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Why Kejriwal should succeed (and why he will not)

The skepticism against Arvind Kejriwal is warranted. But can he prove everyone wrong?

In 2009, Barack Obama became the president of the United States. It was a momentous occasion. ‘Racial barriers fall as the nation elects its first African-American President’ was the elated  New York Times headline. Others pointed out that a little known senator from Illinois had beaten the giant Clinton machinery—McCain was pretty much a toast from the beginning—and had rode to power leveraging the strengths of the internet and the activist base of the Democratic Party. This was different as encapsulated in Obama’s simple yet highly effective slogan: Change we can believe in. The promise of a post-partisan Washington D.C.; the vision of a post-racial America. And the rapturous crowds which greeted Obama’s inauguration clearly believed in the man and his promise. Their sheer energy and faith in Barack Obama was unbelievable.

Five years later as Obama surveys a presidency which is rapidly going downhill, the world presents a very different picture. Washington D.C. remains as grid-locked up as ever with Republicans acting as a determined opposition. Race remains a major factor in American politics and despite a comprehensive victory in the 2012 presidential election, Obama’s second term agenda is practically dead. And perhaps in the unkindest cut, President Obama’s job approval ratings are fast approaching that of George W. Bush.

This is not to argue that Obama presidency has been a disaster. Far from it. Despite its disastrous roll out, the Affordable Care Act remains the law of the land and fulfills a long-standing liberal goal: (near) universal healthcare. Other Democratic Party priorities have been realized including Dodd-Frank and the roll back of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama, however, didn’t promise mere policy victory but real change. He didn’t just campaign in poetry but promised to govern in it as well. A new America. A different America. In that he has failed.


Arvind Kejriwal is all set to take over as the chief minister of Delhi. In all respects, it is a magnificent political achievement.  In India’s stultified politics where outsiders are simply not welcome, Kejriwal has arrived as a disruptive force successfully transforming his anti-corruption movement into a potent political force. He has captured the imagination of the Delhi voters and his own demolition of Sheila Dikshit from one of India’s most elite constituency speaks of his remarkable ability to bridge voters from different classes/castes to construct a rainbow coalition. He has proved all his critics wrong—mea culpa—and provided a template for a different kind of politics in India.So where does Mr. Kejriwal go from here now that he is the executive leader of India’s capital? There are two ways to look at it. First, when it comes to policy issues, Kejriwal has clearly adopted a populist model with promises of decrease in electricity charges and free water. Here, the exigencies of governance are going to catch up with him. He may discover that promises of cheap power are incompatible with 24/7 delivery and some compromise is inevitable here. Or will Mr. Kejriwal go out on a limb and roll back the power reforms in Delhi? Only time will tell but if the recent events are any indication, Mr. Kejriwal is quite capable of compromise. In short: win some, lose some. Or how governments in a competitive democracy routinely operate.

But Mr. Kejriwal has not merely promised some freebies which are now the standard trope in Indian elections but a fundamental shift in how politics in conducted. For instance, his SMS poll on whether AAP should form the government in Delhi—though highly dubious in its scientific merit—is the new model of participatory democracy, as Professor Yogendra Yadav puts it. But how does participatory democracy work in a city-state with a population of nearly 16 million let alone in a country of 1.2 billion? Should every issue be decided directly by the voters? And if it is not a practical mechanism to decide on governance issues, how will Mr. Kejriwal answer the charge that he is just another politician—and the inevitable anger and disillusionment in its wake? Or what happens when corruption doesn’t magically disappear even after the Jan Lokpal Bill is enacted because it is linked to structural economic issues and rent seeking?

Just like Obama voters believed that America was being retransformed, the activist base of AAP clearly believes in its model. But change in a democracy is hard. And that is not a bug but a feature. The real strength of a functional democracy is that it does not let the pendulum swing too wildly to either side and restores a certain sense of balance. However, that means transformational leaders who promise a fundamental reordering of the society are inevitably doomed to fail. And unlike the average cynical voter who fully expects the politician to default on most of his promises, supporters of political revolutions are true believers: their faith in their model is absolute and unwavering and when the leader fails to deliver, the disillusionment is as quick and absolute.

So here’s Mr. Kejriwal’s real challenge:  Tempering the expectations of his passionate supporters while simultaneously retaining their idealism and the sense of purpose which propelled a rank outsider to power in the first place. In other words, judged by his own promises, Mr. Kejriwal is certain to fail but if he can inject a sense of realism in his political rhetoric, the revolution may yet be saved! However, that is an exceedingly hard challenge and if history is any guide, leaders far greater than Mr. Kejriwal have failed that test.

V.P. Singh’s spectacular implosion robbed an entire generation of Indian of their idealism and made them  extremely wary of the political process. Mr. Kejriwal is to be congratulated on his ability to connect a new generation of Indians to politics. In that respect, his responsibility is a huge one: Please don’t turn a new generation of voters into cynics as well.

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