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Delhi Needs Another Hero

There is something delightful about seeing the chief minister of an Indian state going on protest against his own police force, which is what happened in January 2014 when Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP), took charge of the state of Delhi after his party won the elections. Camping out on the streets with his supporters, demonstrating against the police, Kejriwal eventually resigned, his party having governed for exactly forty-nine days.

For India’s run-of-the mill political outfits, whether the centrist Congress or the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—as well as for the servile media that by and large leans right—such a topsy-turvy exercise of privilege was reason enough to describe AAP and Kejriwal as “anarchist.” What passes for democratic politics in India is, ultimately, about the intoxicating exercise of power, about unleashing police on the people rather than about challenging them. From this perspective, the cavalier attitude to power displayed by Kejriwal meant that he was quite out of the ordinary, perhaps an anarchist, or perhaps a Naxalite—an ultra-leftist.

Still, almost exactly a year later, Kejriwal and the AAP are back in power in Delhi, this time having won sixty-seven out of seventy assembly seats. It is a remarkable victory margin, especially since the AAP’s principal rival, the BJP, was expected to replicate its success in the national elections in 2014, its Delhi campaign being led by the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. The AAP had, in fact, fared extremely badly in the national elections—Kejriwal lost his direct parliamentary contest with Modi—and been written out of Indian mainstream politics. This makes their triumphant return to Delhi all the more fascinating.

Much of the current support for the AAP can be attributed to the party’s economic populism, to the promise of necessities like energy, water and toilets for all, and all this couched in an inclusive language that reaches out to the poor, oppressed castes, religious minorities, and women. (Read the party’s manifesto here [PDF].) In that sense, votes for the AAP were votes against the BJP, both in its elitist economic agenda, and in its understanding of all those outside its core constituency of right-wing, upper-caste Hindu men as enemies and targets, to be increasingly marginalized and controlled if not outright eliminated. Yet it was Kejriwal in particular who exemplified the aspirations of the voters and their desire for a leader who exudes both authority and simplicity.

A former engineer and government tax official, Kejriwal has the technocratic education and proximity to power that has been desirable to Indians since colonialism (Gandhi’s spinning wheel and white khadi had resonance only because he had previously donned an English suit and acquired a western law degree) and fell safely within the persona that both poses as the Indian norm—male, upper or middle caste, and middle class—and that, when combined with right-wing politics, becomes the BJP’s ideal Indian. Yet to this background of power, ability, and privilege, Kejriwal added a veneer of simplicity.

His most characteristic touch was the muffler (scarf) wrapped around his neck. A nod to the laborer who might wear the same to protect himself from the cold, it turned Kejriwal into a folk hero of sorts, the “Muffler Man.” Taken in its entirety, Kejriwal’s image—his glasses, his provincial moustache, his slippers, his modest Wagon-R car—demonstrates the perplexing truth that India aspires not just to a flashy, aspirational future, but also, oddly, to its own past. In many ways, Kejriwal in his unpretentious persona is a return to the decade of the eighties, to a time in India that was filled with many rebellions and approaches to be being modern, a stage before neoliberalist thinking emerged as a single-model pathway to modernity. It is easy to imagine Kejriwal being played by the Bollywood star Amol Palekar, who almost always performed the comic, modest hero with a good heart—a man representing integrity but without any machismo.

A painting of Narendra Modi / Photo by Thierry Ehrmann
A painting of Narendra Modi / Photo by Thierry Ehrmann

The problem with this hunger for a leader who has both authority and simplicity, who can solve all of India’s problems—including inequality, violence, environmental degradation—by his personal charisma, is that such a leader had already been found, less than a year ago. This was Kejriwal’s rival Narendra Modi, who offered technocratic authority in its neoliberal, neo-Hindu avatar.

Modi’s simplicity was the simplicity of his origin, of being a humble tea seller in his youth, while his authority was a chest-thumping one derived from his proximity to big business, his intentions to expand a national security state, and the violence he was associated with, largely because of the pogrom against Muslims under his watch as the chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002. This was the simple authoritarian celebrated by the Indian diaspora in Madison Square Garden last September. This was the same man who posed endlessly for photos during President Obama’s visit to India last month, wearing a £10,000 pin-striped suit made out of fabric specially woven in the UK—its fine golden lines endlessly repeating, like a sacred incantation, his own name.

The Muffler Man may look, at such a moment, as a suitable riposte to Golden Thread Man, but he too may turn out to spearhead something other than the humane, liberating, and emancipatory politics that APP supporters seem to represent. It is worth remembering that Kejriwal’s first protest against the Delhi police was in fact in defense of a brute exercise of violence, power, sexism, and racism. The Delhi police had refused to take orders from the then AAP law minister Somnath Bharti to search and arrest, without a warrant, a group of African women whom Bharti had accused of drug-dealing and prostitution. When the police refused to carry out the orders, Bharti and his mob apparently carried out vigilante justice, forcing the women to submit to urine tests.

Bharti is still an AAP legislator, with close ties to Kejriwal. Is it possible for such a party to represent anything politically hopeful? Is it possible for a party that has chosen only men for its seven ministerial posts to represent anything utopian?

For far too long, we in India have wanted our simplicity and authority wrapped neatly in the same package, hoping for one big man to come and save us from all the other big men. And yet, when one hears Kejriwal insisting on singing, in his self-professedly unmusical voice, the lines “Insaan Ka Ho Insaan Se Bhaichara” (“Let there be brotherhood between man and man”), one understands and marvels that three decades of predatory neoliberalism and right-wing hate still haven’t stamped out the hope that it might be possible to live with others, without a perpetual war of all against all.