Corruption was never the prime concern of the voter, until he understood the correlation between his own miserable state and the extent of graft among politicians and officials. In the just-concluded state Assembly polls, in at least four of the states, citizens punished or rewarded Chief Ministers based on perceptions of graft. Even after the defeat of the DMK in the last Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu, the majority of those within the political class believe that the gifting of sops is the way to high office. They forget that in Tamil Nadu, the voter compared the pennies thrown in their direction by the Karunanidhi family with the hoards of gold ducats stashed away by the family and its friends. After the Delhi poll results, it would appear from his rush towards freebies that Arvind Kejriwal believes that it was the promise of cheap power and free water which got him his chair. The reality is that it was neither, but the impression of integrity conveyed by the men and women of the Aam Aadmi Party. Should the Kejriwal family, or those close to other ministers, suddenly begin to sport a lifestyle far more opulent than what their neighbours have witnessed thus far, it will not be long before the AAP begins to lose traction among the voters, no matter the quantum of freebies dished out by its government in Delhi. If Manmohan Singh has become an object of ridicule these days, it is because of the stench of graft that has clung to him ever since the 2010 Commonwealth Games scam exploded onto television screens. And if Narendra Modi is still far and away the most popular politician in the country, it is not because of the colourful kurtas he wears, but the belief that he runs a clean government.
These days, now that cable television has become ubiquitous, aspiration levels have risen to heights never seen before. Even those at the lower levels of income dream of a future where they ride not a bicycle but a car. If the Tata Nano has failed to click to the extent the genius of its conception merits, it is because of the perception that it is the only car that is not a prosperous man's vehicle but that of the common man, a category few want to remain in, despite Arvind Kejriwal's new job. Ensuring a minimum wage or a beyond-subsistence level of food consumption even to the poorest ought not to be with an eye on votes, but on grounds of justice and equity. Each beggar on the streets, each farmer suicide, each child dying of malnutrition, is yet another reason why ministers and officials across the country ought to be ashamed rather than arrogant. It was not because he liked the sensation of fresh air on his chest that Mahatma Gandhi went bare-bodied, but because he knew that the way to bond with the people was to dress the way they were forced to, and to travel the way they did, in third class compartments rather than in railway saloon cars. Besides the perception that they are — still — honest, another reason why so many gave the AAP a chance was because the lifestyle of its most visible mascot, Arvind Kejriwal, resembled that of the average citizen far more than the magnificence with which the topmost leaders of both the Congress and the BJP live in Delhi, with their chartered aircraft and the BMWs and Audis they zip around the city in.
Of course, now that so many millionaires and MNC executives are flocking to the AAP, there may be a dilution in the belief that the AAP is truly "aam", for after all, there were — even in its pre-millionaire days — very few genuine aam aadmis in the higher echelons of the AAP. For instance, Prashant Bhushan can be called many things, such as a superb legal brain or a dogged campaigner, but being an aam aadmi is not one of them. Neither can a former Indian Revenue Service officer of the seniority of Kejriwal pass himself off as just your man in the street. Every movement sees a huge accretion to its ranks once success is achieved, which explains the stampede to join the BJP by retired home secretaries passed over for gubernatorial posts, and by others who failed to meet the UPA's criteria for higher office. Now that the Delhi Secretariat has been won, some of such birds of convenience are now seeking nests within the AAP. Hopefully, at least a few of them will fulfil their desire to "serve the people" by being made ministers, governors and sundry office-holders of Red Light rank.
The coming general election is likely to be decided on the basis of just which party or alliance is seen as offering the best economic choice. Not for the voter Manmohan Singh's excuse of international exigencies rather than non-performance being the cause of its failure. Despite the reams of comment about the Kejriwal Effect on Narendra Modi's chances, the fact is that it is still the Gujarat strongman who has the upper hand in the arena of public perception. That is, if he can convince a public sceptical of all major political parties that he has truly "Modified" the BJP.