Is there space for those who dare to dream of clean politics?

In the early 1990s, when T N Seshan as chief election commissioner was the flavour of the season, a packed Rotary club meeting in South Mumbai asked him to stand for elections.

Seshan, always ready to throw a counter-punch, asked: “I will stand, but how many of you will support me?”. Every hand was raised in a show of solidarity.

On retiring as CEC, Seshan contested a presidential election as a Shiv Sena supported candidate in 1997 and lost miserably. In 1999, he was a Congress backed candidate against L K Advani from Gandhinagar and again suffered a heavy defeat. The yawning gap between the airconditioned comfort of Rotary meetings and the heat and dust of real India was starkly exposed.

T N Seshan wasn’t the first anti establishment crusader to make an unsuccessful bid to enter politics; he won’t be the last. The latest to throw his hat (or should we say Gandhi topi) in the ring is Jan Lok Pal torchbearer Arvind Kejriwal. Both Seshan and Kejriwal were professional civil servants before they captured the public imagination through their anti-corruption campaigns.

Seshan became a symbol of a growing public anger against money and muscle power in elections; Kejriwal tapped into a similar outrage against vaulting corruption by those in high office. Will Kejriwal succeed where many others before him have failed?

If success and failure is to be judged through electoral performance then few will hold out any hope for the former IRS officer and his motley crew. The party system in the country has proved remarkably resilient, ceding very little space to new entrants.

The disproportionate influence of money power in elections is an enduring phenomenon. If  anything, the scale has only gone up: there are instances in the recent Mumbai municipal elections where candidates spent several crores to be elected as councilors. The amounts only go up as the stakes get higher.

Crucial determinants

Moreover, the patron-client cliques that influence voters will not disappear overnight. Caste, community and local networks are crucial determinants in election verdicts. And this is not just limited to rural and semi-rural India.

As prime minister Manmohan Singh found out in the one Lok Sabha election he contested in 1999, personal integrity isn’t necessarily a winning ticket. Middle class heroes may be cheered in television studios, but the applause doesn’t always translate into votes at the ballot box. And as Mayawati has shown time and again, you don’t even need the media if you have the Bahujan Samaj party machine on your side.

Kejriwal himself  has tended to rely more on media power than any organisational muscle to make a mark. To a large extent, he was helped in this task by the persona of  Anna Hazare, a fakir-like figure who was a magnet for those desperately searching for a new ‘clean’ icon to contrast with the sins of  the traditional politicians.

But Anna was at heart a folk activist who relished the cameras but was never really at ease with the cut and thrust of national politics. Kejriwal, by contrast, is a man in a hurry, impatient for change and ambitious enough to see himself  as an agent of change.

Team Anna was driven by a single point agenda of bringing in a tough anti corruption law. Once the political class united to resist any legislation, the team quickly disintegrated into a group of quarreling individuals with conflicting worldviews. Team Arvind, by contrast, has a more grandiose goal, typified in its vision document titled: ‘Quest for Swaraj: from subjecthood to citizenry.’

The document itself is unexceptionable. It speaks of  transforming politics, of  moving from popular protest to peoples power, of changing governance methods, ending the VIP culture and empowering local communities. Who would not want a political party that shuns the lal batti culture that typifies the trappings of  power, or insists on a transparent method of campaign funding? Reading the document is like being transported into an idyllic world of virtuous politics that has no place for the villains of  our times.

In a way, the vision of  this nascent party atleast moves away from some of  the uncontrolled anger and negativism that marked the original Anna movement: the ‘sab neta chor hai’ rhetoric is now sought to be replaced by a more resolute, “politics as a yugdharma” or moral crusade. As has often been suggested, the only way to defeat ugly politics is to provide a superior alternative rather than shun politics altogether.

And yet, the central question remains: how do you transform politics without being able to send your representatives to elected bodies? Frankly, Team Arvind offers no solutions to the dilemma that has gripped many well-meaning Indians over the years.

The system will not change with a mere nudge from outside, it needs a total shake-up from top to bottom. And that will not happen if  power merely changes hands from a Congress to a BJP, or a left to a Mamata or a Mayawati to a Mulayam. Those are internal palace coups, not the revolutions that Team Arvind is looking for.

Maybe instead of  an overarching goal to capture power, Team Arvind should start by simply providing a platform for all those desirous of  a more ethical basis to our politics. Winning elections will be very tough, offering a dream can be more comforting. In the messy and cynical world of  politics, there surely can be a little space made for those who dare to dream.  

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