By Digant Kapoor:
BJP’s Narendra Modi is portrayed as a strong leader who will deliver development and good governance. Public opinion is that if Modi becomes Prime Minister then the Indian economy will boom and the rising tide will lift all boats, but the prospect of ArvindÂ Kejriwal becoming Prime Minister is considered destabilizing due to his unconventional approach to governance in Delhi. Congress’ Rahul Gandhi is only a national figure because of his heritage. I am unaware of any of his activities that expose any leadership potential he may have. The few that I am aware of reveal a lack of intellectual depth and an inability to connect.
At its core, India’s national elections boil down to one question: who do you think is a better leader for the country? Elections are often simplified as popularity contests in which charismatic leaders are able to capture the people’s imagination for political gain. In a democracy, being captivating is a necessary, but not a sufficient quality for being the best leader. From the vast literature of leadership studies the concept that is most relevant to politicians is servant leadership, which prioritizes service to others over leadership for personal satisfaction. Unfortunately, too many people in India enter politics for personal gain rather than to serve the people.
Recent events highlight why Kejriwal (and AAP) is unmatched in the Indian political scene. On 4 February 2014, the BJP announced Chai Pe Charcha (discussion over tea), an initiative that seeks to reduce Modi’s image as a top-down leader by taking him “to the site of most political discussions in India, the ubiquitous tea stall by the wayside” (Economic Times).The BJP leadership’s outreach, through which it seeks to learn about micro-level issues that impact people’s everyday lives, is a much-welcomed departure from traditional electoral campaign methods. In the past, a political party’s leadership would come through town and stage a rally at which they would speak to the masses. This break from the BJP and Congress’ past is largely attributed to the need to compete with AAP’s popular appeal. AAP is credited with transforming electoral campaigning from endless monologues to continuous dialogue.
While the Chai conferences formally launch on 12 February, local BJP leaders have sporadically hosted such get-togethers at Chai stalls throughout the country. One such discussion was held last week in Sagar (Shimoga district, Karnataka). Eye-witness accounts state that, “the volunteers of BJP forgot to clean used cups of tea and left all of it including boxes containing Modi’s pamphlets behind on the road as waste, virtually turning the city into a garbage dump.” This occurred at a main circle of the city. Local AAP volunteers took the initiative to restore dignity to this public space. As AAP’s social media unit states, the BJP no longer represents the civic values it once upheld. AAP’s Facebook page wrote, “There was a time till about two decades ago, when the grass-root workers of India’s Hindu Political Right, however much one may have disagreed with their politics, were admired for their sense of duty and their integrity.” This decline of civic values was evident last week at this pre-inaugural Chai Pe Charcha.
Littering is a major problem in India and there are several citizen groups advocating for a cleaner country (e.g.Â The Ugly Indian). What makes this incident different is its political orientation. AAP volunteers spontaneously reacted and wished to send a symbolic message of how AAP is introducing values in politics. It is my contention that AAP’s approach of seeking to make citizens a more integral part of governing is igniting people’s civic duty. Thus, I view this incident as a small example of good governance, which is most effectively spread by a citizenry that demonstrates responsible norms and values.
AAP’s symbol may be a broom but that does not mean they have to clean up after everyone else. BJP’s citizen engagement initiatives do not instil civic values. BJP volunteers seem to be preoccupied with increasing their popularity, rather than improving the nation. The event’s messy aftermath demonstrates the shortcomings of Modi’s top-down leadership approach. Change starts from the local level where people should take ownership of their localities. This requires a fundamental change in attitude. How can people who treat India like an open dustbin hope to lead political change?
AAP does not need to form the Central government to deliver good governance. An activist and an accidental politician, Kejriwal’s commitment to service precedes any interest in attaining a political office. He is a servant leader whose entry into politics has ignited people’s civic spirit. Such micro cultural transformations are a greater challenge to achieve, than altering macro-policy, as they require a paradigm shift in the citizenry. The AAP volunteers in Sagar represent the changing attitude of millions of Indians. This is a greater change than the Congress or BJP have delivered over the last two decades.
Electing the right leader is important because their impact is amplified throughout the country.Â This simple event suggestsÂ that Kejriwal’s leadership style, which is more inclusive than Modi’s, may be more successful in bringing about much needed change asÂ Kejriwal’s values permeate to the gross-root level volunteers of the Aam Aadmi Party. Kejriwal is an unconventional politician, but a politician that India has needed all along.Â India has no shortage of cynical uncles and sceptical aunties who love to blast their opinions overÂ chai,Â but what India needs is civically engaged citizens. When compared with other parties, AAP volunteers seem more politically engaged and civically minded.