Yes, the time has come for this columnist to declare his person of the year. But before doing that, let me tell you what happened when I was playing a round of golf a short while ago in Delhi. The election in Delhi was about to take place and it was expected to be a close contest between the then ruling Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had sat in the opposition for a long 15 years.
There was also a third party in the fray, the recently formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) led by a former income-tax official, Arvind Kejriwal. But it was not taken seriously. Opinion polls gave it, at best, 10 seats in the 70-member Delhi legislative assembly.
I asked my fellow golf players, all from the upper class and coming from different communities, whom they planned to vote for. To my surprise, none of them replied the Congress or the BJP. They were all for the AAP. Why? I queried. Because we are fed up with the corruption and nepotism that we see around us and we want a change. I then asked our caddies, who come from the lower social and economic strata, where they were going to place their ballots. The AAP, they replied in unison.
That is when I realised that something unusual was stirring up the Indian political scene. Here was a new political formation that appealed to rich and poor, high and low. It was not caste, class or community-based and was motivated by disappointment with the existing major parties. Perhaps more importantly, it had plenty of idealism in it, a tonic against the prevailing cynicism in India.
When the election result was announced, both the Congress and the BJP were shocked (the Congress more so). The AAP had won an unbelievable 28 seats, only a whisker behind the BJP’s 32, while the Congress trailed a distant eight seats (former chief minister Sheila Dikshit even lost her seat to Kejriwal by a huge number of votes). As I write this, the AAP is about to take over the reins of power in Delhi, since the BJP, despite having the larger number of seats, declined to do so.
Hence, my selection of India’s person of the year was made quite easy: It had to be the 45-year-old Arvind Kejriwal, the youngest chief minister Delhi has ever had. He has transformed the paradigm of Indian politics. I was going to say “single-handedly transformed”, but I corrected myself, since Kejriwal rode on the shoulders of an equally remarkable individual, Anna Hazare (he was my person of the year for 2011, in this very column).
A social reformer, in the mould of Mahatma Gandhi, Hazare, a former soldier, comes from a village in the state of Maharashtra. In 2011 and into 2012 — he led a crusade against corruption and for the promulgation of a lokpal (a kind of ombudsman) bill that caught the imagination of the public, and drew huge crowds. That bill came to reality just the other day when both houses of the Indian parliament passed it. The AAP’s stunning debut at the polls doubtlessly exerted pressure on the government to see the measure through.
However, a major difference sprang up between Hazare and Kejriwal after the latter decided to form a political party and to fight the Delhi election. Hazare, on the other hand, did not want to have anything to do with politics. He wanted to remain a pressure group, fighting against corruption and for social justice, from outside. Kejriwal felt the battle could be waged successfully only from inside by forming a political party. Be that as it may, the main focus at the moment is on Kejriwal, a man admired by a growing number of Indians, particularly young and educated urbanites.
What kind of person is he and what does he stand for?
He is relatively young, about the same age as Rahul Gandhi, in a nation of mainly old politicians. He is highly educated, having graduated from one of the elite Indian Institutes of Technolog. He then worked for one of the most prestigious Indian companies, Tata Steel, for two years before joining the Indian Revenue Service in its income-tax department. There he rose to the senior rank of assistant commissioner, before he decided to resign to pursue what had become of greater interest to him: Social reform and the establishment of a system of greater transparency and accountability. The corruption and lack of transparency that he witnessed in the income-tax department must also have been responsible for his decision. This led him to start a non-governmental organisation, Parvirtan, for the improvement of slums, and to draft a Right To Information act. In 2006, he was given the Magsaysay Award, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
Where does he and the AAP go from here?
He wants to make an impact, not just on the Delhi scene but nationally as well. The general election is only about five months away. Is that too short a time? There are precedents in the past. The movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s was able to defeat the formidable Indira Gandhi and V.P. Singh also managed to topple her son, Rajiv Gandhi, later, both men using the same anti-corruption plank. But they took much longer to accomplish their task.
On the other hand, what Kejriwal has going for him is almost 150 million new young Indians who will be eligible to vote in 2014, a big chunk of the potential electorate. I believe he has struck an emotional chord with them and that most of them will vote for him. What’s more, there is now an extremely vibrant, growing social media in India that hardly existed in the 1970s, ’80s and even ’90s — Facebook, Twitter, and the like — which can change political equations in a very short period. I sense that it is also largely behind Kejriwal and his AAP. He is already a major game-changer and could be the best thing to have happened for India’s democracy in a long time.
Rahul Singh is a former editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express and Khaleej Times
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