With almost every passing day activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal is claiming our mind space, if not our votes (as yet). The sheer spectacle of seeing him on prime time television and associated with allegations of expose after expose has made him difficult to ignore and, least of all, forget. Now almost anybody and everybody is struck with one question: What will he do next and will his movement blossom into the promised political alternative? The answer, at the cost of sounding glib, is that it is anybody’s guess.
Actually, the question should be framed differently.
How did the Kejriwal phenomenon happen? It is because Kejriwal is an outcome of a process that is unravelling in Indian politics; he is simply a case of being at the right place at the right time and saying the right things. He is not, contrary to popular perception and what the India Against Corruption group would like us believe, the cause of the phenomenon; instead he is the product of this tectonic shift that is redefining the way this country thinks about politics—like an incoming tide that will reveal itself only when the feet get wet.
Framing it, thus, helps form the right context. More importantly, it also throws up plausible insights into the future course of Indian politics—the only consensus about which is that, at present, it is plumbing historical lows. Suffice to say, regardless of what our politicians claim and say, this is the end of the road of business-as-usual in politics. As always, a change is welcome.
This situation has not come about overnight. It is just that a constellation of circumstances have finally come together to ordain what looks like monumental change; even if they do gang up, like, in effectively stalling the passage of the Lokpal (ombudsman) legislation, it is unlikely that politicians can prevent this round of change; they may be able to slow it though.
Firstly, India has been re-invented demographically. Look around you, whether on the street or in your office, in urban or rural India; what will strike you is how young India is (a colleague who just returned from Tokyo flagged the exact opposite about Japan). All kinds of estimates are flung around, but there is consensus that about 65% of India is less than 35 years of age, that is, two out of three Indians are less than 35 years old.
Not only does this mean that we have a very youthful population, it is also what demographers call the demographic dividend. It is also obvious that this generation has been born mostly after 1980—when the country first initiated steps to remove the policy shackles and what subsequently accelerated into the liberalization wave in 1991. For most of their lifetime they have, materially speaking, known only of good things in life and till recently were not even aware of what it meant to be in an economic crisis. Not surprisingly, therefore, aspiration is their second nature and new India has only stoked their legitimate dreams.
Secondly, in stark contrast to this shift in the demographic structure, the politics and governance of this country has assumed the form of a mass culture: no matter your ideology, once in government you very much pursue the same policies. While foreign investors should be pleased that the direction of reforms is never in question, even though the pace is, the politics has also settled down to a predictable up-down routine. (Which is why the UPA, now that it is in trouble, constantly claims that it is only doing, whether right or wrong, what the National Democratic Alliance did earlier). With corruption going wholesale and elections becoming a contest of individual net worth, the engagement with the public has become more and more disconnected. So, come every election, all parties are still playing the freebie card, even while the public now wants to be taught how to fish and not just served fish. So not only are Indian politicians disconnected with the populace, the allegations acts of graft have created a serious credibility deficit.
Thirdly, all of this has been accompanied by a growing list of accountability parameters; in this, the right to information and an activist judiciary have proved to be a game-changer. In addition, the constant scrutiny of 24x7 TV news channels ensures the general public misses nothing; worse, often distorted and exaggerated impressions gain ground.
So what we have is an explosive mix of a youthful country armed with aspirations and governed by a polity that is well past its sell-by date. This disconnect, together with growing economic pressures from the lack of jobs and persistent double-digit inflation, has transformed this disconnect into a collective anger against politicians. This is manifest in scores of face-offs happening across the country, but rarely find mention in the national media.
The vacuum was waiting to be exploited. Kejriwal—regardless of whether he is the person with the right pedigree for the job—has done precisely this: connect the dots. He may or may not succeed in monetizing this momentum. The good news, for now though, is that it is the end of business-as-usual.
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org