Kejriwal is who he is because he has the audacity not to want to do political business. If there is an element of exaggeration in what he says, it does not matter because electoral politics is shaped to a great extent by public perception

With his decision to go gale speed at Mr. Narendra Modi, the convener of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Arvind Kejriwal, has buried his own ambiguous past, and, in a first for any anti-corruption campaign, chosen to fight the “right” rather than fight on the same side as the “right.”

All of India’s anti-corruption mobilisations have targeted the Congress exclusively as if there were no transgressions by those on the “right.” The rightward tilt has been a feature of every anti-graft movement, from 1971 through 1974-1975, 1977 and 1989. If in 1971, the Swatantra Party, the Congress (Organisation) and the Jan Sangh banded together to form a “Grand Alliance” against Indira Gandhi, in 1974, the same parties regrouped in aid of Jayaprakash Narayan’s Total Revolution, and in 1977, coalesced into the Janata Party. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) propped up V.P. Singh’s 1989 campaign against Rajiv Gandhi, and offered him support in government.

Enlisting the right

At its core, the Anna Hazare movement was fiercely anti-political; however, while the campaign was abusive towards the formally structured political party, it was almost naive in its accommodation of organisations with covert political leanings. Thus, the Anna campaign was opposed to the BJP but not to those spiritually and philosophically connected to the party such as Baba Ramdev and the RSS. If anything, the Anna campaign was shrilly nationalistic, using the same symbols and slogans as the adherents of Hindutva, and speaking in an idiom favoured by them. In a 2011 interview, Anna advocated hanging Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru from the city square as a lesson to future terrorists. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Ramdev shared the dais with Anna, while elements from the RSS managed the logistics. Today, whatever fig leaf there was, has been blown off by Anna associate Kiran Bedi’s robust endorsement of Narendra Modi for Prime Minister.

Mr. Kerjiwal viewed corruption from the same prism as Anna: He wanted the Congress extinguished and it didn’t matter if the mission required enlisting the “right.” His first choice to lead the anti-corruption movement was Mr. Ramdev; in April 2011, Mr. Kejriwal attended a two-day anti-corruption seminar organised by the RSS-blessed Vivekanada International Foundation. A prominent participant at the seminar was RSS pracharak and Hindutva ideologue K.N. Govindacharya who recently spoke of a longish, on-and-off association with Mr. Kejriwal. In an interview to The Economic Times, Mr. Govindacharya also let it be known that in July 2011, he and Mr. Kejriwal mutually decided to “fight for the same cause but on different platforms.”

Mr. Kejriwal continued to back Mr. Ramdev up until August 2012, when the latter went on a fast to demand the repatriation of black money from Swiss banks. Tweeting his support, Mr.Kejriwal said: “It is not a Swami Ramdev or Team Anna issue; people must stand united (against corruption).”

Change in strategy

So, for close to 45 years, fighting corruption in India has meant just one thing: fighting the Congress in alliance with right-wing organisations and parties. By declaring war on the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, and directly and boldly questioning his friendship with the big corporates, Mr. Kejriwal has signalled a historic shift in the trajectory of India’s anti-corruption campaign. Last week, he took the fight right into Gujarat with a ferocity and guts that stunned friends and critics alike.

The Congress has come to be seen as the fountainhead of corruption for the simple reason that it has been in power the longest. Yet, in recent decades, corruption has spread far and wide, taking in its sweep not just the BJP but the full complement of regional and sub-regional parties. Nobody currently targeting corruption can afford to miss this fact.

The AAP started out by being blinkered in its opposition to the Congress. Mr. Kejriwal’s party was so fixated on the Congress’s corruption that by comparison it almost seemed benignly disposed towards the BJP. Through the Delhi Assembly campaign, the AAP remained unwaveringly focussed on the Congress and Sheila Dikshit. On a national level, it identified the Congress with everything that had gone wrong with the country, thereby appearing to spare the BJP of any blame.

