On 5 April 2011, Anna Hazare, then a respected social activist, started a ‘fast unto death’ to demand a new law to create the institution of the Lokpal, or ombudsman, a constitutionally autonomous office that would look into complaints of corruption against office bearers of the government of India.
On the tenth anniversary of the movement, we can look back and say it has failed. The Manmohan Singh government did pass a Lokpal law, but India’s first Lokpal was appointed only in 2019. The new prime minister, Narendra Modi, showed no hurry in appointing one. And while Lokpal Pinaki Chandra has been receiving complaints, none have resulted in any path-breaking action against corruption. The body remains a paper tiger.
The Lokpal idea demanded autonomy from the executive for the fight against corruption. If anything, the fight against corruption has become more politicised than ever before, with the Enforcement Directorate and other bodies brazenly acting to target political opponents of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Lokpal idea was, in continuation of the Right to Information Act, a move towards transparency. If anything, the Indian government has since then become less transparent, with the RTI law and its implementing agencies weakened. In March 2020, the government notified new rules to the Lokpal that make any enquiry against a sitting or former prime minister hidden from the public. And should the complaint be dismissed, no one can access its records!
Forgetting your roots
There is little doubt, however, that the Lokpal movement was a big political success, bringing the UPA-2 government to its knees, making it irrevocably unpopular, and, many argue, paving the way for Narendra Modi. In its historical importance, it ranks up there with the mass movements of Mandal and Mandir, JP and ‘Nirbhaya’.
The Lokpal movement also transformed into a political party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Its leader Arvind Kejriwal has become Delhi chief minister for a third time.
Curiously, Arvind Kejriwal hasn’t been heard talking much about corruption or Lokpal since 2014. (Whatever Anna Hazare has to say is irrelevant; Kejriwal discarded him like he is known to discard people, making Anna a joke.) But Kejriwal himself didn’t make much of a noise about the delay in appointment of the Lokpal or the weakening of the new institution.
In an ultimate irony, the Centre took away control of the Delhi anti-corruption bureau from Arvind Kejriwal’s Delhi government, a move endorsed by the Supreme Court. If corruption were to become a big public issue again in India, Arvind Kejriwal won’t be able to own it. He stopped worrying about corruption long ago, even meekly apologising to all those who filed defamation cases against him for making corruption and other allegations.
What happens to those who give up political narratives that they own? In February 2012, I asked a BJP worker in a village in Phulpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh why his party had been floundering in the state.
“We couldn’t play the caste game well,” he said, “and we gave up on Ram Mandir. This made many people feel we had cheated them on the Mandir issue for power.”
That is what happens to parties that give up on what they had in search of going mainstream and looking for votes. This is just the first betrayal of Arvind Kejriwal. The list is long. He changes his positions and positioning so often that it is hard to keep track.
The Lokpal movement template
Even in its failure, the Lokpal movement has left behind an excellent template for anyone looking to start a political movement in India. It shows that another politics is possible, that Indian politics has space for a rank newcomer.
The Lokpal movement succeeded because it used a credible non-partisan face (Anna Hazare), was planned well for months, presented people not just with a problem (corruption) but also its solution (Lokpal). It broke ideological divides, mobilised issue-based support from Left and Right alike. It used nationalism. It used the media smartly. It responded to a simmering public anger about corruption scandals and inflation — many I met in the movement said they thought it was corruption that was responsible for sky-rocketing prices of food and fuel.
For someone who planned and executed such a perfect movement, using modern campaign tools and strategies so brilliantly, Kejriwal has since then surprised us with rather poor political judgement. He has failed to win a single state outside Delhi in 10 years, a big failure for a movement that had national resonance from Leh to Lakshadweep. He has diminished himself by clinging on to the chair of the weakest chief minister in the country, thus squandering away the national promise the Lokpal movement once held.
