The other day, a journalist with 40 years in the profession told me: “In Indian politics, dog fights dog. But dog does not eat dog.” We were talking about the Robert Vadra controversy uproar. “In Indian politics,” explained my elderly friend, “certain unwritten rules are followed, so that a general long-term equilibrium is maintained. Everyone prefers that—things going on smoothly.”
Arvind Kejriwal doesn’t give a damn for those rules. And they are many. For instance, the one about disproportionate assets. Cases are filed by governments against opposition politicians when they are being particularly troublesome, but are never taken to a logical conclusion. They are simply held out there as some eternal and distant threat to be referred to obliquely when the politician starts making trouble again. Just a negotiating tool, that’s all. Private lives of politicians are strictly not to be talked about—especially their sex lives. And among the so-called inviolable rules is that close family members of politicians are out of bounds—especially sons-in-law, who have of course traditionally enjoyed a hallowed status in the Indian family.
These rules get violated only through what insurance companies call “acts of God”—a woman jilted or harassed by a politician commits suicide, an illegitimate son insists on a DNA test. But never by a politician.
By bringing up Robert Vadra’s rocket speed rise up the wealth ladder, Kejriwal, who calls himself a politician now, has, as a Congress MP admitted on television the other night, “hit below the belt”.
What went unsaid was: Look, there were so many stories floating around during the NDA days about Prime Minister Vajpayee’s son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya amassing a king’s fortune, but did the Congress ever bring it up? This also explains the fact that the BJP kept quiet about the Vadra allegations for a couple of days. And then of course the First Son-in-Law dropped his barbells on his own feet with that “mango people in a banana republic” comment on Facebook and begged for all the attention that the world is now giving him. Further proof, if any was needed, that too much gymming turns brain cells into muscle.
Kejriwal is an outlier in Indian politics’ nice comforting bell curve—he is the unknown variable. He is not part of the wink wink-nudge nudge conspiracy of silence of Indian political life, and he has nothing to lose. Every political journalist in Delhi knew about Robert Vadra’s connection with big land deals all over Gurgaon and nearby areas. There was enough documentary proof floating around. No one wrote a word about it, except The Economic Times last year, which carried a report on what the DLF annual report revealed about unsecured loans to Vadra, and then mysteriously did not do any follow-up.
The explosion of support Kejriwal has received on social media networks is astonishing. For one thing, never have so many jokes been cracked in so short a period of time than about Vadra in the last few days. Of course, it is extremely doubtful how much this young urban educated middle-class support for his cause will help Kejriwal electorally—after all, it takes much less time and effort to tweet than to stand in a queue and vote, but this man must be really bothering the political class. As a friend pointed out, documents relating to political and bureaucratic corruption are floating around all around the country, in the hands of people who don’t have the wherewithal to bring these issues to wide public attention. Now they have someone they can approach. I predict that within months, if not weeks, India Against Corruption will be flooded with enough documents to make Julian Assange, cooling his heels in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, very envious indeed. This could well turn out to be every Indian politician and bureaucrat’s worst nightmare.
If I was Kejriwal, I would choose my targets carefully and well, because the media will be under pressure to downplay him. The inescapable truth is that media owners will find themselves between a rock and a hard place: thay’ll need to balance massive commercial interests against huge public interest and outrage. For the first time in India, social media could, to a significant extent, influence news coverage as far as Kejriwal goes.
How far will he go? He certainly can’t retreat now, he has not left himself that option. All rational analysis suggests that he will also not win any elections for at least some years. But our political class has long needed, very sorely needed a disruptive force that shakes up the firmament. Today, we can have no idea how far that firmament will be shaken. But this disruptive force that does not obey the code of silence was extremely necessary.