By Kani Varshneya:
As the IAC slowly transforms itself from a movement of social activism to a political establishment, the man spearheading the organisation emerged sharply into the public eye. Whether a calculated move on his part or not, the mainstream media had been bellowing out the name Arvind Kejriwal to no end. The question remains however whether this entire movement is a short-lived venture eventually to drown amongst the louder voices of our current political class or whether it will emerge as a game-changer in the political arena.
44-year-old activist turned politician Arvind Kejriwal has emerged from very humble beginnings. After a short stint in Tata steel, he qualified for the Indian Revenue service in 1992 progressing to the post of Joint commissioner in Income tax department to later voluntarily resigning from the post in 2006. Then began his journey to work towards what one can only call empowerment of the Indian people. He founded the Public Cause Research Fund along with his aides Manish Sisodia and Abhinandan Sekhri to raise awareness of Indian laws, especially the RTI (Right to information) act which he himself fought for as part of the working committee of the NCPRI (National Campaign for People’s Right to Information) along with the likes of Aruna Roy. The Right to Information Act after hundreds of amendments and painstaking work by the NCPRI was passed in the year 2005 and was not only the first win for civil society movements to promote transparency of government but also a shining example of how persistence on the part of Arvind Kejriwal and the NCPRI has led to actual policy change. This act has been a boon for the people of the nation and has functioned as a very powerful tool in numerous exposes of the government and its bureaucratic establishment since it came into being.
Very few are aware that the IAC movement is the brain-child of Arvind Kejriwal himself, Anna Hazare being the activist face that joined him along the way; strategically placed at the forefront to tap into the Indian psyche as a Gandhian figure that immediately demands respect and already has significant following in the state of Maharashtra. The idea for what was to be the Jan Lokpal bill was emerging within him as early as September 2010. A piece of legislation drafted first in 1968, re-introduced eight times without seeing the light of day due to dissolution of parliament, inspired by the office of Ombudsman in Scandinavian countries to tackle graft in the higher echelons of government and lower bureaucracy. The IAC team used the outrage at the Commonwealth Games scandals to mobilize public opinion by holding a press conference against the inadequacy of the Shunglu (CAG) commission to investigate the CWG scam; so much so that nearly 10,000 people assembled at the Parliament Street Police Station when they filed a complaint against corruption in CWG in November 2010. Kejriwal began work on the Lokpal bill by consulting with experts and prospective allies: lawyers, bankers, his colleagues in the NCPRI and even religious leaders. Much like a college project, the man spent many a nights on the Lokpal bill draft. Arvind consulted friend and ally Senior advocate Shanti Bhushan (former union law minister in the Morarji Desai Government in 1977-1979, introduced the bill in 1968 himself!) as his supervisor. He would come to the Bhushans with many a questions and leave with multiple red-penned corrections of the draft bill to then take home to work on, often emailing it back with those the same night! This dedication led to a working draft which was used to assimilate likeminded individuals in this fight for this anti-graft legislation. An open letter to the Prime Minister with the fruits of this labour had signatories the likes of Kiran Bedi, Prashant and Shanti Bhushan, Santosh Hegde (former Supreme Court justice) as well as Anna Hazare. No response from the government and indifference by the media lead to staging the biggest showdown against the ruling party and government in recent history: the infamous Satyagraha, the first fast unto death which mobilised what was a frightening resonance within the middle classes of the nation for the UPA govt.
We have come a long way since that first fast, with much of the clichÃ©d Indian melodrama, jail bharo andolans, fasts onto death, indefinite fasts, public debates etc. The Lokpal bill made its appearance in a joint drafting committee with a deadline of June 2011. However persistent disagreements between the government and the IAC on the content and nature of the Lokpal body lead to a standstill on this issue and the Lok Sabha passed its own version of the controversial Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill 2011. It yet remains alive as a bill to be looked at in the Rajya Sabha.
The key public criticism of the Jan Lokpal is the suggestion of a draconian autonomous independent body, critically against the Gandhian principle of decentralisation in the words of now critic Aruna Roy, which would have investigative and quasi-judicial powers all in one place ready for manipulation by those in power. The key criticism against the IAC was their ‘My way or the highway approach‘. On the other hand, one has to merely glance at the opponent’s approach to establish which side you should be now. The politics played against the IAC by the UPA was reactive and resistive. Ministers on one side saw an extremely discontented public but the looming prospect of Tihar jail on the other lead them to dilute the bill to what can only be described as pathetic; for instance the ability to only investigate cases forwarded by parliamentary speakers as opposed to a direct application, no authority to even file an FIR let alone investigate, not provide whistleblower protection etc.
With the belief that politics is a game of intentions, it is evident in this scenario there was absolutely no political will from the government for this public cause in what we like to call a democratic state. The implementation of the RTI act was a simpler demand to meet since the power of extracting transparency does not necessarily give the public the power to prosecute. Power would still lie in the hands of the government with the CBI and CVC under their belt. The radical shift in power and authority being proposed and the relative transparency with which it would operate is a deeply disconcerting thought for the government. Their intention on tackling graft is evident in Lokpal and Lokayukta bill 2011.
This loss of faith echoes widely. In the words of Manish Sisodia, the action of an aam aadmi coming out on the streets to protest for a common cause is a process that rests on the core belief that change would emerge from it. The way the events have unfolded, the public has lost faith in that process. It is on this dejected background that Kejriwal is now offering a political alternative to the country; evidently political wars cannot be fought apolitically. Anna Hazare and close aide Kiran Bedi both have parted ways with him on accounts of disagreement on whether or not this movement should be political. Official announcements were made on the 2nd of October 2012.
Critics rightly point out the lack of political direction and serious deficit on real policy and agenda, apart from the issue of corruption, in their propaganda as proof of political incompetence. Their strategy, thus far largely reflects a journalistic attitude and relies on strong media support and coverage, which is weakening as the media moves on quickly. A quick glance at their draft vision statement reveals plans oozing of democratic socialism, the idea of a massively decentralised democracy to bring power back to the grassroots. There is a clear lack of ideas when it comes to macroeconomics and slight undertones of idealistic reversion to Gandhian philosophies of self-sufficiency which may no longer be viable in the current economic climate. However it is clear that a thorough cleansing of the system with adequate streamlining and transparency in all policy and bureaucratic arenas will go a long way in the implementation of an otherwise excellent economic direction.
Politically, Kejriwal is an acute strategist, carefully placing himself as an opposition to both coalitions. Of course due to the very ideologies they stand for, lack of resources is a given and significantly weakens their political campaign and its reach. As the new political player Aam aadmi party emerges, it remains to be seen if they are able to establish a stronghold in Delhi as the first significant step. Scepticism is inevitable and it is difficult to be in agreement with the man’s every move. However personally, on the basis of political intention alone, it is extremely liberating to finally have a selfless, educated and credible face enter the field of politics. Arvind Kejriwal, we hope you’re here to stay.