The prima donna of political theatre is inevitably the capital city. A mayor’s election in London or Delhi — and Delhi’s Chief Minister is not much more, measured by power, than Mayor of London — gets as much buzz as a large state or province. And so a successful political capitalist like Britain’s Boris Johnson can carve a pedestal for his national profile. Closer home, Mrs Sheila Dikshit should have been, by any democratic norms, her party’s candidate for Prime Minister in 2014 rather than making a tired bid for yet another term in an extended municipality. But Mrs Dikshit belongs to Congress, where every job is available except the one that really matters, so we are where we are.
If Arvind Kejriwal had been determined to clean up corruption in Lucknow or Mumbai, he would have been the valiant unknown soldier of this raging war. Delhi has given his cause some much-needed media fillip. He emerged out of a spontaneous street movement in a capital aghast at the endless stories of corruption that rolled seamlessly from massive exploitation in the Commonwealth Games to exorbitant loot by ministers of the UPA government. Delhi, like any great metropolis, is a conglomeration of many dense, urban villages; and its citizens live within physical proximity of the ruling elite. People who cannot afford anything more than a bus ride roll past the most expensive bungalows in the world, occupied by politicians wrapped in luxury because they have been fortunate enough to get the people’s vote. There is no democratic capital in the world, absolutely none, which offers a more decadent lifestyle than Delhi does to its ministers and MPs. This grates upon the chap going to office in his bus, not least because he or she can do little about it.
It would help if Kejriwal were less strident, but that might be expecting too much. He has reached so far on a shrill note; it might have become a habit.
Arvind Kejriwal has shown the tenacity to attempt the next step, and manage the difficult transition from insurrection to institution. As he is finding out, the shift from theory to practice is not that easy. He can mobilise the anger vote because he was born in anger. But can he turn that into a solution-vote? When the screaming is done, and the battle is fought and won, Delhi needs a government that can bring down electricity prices without driving away the electricity company, and cut onion prices without destroying the established links of trade. It would help if Kejriwal were less strident, but that might be expecting too much. He has reached so far on a shrill note; it might have become a habit. Nor is a broom the instrument of a solution; it is only a weapon of anger. Whether he wins or loses, Kejriwal should probably ask for a pen as his next election symbol.
One can see the contours of his troubles. He is being judged by higher standards, possibly because he demanded such standards from others. The BJP and Congress are expert at conventional politics because they created the conventions. His in-house opinion polling must have told Kejriwal that he was not getting sufficient traction in Muslim communities, and they could make the difference between third place and first. This is the only rational explanation for his rush towards the nearest mullah. This leap towards conventional vote-bank arbiters was a mistake, of course. Kejriwal still has time to do what he didn’t — appeal directly to Muslim youth, with the simple argument that corruption hurts every citizen, irrespective of caste or creed. Kejriwal rails often enough against middlemen. Why does he need them in an electoral contract?
The turmoil in all three camps — BJP, Congress, Aam Aadmi — during ticket distribution is testimony to the fact that Delhi remains an open election. While growls within BJP and Congress come largely from the top layer, Aam Aadmi has a problem inherent in any movement without a firm pyramid structure, at the cadre level, and among core supporters, who arrived spurred by idealism only to find that elections are wrapped in dust and worse. And there may not be enough time to reason with the young, and explain that you cannot abandon the practical in a search for the ideal.
Kejriwal is hovering at the competitive edge, but conventional parties still command greater support because they generate more confidence in their ability to form a government. The graph of support, however, is not going to remain static. It will shift in one of three directions.
Success will offer capital gains. Failure, alas, will demand capital punishment, particularly if you do not have the sustaining power of party structure and steady partisan loyalty. Aam Aadmi is more than a bubble, but it will not get density unless it does well in the elections. I do not know how well it might do as government, but it could just be the party that Delhi needs in the Assembly as Opposition.