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Black Swans Against Sultanism: 3 Lessons For Arvind Kejriwal From Anti-Establishment Politicians Around The World

Posted on August 18, 2014 in Politics

By Apurv Kumar Mishra:

Christophe Jafferlot belongs to that rare breed: a non-dull intellectual. In an Indian Express article earlier this year, he wrote about the incestuous link between the top politicians of Pakistan and their enormous personal wealth. Jafferlot used the phrase “sultanism” to describe a political system in which political leaders amass illegitimate personal fortunes which, along with the political legacy, is then transferred to the next generation in the dynasty, reducing politics into a family business.

arvind kejriwal

And just when the entrenched political order least expects it, an unforeseen, disruptive force rises against this system, led by an outsider who crystallises the public’s disgust with corruption in public life. Let us call these leaders Black Swans. They are anti-establishment politicians who don’t just bring about a regime change, but are game-changers who rewrite the grammar of politics in that country.

The last few years have seen a sudden rise of such leaders all around the world: Black Swans that upset the status-quo and shook the political class out of its complacency. Imran Khan’s Tehree-e-Insaf (PTI) did that in Pakistan, as did Mario Renzi in Italy and Joko Widodo in Indonesia. All these leaders made political corruption the centrepiece of their campaign, promising “systemic reform” and captured the imagination of the middle-class and youth of the country.

You could change the cast of characters and Jafferlot’s analysis would be equally applicable to India. Except that the Aam Aadmi Party could not live up to its initial promise and become the Black Swan that it aspired to be. When the one year old party (to everyone, including its own surprise) won 28 seats in the Delhi legislative assembly elections, tomes were written about how it was a watershed moment in Indian polity. In his trademark muffler and floaters, Arvind Kejriwal was an embodiment of R K Laxman’s common man- a David who had defeated the Goliaths BJP and Congress.

Little more than six months later, the party is in disarray. 413 of its 432 candidates lost their deposits in the Lok Sabha elections, funds have dried up, top leaders are quitting or indulging in very public spats and Mr. Kejriwal is struggling to hold together his flock of MLAs, many of whom are reportedly in talks with the BJP. How did things go so wrong, so fast for the AAP?

As he prepares for Delhi elections which are a do-or-die battle for his political survival, Arvind Kejriwal should look around and learn from his more successful contemporaries before it is too late. What are the lessons to be learnt from the other Black Swans?

Lesson 1: The game of politics is a test match, not T-20. It takes years of hard-work and struggle to establish credibility as a genuine political alternative in the eyes of public. Imran Khan-led PTI (inaccurately described as Pakistan’s AAP) governs the Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and is the main opposition party in Punjab. PTI was also the third largest party in the national elections held last year. It is nothing short of miraculous that in a conservative Muslim state, a former cricketer who had the reputation of a playboy, married a Westerner and was a political novice, has achieved such success in his political career. A Black Swan, if there ever was one.

However, his recent successes mask the years of failure, ridicule and isolation that PTI faced when it first started out. PTI contested its first elections in 1997, failing to win any seats and then again in 2002, when it won just 0.8% of the popular vote with 1 out of 272 seats in the Parliament. It would be fair to say that his short fling with state politics as the Chief Minister of Delhi seduced Mr. Kejriwal into believing that he was destined to be the Prime Minister after the 2014 general elections. He would do well to remember Leonardo da Vinci’s advice to his political masters: “He who wishes to be rich in a day will be hanged in a year.”

Lesson 2: Governance, unlike agitation, cannot be held hostage to a single agenda. In Italy, a gerontocracy like India, the 39-year mayor of Florence Mario Renzi became the youngest Prime Minister in the history of unified Italy without even been elected to the national parliament. The palace coup in which he dethroned Enrico Letta is reminiscent of how Arvind Kejriwal sidelined Anna Hazare.

However, the two could not have been more different once they achieved power. In the run-up to the elections, Renzi promised major constitutional and electoral reforms like abolishing the Senate within 100 days of coming to power. To this end, he even struck a deal with the devil himself- Silvio Berlusconi, his political and ideological opponent who is accused of tax fraud, bribing legislators and hosting the famous bunga-bunga parties amongst other things.

But when he could not achieve this goal due to compulsions of coalition politics, Renzi did not quit in despair. Instead he focussed on other low-hanging fruits that could be plucked with his limited mandate, like restructuring state-owned companies. He runs a coalition with both right-wing and left-wing elements but plans to complete his term till 2018 and fight it out.

Lokpal Bill was just one promise in the AAP manifesto, albeit an important one. Till today, Mr. Kejriwal has not been able to explain why its passage could not wait another day and justified his immediate resignation when Delhi wanted a government. Instead, he believes he can still extract some political mileage out of it by putting up posters comparing his 49-day government with the first 49 days of the 5-year Modi government.

Lesson 3: A sustained track-record of performance at regional level is a pre-requisite for electoral success at the national stage. Of the three Black Swans discussed here, Joko Widodo of Indonesia (popularly known as Jokowi) is probably the closest parallel to Arvind Kejriwal. He joined politics as late as 2005 when he was elected as the mayor of Surakarta and has absolutely no experience of national government. He rose to national popularity based on his anti-corruption crusade, refusal to use the official car, tendency of mingling with common people and the famous habit of blusukan- unscheduled visits to slums and government offices, accompanied by media.

Results of the presidential elections are now out and he has defeated Prabowo Subianto to become the new President of Indonesia. Jokowi, unlike Kejriwal, went to the national elections on the strength of his track record as the mayor of Surakarta and the governor of Jakarta, a city that may be called Indonesia’s New Delhi. What matters to the public is not the size of your previous mandate (Surakarta and Jakarta are just cities) but how you discharged the responsibilities that you were given. As long as people trust you to fulfil your mandate to the best of your abilities, they will vote for you. Mr. Kejriwal should probably have worked for one term as the Chief Minister, created a “Delhi Model” and then gone to the national electorate in 2019 on the strength of his track record like Jokowi. But that again, is just the humble opinion of an Aam Aadmi.

Born out of the India Against Corruption movement, AAP captured the zeitgeist of the time as protest movements all over the world, from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, were overthrowing regimes and churning out new leaders that made a mark in national politics. Somewhere down the line, AAP lost the plot as it tried to replicate the high-voltage, short-term, confrontational approach of a social movement to a more sedate, intricate and slow-moving world of a multi-party political system. Building political credibility is a dull, slow business while Mr. Kejriwal prefers the quick-fix. AAP has a lot to offer to India’s dysfunctional politics and it is important that the party remains relevant in the long-term. Let’s hope for the sake of AAP, its supporters and our democracy, that Mr. Kejriwal learns his lessons in time.