Dial V for Votes
There is nothing since the Lokpal movement that Arvind Kejriwal has been able to come up with that would charge up the national imagination again. Not even his alleged Delhi model of governance, which was exposed as a PR hogwash just by the state of Delhi government hospitals during Covid.
What Kejriwal has left behind with the anti-corruption agenda is the political innocence of an activist. When he started the Lokpal movement, he didn’t do it because he wanted to be prime minister. (If he had known it would be such a huge success, he wouldn’t have made himself its face to begin with.) We no longer hear Arvind Kejriwal say he’s a nobody, or just a common man out to change the system. The man who once promised to change the system is now trying out the Hindutva Kool-Aid in a desperate attempt to win just one state, any state, outside Delhi.
The trouble with Arvind Kejriwal is that he thinks winning votes is like making instant coffee. Press “Hindutva” and get votes. Press “Khalistanis” and get votes. Press “Delhi model” and get votes. Like a novice populist, he is too obsessed with figuring out what the people want. These days he thinks people want Hindutva.
I asked a veteran politician what he thought of Arvind Kejriwal. “As an outsider entering the system I thought he would do something different,” the veteran Lok Sabha MP replied, “but he turned out to be more of a politician than us politicians.”
The people don’t know what they want
The trouble with figuring out what the people want is that the people often themselves don’t know what they want. When surveys showed the top issue was inflation, did the masses tell Arvind Kejriwal they want a Lokpal? No, he sold the idea.
Steve Jobs famously said: “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
If Kejriwal of 2021 was Kejriwal of 2011
Even if we went by the populist yardstick, survey after survey shows the top issue for the people today is unemployment. If Arvind Kejriwal of 2021 was the Arvind Kejriwal of 2011, he would have started a national movement on the issue of unemployment. But he is not sure if that will get him votes, so he’d rather say Jai Shri Ram to you. Soon he might be flirting with Khalistani sympathisers again in Punjab.
In 2012, apart from launching the Aam Aadmi Party, Arvind Kejriwal also wrote a book called Swaraj, with a prominent blurb by Anna Hazare on its cover that described it as a “manifesto for our times”. This was Kejriwal trying to be Karl Marx, presenting a new Communist Manifesto, which argued that the decentralisation of power was the new panacea to all of India’s ills, now that Lokpal was done. As fate would have it, Kejriwal became CM of Delhi, and Modi has taken away more and more powers of the Delhi government. Just like Modi took away the anti-corruption bureau, he has also delivered the ultimate blow to Kejriwal’s government, enacting in Parliament a new law that makes every decision of the Delhi government subject to the approval of the Modi government-appointed Lieutenant-Governor. So much for Swaraj.
If Arvind Kejriwal of 2021 was the Arvind Kejriwal of 2011, he would have resigned and held a re-election on this subject. If the Arvind Kejriwal of 2011 had stayed true to the noises he made, he would have made a case for decentralisation, and started a movement to get full statehood for Delhi. He did not, because voters didn’t suggest they want it. Yet, if he had made consistent noises about full statehood and decentralisation of power, he would perhaps have been able to make it a public issue, make the voters demand it. Just look at how the BJP shifted the policy needle over issues like Ram Mandir and Article 370. Took about 30 years.
Admission of failure
If in the 1980s, the BJP had decided to not own the Ram Mandir issue and left it to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (as Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted), the party would perhaps not be in power today. Winning votes is thus not as simple as pressing the right buttons. It takes ideology as a core brand value, a cause to rally your base, a certain consistency to keep your supporters all charged up, and a unique identity to stand out from others.
Across India, there are countless people who will tell you they gave weeks and months volunteering for the Lokpal movement and the Aam Aadmi Party, but today feel let down. In the 2020 Delhi assembly election, Arvind Kejriwal was reduced to taking on the services of the very political consultant who had defeated him in Punjab in 2017, Prashant Kishor. For a man who put up a history-making political movement, this was the ultimate admission of failure.
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)