The problem of evaluating Arvind Kejriwal

He has outlasted the initial waves of negativity, outlined a few radical ideas and created a new audience for politics


Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Politics is full of ironies and paradoxes. A week can be a long time in politics, but a year may be too short a time to evaluate a politician. We also make a fetish of anniversaries, insisting on imposing the ritual of the report card. Report cards can easily evaluate a product, but they are unsure about processes. This, in fact, is the problem of evaluating Arvind Kejriwal. He has ushered in a new regime with a new style and it needs more than the conventional markers to evaluate his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

The negatives are immense and the negatives mark the beginning. The halo of the triumph disappears as the party corrodes from within. His own colleagues find him intolerable as Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan turn in command performances to make their exits as costly as possible. Kejriwal’s collegues are a mixed lot, turning domestic disputes and seedy careers into public scandals, which the media relishes. Yet, all this somehow becomes a prelude, a chorus of initial disquiet to a different kind of play. Oddly, the chief minister’s strength is his vulnerability. His constant asthma and his need for naturopathy to treat it adds a touch of vulnerability, which makes the ordinary man sympathetic. Kejriwal is stoic about his ailments, but often a hypochondriac about the political system.

His second regime begins as a campaign of complaints. He attacks lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung, he complains about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) attitude, accuses the party of going back on the demand for statehood. He adds a touch of narcissism, projecting a national role for the AAP, holding hands with the Trinamool Congress and Nitish Kumar, all of which sounds a bit far-fetched. Yet, there is an adeptness to it all because Kejriwal remains in the news, commanding an everydayness of attention, which is rare for chief ministers. One senses he is incapable of the grandiose promises of N. Chandrababu Naidu, or the exaggerated hyperboles of Lalu Prasad. He sounds like an accountant reciting a limerick, odd, vulnerable and yet endearing. As he endures the wave of negativity, people become more open to a different script.

His new moves begin with a Swarajist budget, which encourages people’s participation, follow it up with a demand to introduce equity in schools and present a different kind of medical budget. Thankfully, unlike some other chief ministers, he is not sporting the gobbledygook of the smart city, but discussing civic governance in detail. His performance becomes an act of pedagogy and he is able to show the need for a new approach to governance. In fact, he makes every act of plumbing into an analysis of governance and the public realizes it is being treated as a public at last. It also begins relishing the gossip of governance, reading every move with the relish of a new wave of local government analysts. The scale is small and this makes the theatre more effective. In comparison, the Narendra Modi regime sounds cold and distant despite all the charchas and sound bites TV inflicts on the people. Kejriwal is now Delhi’s favourite political serial and his ups and downs have a watchable quality to them.

By the end of six months, he has cleared two obstacles. He has outlasted the initial waves of negativity. He has outlined a few radical ideas and thirdly he has created a new audience for politics. His intuitive idea of public policy as a daily pedagogic performance adds to his credibility. People begin to understand how statehood for Delhi can be a life-giving civics and even begin to consider whether federalism is another word for hypocrisy. Kejriwal’s very scale of operations creates an essential hierarchy of messages modern governance needs. He is able to show the city is today as global as the nation and that governing a city can raise problems a nation state needs to understand. Suddenly administering Delhi becomes an open script. Madan Lal Khurana and Sheila Dixit ruled with a sure hand. They were experienced but did not generate the questions of a Kejriwal. Kejriwal’s style is almost pathetic next to them. He appears like a PA next to them and yet the PA in his own tentatively confident way shows he can invent, imagine a new style of politics, where mistakes are everyday currency to be analysed confidently. He shows that the public is mature enough to entertain new hypotheses and can add ideas to his recipes for governance.

By then Kejriwal stumbles into an act of moral luck. The pollution of Delhi as a city had become a global scandal and the media was comparing the events of Delhi city with China’s attempt to be more environmentally alert. Delhi became the centre of global attention as Modi found it was the wrong time to play prime minister to the NRI nation. It was almost as if the whole sustainability debate taking place in Paris was an enclosing frame for his odd-even car rationing programme. The act itself was no act of genius, but may be Kejriwal’s genius lay in presenting it as an act of desperation, an appeal.

I think this very desperation struck a chord with the people of Delhi who have provided the alchemical power to his regime. They realized that his act was to be seen as a prelude to the future. It was an invitation asking them to recognize the respiratory problems of the old and the children, and to do something about the future of the city. It became an exercise in civics, in learning how ecological governance has to be translated into everyday action. It raised questions about professional privilege, the licence for VIPs, flexibility for women drivers. By being strict on fines the government displayed earnestness. By showing it was an idea to be played out for a fortnight, it was treated as a civic hypothesis. It was up to the people to vote the idea with added strength back to power. As a project it exuded a sense of the experimental, a feeling of cooperation rather than coerciveness. It made people take ownership of the project and the fate of the city.

This was something new and precious, and Kejriwal handed it with the right humility, giving credit where credit was due. It was a gambit that worked for him and suddenly his old critics parading their pompous expertise seemed irrelevant. Here was a government that was beginning to work because it was working with the people. The feel-good factor across Delhi was obvious. That it was a master stroke was significant because the BJP’s spokesmen saw in Kejriwal a new Machiavelli. However, their complaints fell on deaf ears as Kejriwal played it right, sitting at his naturopathy centre.

The political change is enzymatic. One senses both a realism and a hope, a new sense of the possibilities of governance. Delhi as a cynical city of decades cannot hope for a greater gift.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist.