What do idealists want?
There is an Indian melancholy all through the film An Insignificant Man. At first it is hard to understand this familiar ache. It is odd because the documentary on the famous victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which was released in cinemas after demands by the censor board were fought off, ends in a happy place, when the small good guys beat the giant practical villains.
So, is it the bare sight of Indian politicians that makes us sad, those men with cunning high-carb faces? Or is it the absence of joy in the masses who gather, and the inevitability of their doom? But slowly we accept that the sorrow emanates from the very hero, Arvind Kejriwal, once the beloved of all.
It is there in his deep seriousness; there when he tells the poor that he will change their lives; when party workers high on morality argue with him over how their voices are not heard while choosing electoral candidates and he tells them that he too has the right to speak; and when someone throws ink at him and he looks baffled. And in the end when he triumphs and his fans carry him, and it is then that he looks frightened and he blurts out the beautiful line that he is just “an insignificant man”.
What exactly does Kejriwal want? Is his wish for the welfare of humans more than what most of us feel, or does he want them to transform in a particular way that he approves of? Is his humanitarian mission the promotion of a personal interpretation of welfare? Is he an idealist, or merely a very good man? Only the naïve will think the two are the same.
When Kejriwal left the low-stakes world of activism and entered electoral politics vowing to be naïve, the old guard laughed. In the film, a Congress politician takes a dig at Kejriwal and says idealists are good for a fling but make lousy husbands.
From his statements and his actions so far, what Kejriwal wants is to create a political system that is under immense pressure to be clean so that the people who are dependent on the government for their very existence will have better lives. What is idealistic about this? Only in India and other corrupt nations will someone like him be called an idealist. But then a person is what he is in his circumstance. As the bar in India is low for clean politics, we can consider Kejriwal an idealist, but one, like Barack Obama, whose objectives are clear and sane.
There is another idealist in the film, Yogendra Yadav, a former member of AAP, who emerges from the story as a man more pious than Kejriwal. He has presented himself to the cameras of the film-makers with greater cunning than Kejriwal. There are several scenes where Yadav has his palms covering his face in apparent frustration when the party faces accusations of corruption. In one comical shot, he is clearly posing for the camera, covering his eyes as we hear hostile television news in the background. A man who always knows where the cameras are, he maintains the appearance of some superior outsider trying to save a bumbling outfit. Many reviewers of the film have considered Yadav, who is verbally articulate, to be the hero of the film, which is similar to the admiration of Nehruvian sportswriters for Rahul Dravid.
What does Yadav want? He is in the classical mould of an idealist. What he appears to want is primarily to transmit the fact that he is idealistic. His allegiance is to the perception of him. It is a common personality type upon whom a beer bottle will fall if you fling it on a congregation of artists, academics and posh boys who write long-form.
Most idealists are usually from the social and economic elite but feel inadequate in a changing world, or in a society where it has suddenly become expensive to remain rich, a price they cannot afford any more. Idealists formed by such economic forces are not charlatans. They may not accept their social dejection as the cause but they really do seek a noble activist goal, they get obsessed by a glorious thought experiment that can never be a reality, a pursuit that then becomes a war against their more successful adversaries. Usually, this happens among the middle-aged, but of late we see many young people, terrified by their low chances in capitalism, seeking refuge in idealism, where they finally gain respect.
The most powerful idealists are a bit complex. They are often elite victims of insults from another group of elites. Their revenge is harvested through idealism. This is the Gandhian touch to idealism. In the book The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer Of Empire, authors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed say that in 1893, when Gandhi considered himself among the elite of South Africa, he wrote a letter that stated: “I venture to point out that both the English and the Indians spring from a common stock, called the Indo-Aryan.... A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.” And, in 1904, he wrote that the Johannesburg municipal council “must withdraw the Kaffirs (blacks) from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.”
We will never know the exact constellation of factors that led him on the path to modern greatness but it would be naïve to presume that white racism that did not fully acknowledge his brown racism had no role at all.
The celebrity of some idealists in our parts is entirely the creation of an ignorant West’s feudal compulsion to distribute good-behaviour awards, like the Nobel Prize. Aung San Suu Kyi, as we now realize, is among them. She is a Bamar, the Brahmins of Myanmar, who also constitute a majority among the many ethnicities of the nation. Her father was among the most influential Burmese leaders ever. Suu Kyi, very simply, is from an elite class that fought her oppressors using the full force of idealism, which includes the propagation of a political system that favours her and gives her an unfair advantage over the common Burmese. But the Western acclaim-distribution system saw in her everything it wanted to see in the “other people”—a suave, English-speaking, beautiful female who was very Western but Burmese. This is very similar to how the US space agency Nasa searches for extraterrestrial life—something made of carbon that is dependent on water, or something that is human but a bit exotic.
Now that Suu Kyi is part of the government, of the system, she has no patience for humanitarian posturing. She has refused to accept that there was “a genocide” of Rohingya Muslims. Usually, people who win the Nobel Peace Prize do not deny a genocide when The New York Times suggests there was one. Instead, to the horror of the global good guys, she suddenly appears to be a conservative hardliner.
Like Suu Kyi, Arvind Kejriwal ceased to be the beloved of a class when he became something more than a gadfly, when he became the system. The same will happen to Kanhaiya Kumar, the world’s most famous “student leader”, the reason why he does not become an adult. When an idealist begins to succeed and becomes useful, he ceases to be one. The romantic then steps out of the circle of adoration to do something more difficult than merely be lovable.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.
He tweets @manujosephsan