The media wants to mainstream Kejriwal

BY AJAZ ASHRAF| IN Opinion | 28/04/2017
But why? If Kejriwal is reformed he won’t win power on his own terms and seek to reform it – which, as we all know, was why AAP was born.
AJAZ ASHRAF dissects analyses of AAP’s performance

 

The media analyses of the Aam Aadmi Party’s poor performance in the municipal corporation elections of Delhi have offered two broad explanations. Almost all of them blame the party’s defeat on Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal for running what has been called a negative campaign, of being confrontationist and playing street politics, of whining against the Central government for stonewalling his attempts to provide governance, and for constantly launching sallies against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But these analyses also credit the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party to the overwhelming popularity of Modi, whose stature is said to have grown after he spearheaded the party’s sweep of Uttar Pradesh in the February-March Assembly elections. There was, as so many media reports aver, a veritable Modi wave in Delhi, whose voters washed up, so to speak, on the saffron shore.

This is indeed what a wave always does, figuratively and literally. A wave is a wave only because it is inexorable and unstoppable until it crashes on the shore with a splash. This definition reduces to irrelevance the negative campaign Kejriwal is said to have run. It also means even if Kejriwal had been the country’s best behaved politician, or the most quiescent, the Modi wave would have anyway swept away AAP.

"This definition reduces to irrelevance the negative campaign Kejriwal is said to have run."

 

Perhaps these political pundits believe Kejriwal could have triggered a wave of his own had he not been so negative, so combative. Therefore, the question: Does one leader’s follies build a wave for another who didn’t even campaign in the municipal elections? Quite astonishingly, the media’s answer is yes.

Keeping aside the debate on how waves are created, it is pertinent to examine the subtext of the media analyses which harp on the negativity of Kejriwal as the factor in AAP’s defeat. The authors of these analyses seem to have a secret desire to tame Kejriwal, compel him to subscribe to the dominant political culture, and turn him into a mainstream politician who adheres to the rules of the game and recognises the hierarchy that power invariably spawns.

For instance, The Times of India in its edit, Delhi Lessons, notes gravely, “Where AAP seems to have lost the plot is in pursuing relentlessly negative campaigns. The party is yet to evolve out of its anti-establishment roots.”

The edit does not spell out what these negative campaigns are, but presumably the charge relates to AAP bristling against the Modi government and its representative, the Lieutenant Governor, for nixing or impeding every scheme it conceives and filing seemingly dubious cases against its members. It then cautions AAP not to be anti-establishment.

So who is Establishment? Presumably, one who is powerful and against whom it is advisable not to speak. This the Times of India should know well. When Modi chose to become a party-pooper by pulling out of this year’s Economic Times Global Business Summit, nobody believed that “security concerns” was the reason for his withdrawal. Some speculated that Modi pulled out because he and the BJP were miffed at what they thought were biased reporting by the Economic Times on the Uttar Pradesh election campaign. Others thought they were angry because the Times Group managing director, Vineet Jain, had been critical of demonetisation in his tweets.

The TOI chose to keep its counsel, stomaching the humiliation it was subjected to, and as some would say, wisely so. In other words, anti-establishment implies voicing hurt and anger against the excesses and injustices of the powerful. Despite all its faults, it is indeed true that AAP has been experiencing the excesses of the powerful from the time it vanquished the BJP in 2015. Is it then Kejriwal’s fault to complain that he and his party haven’t been allowed to carry out constitutionally mandated responsibilities?

What the TOI has implicitly suggested is explicitly endorsed by the Hindustan Times in its editorial, Now’s the time for BJP to deliver. “A quick scan of the social media shows that people think Mr. Kejriwal should give up his politics of victimhood and political streetfighting.”  Apart from the sheer inanity of mistaking social media users for “people” at large, the HT too wishes Kejriwal to accept his victimisation and give up street politics, which is precisely what the Congress has done with disastrous consequences.

"Is 'streetfighting' the business of only the Opposition?"