So what explains the change in the AAP’s strategy? First, the loss of the Delhi government freed the AAP from having to be necessarily Delhi-centric. As a first-time Chief Minister, Mr. Kejriwal was under obligation to show quick results which, combined with the vigilante orientation of his government, meant that he and his ministers would never be far away from trouble. From then Law Minister Somnath Bharti’s midnight raid on the African nationals of Delhi’s Khirki extension to Mr. Kejriwal’s own theatrical sit-in dharna at Rail Bhawan, the AAP seemed destined to be in the headlines for the wrong reasons. With the government gone, the AAP had to confront the rapidly changing national picture. And the change was the decline of the Congress and the larger-than-life emergence of Mr. Modi.

Mr. Kejriwal could not continue to target the Congress exclusively without seeming to give a pass to NaMo. Besides, it was clear that the Congress had all but lost the general election. The AAP and its convener needed to revise their strategy, which they did by expanding their field of vision to include the BJP, and especially its prime ministerial candidate. The BJP had reaccommodated B.S. Yeddyurappa, whom the party ousted citing corruption, and, of course, the elephant in the room was Mr. Modi’s corporate links.

Mr. Modi’s opponents, including the Congress, attacked Mr. Modi relentlessly and yet spared him where he was possibly most vulnerable. Mr. Kejriwal’s trademark daredevilry meant that he would go where the others didn’t.

Corporate links

The AAP convener has done the smartest thing he could by bombarding Mr. Modi with daily posers on his alleged Ambani-Adani connection. Mr. Kejriwal has brought in Mukesh Ambani via the KG Basin gas pricing and he has wondered at the meteoric rise of Gautam Adani coinciding with the Chief Ministership of Mr. Modi. And he has done this in NaMo’s Gujarat, thereby earning enormous credibility.

Mr. Modi has so far been censured on the 2002 anti-Muslim violence. But this has become an overplayed card, with the BJP being able to cite a favourable Gujarat lower court ruling on Zakia Jafri’s complaint against Mr. Modi and 61 others. That the appeal process in the case is still to be exhausted is evident enough. Yet the “clean chit” has become the most potent weapon in the Modi campaign’s armoury. The “clean chit” has also been seized by political parties styling themselves as “secular” but nonetheless wanting to keep the door open for future business with Mr. Modi.

Mr. Kejriwal, on the other hand, revels in his isolation. He is who he is because he has the audacity not to want to do political business. If there is an element of exaggeration in what Mr. Kejriwal says, it does not matter because electoral politics is shaped to a great extent by public perception. The courts never directly proved Rajiv Gandhi’s guilt in the Bofors case but the perception of guilt ensured that he lost an election. NaMo’s gargantuan image and the Gujarat model are also products of perception. When Mr. Modi throws Gujarat development figures at the cheering crowds at his rallies, he doesn’t expect them to investigate the details. And they don’t either. Because for them, Mr. Modi is the man of the moment: He has appeared at a time of galloping anger towards the Congress and the systemic corruption it is seen to have fostered. Mr. Modi’s individual charisma and the legend of the Gujarat model have vested him with superhuman virtues.

Mr. Kejriwal can break Mr. Modi’s momentum only if he manages to show that the Gujarat Chief Minister is complicit in the very system that people are rebelling against. This explains the AAP convener’s incessant refrain that the Congress and the BJP are indistinguishable from each other and both bow before a higher corporate God.

The AAP’s Delhi experiment exposed its hazy, unformed thoughts on critical issues. Many of the party’s actions seemed to arise from a majoritarian impulse which it defended on grounds of popular anger and frustrations. The racist undertones of the Khirki extension raid have in fact led to doubts about one of Mr. Kejriwal’s principal planks — the mohalla sabha premised on the people’s requirements being met through localised majority voting.

With the Delhi government gone, the AAP has returned to what it knows best: rail and rally at the corruption of its opponents. The Congress looks set to lose the election. It is the turn of the BJP and Mr. Modi to feel the heat.

vidya.s@thehindu.co.in

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