes Kejriwal seem like certain characters from literature. I’m thinking of Kirilov, the nihilist, in Demons, or Conrad’s Professor in The Secret Agent, who never leaves the house without a glass vial of explosives in his breast pocket and a detonator in his palm. Nor does this impression decrease when one observes the things he has chosen to attack. They are, whether he is speaking in Harsos or down a back alley in Dara Nagar, always the same: Mukesh Ambani, Adani, FDI in retail, privatised utilities, helicopters, and all that they stand for… The list goes on, but the politics is familiar.

One never hears him utter a harsh word against what must be the fountainhead of corruption in this country, the Indian state. In fact, if one were to close one’s eyes and imagine Kejriwal’s India, it would be a giant expanse, reaching as far as the eye could see, of two- and three-storey government flats, in Sovietised shades of blue, beige and grey, packed full of pious government servants, leading a dreary existence on subsidised gas, housing, water and electricity.

But haven’t we—you might well ask—already rejected this vision of India? Isn’t that what this election is about? Hasn’t India, having already sampled the genius of the Indian state, come out in significant numbers to say: no, we do not want that India. And not simply because it doesn’t work or is corrupt, but because it is shabby and lifeless and stifles the spirit. Have we not already opted for the other India? Which, crude as it may still be, is the India of roads and malls and IPLs—Sheila and Munni’s India! Do we not agree that, at this stage in our development, we have more to fear from big government than big business? Is it not generally acknowledged that the source of corruption in this country is a State that preys on private enterprise, rather than private enterprise preying on the State? And is it not true that India’s daily encounter with corruption occurs, not in the Reliance or Vodafone shop, but in the government office?

Kejriwal—that scourge of Corruption—does not reflect this in his politics at all. He is far more willing to demonise business than the State. And he has crafted a political style to go with his politics; he has made a great show of his simplicity. It is a mistake, I fear. I think he will discover that if style is to be the test of ideology, then the people of India prefer Modi’s chopper to Kejriwal’s Scorpio.

In fact, one of the things that has intrigued me this election is the kind of anger I sense for Kejriwal’s brand of austerity. The AAP will tell you that the violence against its volunteers is all BJP-sponsored—and, no doubt, some of it is. But some of it is also spontaneous. They seem to arouse a kind of contempt. I have witnessed it in all quarters, now in a driver at the Harsos rally, who, on seeing Kejriwal in his Scorpio, might say: “Yeh simplicity kuchh zyaada toh nahi ho gayi?” Now, in some BHU students, jeering at AAP workers taking a boat ride on the Ganga: “Lagta hai ke pehli baar boat mein jaa rahein hain.” Or, here, in a man who took me aside in Chitvan gym, to say: “Kejriwal se zyaada diwaaliya insaan maine kabhi nahi dekha hai. Voh maansik rogi hai.” And, even at the little protest outside my house, a BHU student muttered: “Isko toh main bhi thhapadh maar sakta hun.” India, it seems, knows what to do with simplicity when it comes in the form of a holy man— Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, Anna Hazare. It is far less sure of what to do with it when it comes in the form of Arvind Kejriwal.

Still, it is something of a miracle that he exists at all. Wrong- headed as his politics may be, there is no greater tribute to the democracy we live in than its ability, less than two years after Kejriwal was fasting in the streets of Delhi, to have absorbed him electorally. I will say, too, that the people who comprise his party—many of whom have left their jobs to serve the cause— are among the most decent people to ever enter politics. And, whether they win or lose, they will have forever altered the political culture of this country. Already, due largely to their advent, there is a growing conviction that politics need not be the province of the cynical professional, but that ordinary people, tired of what they see around them, can and must step forward.

This is not AAP’s election. Many of them know as much. They would like to be, they say, Modi’s main opposition. They are hoping for 100-150 seats. They are dreaming. It would have been much better had they stayed in Delhi and proved that their politics was more than a politics of protest. And yet, that morning when I left them in their small silent circle on the edge of the Ganga, and found myself swept up in Modi’s jansailaabh, an angry flood of youth, testosterone, hope and pride, which was, by turns, exciting and scary, I could not help but feel what a good thing it would be for Indian democracy if, in Modi’s hour of triumph, the man tasked with whispering ‘memento mori’ in his ear was none other than this most formidable of former taxmen.

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