 

Is “streetfighting” the business of only the Opposition? By that token the BJP, ruling at the Centre and in many states as well, should be taken to task for allowing its other siblings of the Sangh Parivar to beat up, even kill, those who ferry cattle on the suspicion they are all headed to slaughterhouses. And if AAP can’t complain and take to streets because it governs Delhi, then, by the same yardstick, the BJP workers should not barricade Kejriwal on the ground that their party rules all over India, because of which it has the powers to steamroll his party’s decisions.

A seemingly more nuanced analysis of the contradiction between those who possess power and still rail against the system is provided by HT’s DK Singh. He writes, “…One can’t be a chief minister, a pivot of power, and an anti-system sloganeer, too. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi tried it out long before the former income tax officer-turned-politician did, but such oxymorons make ordinary citizens only confused and skeptical.”

Singh forgets that Gandhi spoke against the system at the time the Congress was ruling the Centre. Then again, Gandhi represents the fourth generation of his family in politics post-Independence. He has been undoubtedly a beneficiary of the Indian political system. By contrast, Kejriwal is a first-generation entrant who has made his mark through activism, not out of political inheritance.

But to think a politician relinquishes his right to criticise a superior authority as soon as he or she becomes chief minister is to ignore the emerging trends of Indian politics. Self-avowedly, the BJP wants to govern from Panchayat to Parliament. This is indeed a legitimate quest.

But what is not the manner in which seeks to achieve it, using the Central Bureau of Investigation to target leaders in states going to polls and filing cases on flimsy grounds against rivals. Worse, communal polarisation is resorted to on the eve of every election, or the debate on nationalism is triggered through a crafted event, often involving violence. The concoction of religion and nationalism is a poisonous brew against which no antidote has been found.

"Is it then a grave error on Kejriwal’s part to rail against those who represent the system and also seek to undermine it?"

 

From this perspective, India’s federal structure is imperiled. Is it then a grave error on Kejriwal’s part to rail against those who represent the system and also seek to undermine it? However, to many, it does seem so as Kejriwal demands justice not on bended knees but as a matter of right.

This is perhaps why Chetan Chauhan in an otherwise sympathetic piece in HT suggests to Kejriwal thus: “The Modi government has shown it will not oppose good governance moves. The AAP should seek its support more often.” And pray, why?  So that people of Delhi do not suffer and Kejriwal can demonstrate to people that he has “a more constructive outlook.”

Obviously, it is not the media’s concern that the Modi government’s barely concealed quest to destroy AAP compounds Delhi’s problems. It has been ingrained in us journalists to be respectful to the hierarchy of power. We meekly obey our department heads who don’t defy editor who, in turn, don’t flout the dictat of their owners. The last rarely ever happens because the editors before they are given their prestigious posts are often handed a list of people who can’t be criticised.

It is also very middle class, of which journalists too are members, to hanker after its own definition of stability. This is evident in the reading of columnist Santosh Desai’s analysis of AAP’s defeat. In his TOI piece, This isn’t a vote for BJP, it’s a vote against AAP, Desai writes, “Kejriwal communicates an air of permanent instability and a constant desire to be somewhere else doing something else more rewarding.”

Does the “air of permanent instability” arise simply from Kejriwal’s protests against the Modi government, or is latter to be blamed for deploying its superior power to harass AAP? Once again, Kejriwal’s fault seems to be his refusal to become a supplicant in the court of Power. But what is even more astonishing is that Desai sketches the outline of the confrontation between AAP and the BJP in the future without commenting on its ethics.

Desai writes, “The script from here on can be read in advance – more pressure from the Centre, more intensified and negative media coverage, cracks within the party with a significant number defecting to BJP, perhaps even outright dismissal on some ground or the other.” Should Desai’s Dystopic imagination come true, he is likely to argue that Kejriwal had it coming.

After all, we have been taught that the powerful are supposed to lay down rules, harass citizens, deny them their rights at their whimsy, and are permitted to crush the recalcitrant in the political realm, regardless of the legitimacy of the means to do so. It is possible our wish to reform and mainstream Kejriwal has as its drive our own acute discomfort in not speaking “truth to power.” And because we don’t, we feel indicted when others do.

If Kejriwal is mainstreamed and reformed, he might win the media over and, subsequently, electoral battles as well. But in that case he won’t win power on his own terms and seek to reform it – which, as we all know, was why AAP was born.

 

(Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.)

 

 

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