Rejoice ye citizens of India! Especially ye non-voting types! Arvind Kejriwal’s political party is finally here. It had a turbulent first few days, of course – first there was its name, the Aam Aadmi Party, which led to various variations of the following three jokes:
- Mr Kejriwal doesn’t believe that women should be in politics.
- “Aam Aadmi Party” can be abbreviated “AAP”. Hence it will win in Lucknow, the city of Pehle Aap.
- Either the Congress or Robert Vadra is going to sue Mr Kejriwal for copyright infringement.
Meanwhile, we still don’t know much about what Mr Kejriwal’s party – remember, the Aam Aadmi party has one very khaas aadmi, and only one – will say about such minor and unimportant things as, for example, economic policy. For good reason, perhaps, given what Mr Kejriwal has let slip about such matters in the past. Nor do we have any idea what it would say about national security, say, or Kashmir. (Remember, speaking his mind on the latter got Prashant Bhushan beaten up by thugs who had had the presence of mind to ensure that a Times Now film crew was around to film the beating.)
In the absence of revelations about any of these fairly basic points of view for the new party, its actual launch wouldn’t be considered particularly newsworthy. Especially since it’s already been launched in various instalments, with pompous press conferences about its name, its supposed agenda, how much it hates politics etc, etc. But AAP had a launch anyway, on Monday at Parliament Street in New Delhi. Mr Kejriwal announced he would send corrupt ministers to jail in six months if voted in. (I’m not sure how he can make commitments on behalf of the judicial system. Perhaps he thinks he’s standing for Chief Justice, not Parliament.) He was flanked by wise old men to lend him a bit of intellectual heft. Unfortunately, one of those wise old men was Shanti Bhushan, who drafted the anti-defection law that has gutted India’s parliamentary democracy, and so really wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near policy making if this country truly believed in accountability. On Mr Kejriwal’s other side was Admiral Ramdas, who has done nice things for peace with Pakistan but also, sadly, more recently lent his name to a blatantly communal PIL challenging the appointment of the current army chief, which appeared to have the backing of former army chief and all-round mischievous imp, General V K Singh. Perhaps Mr Kejriwal needs to trawl the India International Centre library again and see who else he finds. Mr Kejriwal doesn’t seem to care about past errors; I understand Jagmohan’s at a loose end; do the math.
But the fact that a smallish rally on Parliament Street wasn’t considered very newsworthy has caused Mr Kejriwal to have a minor breakdown. On Twitter, he asked: “Huge crowds. Amazing energies. Historic launch. But complete media blackout? Why? Pl RT [retweet]”. He then proceeded to retweet various replies he got, suggesting that an adjournment in Parliament and an attempted car-bombing of a prominent journalist in Pakistan were just not important, compared to showing YET ANOTHER Kejriwal press conference live. I think we in the media might’ve spoiled Mr Kejriwal a bit. Of course, the funniest retweet of Mr Kejriwal’s was of a tweet from well-known well known person, Suhel Seth, who said sadly that “the media must be covering an empty Parliament and some Bolly-heroine around a tree...” True. When any of us need to be told that the media is in thrall to non-issues we should turn to Suhel Seth for elucidation, since he is on TV to talk about those non-issues over and over and over again. (“Tonight on Confront The Nation Hour! Is New India Tired of Actresses and Trees? On our panel: Madhu Kishwar, Ram Gopal Varma, Suhel Seth, and a representative from Team Anna!”)
But I sympathise with Mr Kejriwal.
After all, he took a brave decision to move from being the plucky little outsider activist with no friends except everyone in television studios to being the plucky little outsider politician with slightly fewer friends in television studios. Nobody likes what they thought of as their right being taken away, and Mr Kejriwal thought droning on on TV was an inalienable right of the Aam Aadmi’s khaas aadmi.
Of course, the problem is that Kejriwal fatigue has set in even among his admirers in the electronic media. There’s a limit to how many times that rehashed news reports can be packaged with moustache-quivering outrage and given one hour of uninterrupted coverage. The fact that Mr Kejriwal has shown real anger about the fact that he wasn’t given yet another hour suggests that he is fully aware of how much his ambitions depend on endless coverage by the electronic media – and perhaps even how much his “movement” and party is a creation of that media.
The one thing that I have realised over the past month is that it isn’t the content of the news that matters; it isn’t even how it’s packaged. What matters is how often it’s repeated. Consider a non-Kejriwal example: the allegations by former auditor R P Singh about current Comptroller & Auditor General and future saint, Vinod Rai. In a series of articles published last year in Mint, Appu Esthose Suresh first revealed most of the facts that were published by The Indian Express this week. (Again, by Appu Esthose Suresh.) But last year, there was no controversy. This year, there was. Why? Was it just a product of TV’s decision – perfectly justifiable, either way – to ignore it last year, but to run it as the number-one story on its bulletins this year?
If that’s the case, it tells us less about TV, or the nature of the news, then of our own failures of citizenship. We aren’t doing a good enough job of keeping our eyes open, or hearing what we’re told. That’s why I hear often enough that “we need an Arvind Kejriwal” to “bring facts out”. Except he doesn’t – he piggybacks off reporting. For me, the most hilarious example was when he pointed out that Reliance Industries is in a fight with the Central government over whether or not it should get favours over natural gas from KG-D6 – as if this was some sort of major revelation, when it was probably one of the two or three biggest business stories of the past year. Even his dark allegation that Jaipal Reddy was sacked as oil minister because of Reliance lobbying had been front-paged before the reshuffle by The Hindu, not exactly a marginal news outlet. And concerns that Mr Reddy was on his way out because of his clean-up of the ministry had been current for weeks before it happened in end-October – even I had said in early September that, if it happened, Mr Reddy’s shifting would reveal the UPA’s institutionalised ducking of accountability.
But Mr Kejriwal’s old news in new bottles created an impact anyway – one that we falsely say was due to him. In actual fact, it was usually due to the fact that the entire news media focused, laser-like, for a few days on repeating what was known about whichever issue Mr Kejriwal chose to speak about. If we, as citizens, heard about these issues for the first time at that point, then we, as citizens, hadn’t been doing a great job of keeping up.
Let us give Mr Kejriwal credit for at least some self-knowledge, and suppose that he has the slightest glimmer of this truth – that the “Kejriwal effect” is not a product of the content of his statements, but the number of times they’re aired on TV or put on the front page. Perhaps that would explain his panic that the media is now treating him like old news.
It would mean that, instead of repeating accusations already in the public domain, Mr Kejriwal might have to do the hard spadework of making a positive argument as to how they can be fixed. He might have to build coalitions, argue policy changes, woo voters with promises, build up second-rung local leaders – all the stuff of politics, in other words. If he does that right, he might get on TV. On the other hand, he might not. Like all the other grown-up parties.
Welcome, Mr Kejriwal, to adulthood.