Arvind Kejriwal, left behind by the middle class

I don’t know if you have noticed but today, Friday 5 April, is the 14th day of Arvind Kejriwal’s indefinite fast. Kejriwal has lost 8.5 kilos and as a diabetic, his condition must give cause for concern. Today’s HT quotes a diabetes specialist as saying that the acid level in his body is rising. The specialist adds, “Acidified blood is entering everywhere and this will have a negative influence on all organs, including the brain. It is not at all advisable to continue the fast.”

It is not as though Kejriwal’s fast has passed entirely unnoticed. The fast is part of a civil disobedience movement against power and water bills. According to a statement issued by Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, 9.6 lakh people in Delhi have signed a petition vowing not to pay inflated power or water bills.

And yet, at one level, the fast has indeed passed unnoticed. Only a year ago, if Kejriwal had declared that he was going on an indefinite fast, television channels would have interrupted regular programming to offer continuous coverage of the fast. The Kejriwal story would have been the main headline on the front pages of every newspaper in the country, not tucked away on some inside page, as it is these days.

So, why do the media care much less about Kejriwal and his activities now than they did a few months ago?

You could argue that this is to do with the issues he is protesting about. Perhaps the demand for a Lok Pal Bill had a greater resonance than his current complaints about inflated power charges. But I am not so sure. If the Lok Pal debate was so powerful and popular an issue then why is it hardly covered by the media these days? And surely, the issue of inflated bills hits every consumer of media where it hurts the most: the pocket. So, I don’t think that Kejriwal has fallen from public favour only because of the issues.

It could be, as Kejriwal himself seems to believe, that the media began to take a less charitable view of his activities when he started to attack industrialists and media proprietors over secret assets. Kejriwal’s supporters say that the media are unwilling to back a man who attacks advertisers and media owners.

It could also be that the movement Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan launched three years ago lost its sheen once their figurehead, Anna Hazare, parted ways with them. Perhaps the internal dissensions within Team Anna, as the media liked to call the movement, contributed to the general lack of interest in Kejriwal and his activities.

One other possibility is the simplest one of all: fatigue. Every story has a certain life cycle. And when that cycle ends, the story runs out of energy and the media move on. Once upon a time, when Kejriwal and his colleagues went to meet ministers to consider revisions in clauses of the Lok Pal Bill, such meetings were accorded the status of global summits between the world’s most powerful men. But now, public interest, fickle as always, has moved on and nobody cares.

There is yet another theory, which I personally do not accept, but which sections of the Congress subscribe to. This theory holds that while Kejriwal, Hazare, and the others may well have been sincere about their protests, the crowds at their gatherings consisted of Sangh Parivar supporters. The Parivar did not just provide the crowds, the so-called volunteers and the financing but it also used its contacts in mainstream media and its control rooms in social media to promote the movement.

But now, say Congressmen, the Parivar has achieved its objective. It has used Kejriwal and his men to damage the government. With the UPA on the defensive, confused and wounded, the Parivar can now go ahead with its real agenda: the promotion of Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders who seem like strong alternatives to the damaged Congress. According to this theory, Kejriwal has outlived his usefulness to the Parivar. So, there are no crowds. There is no media blitz. And the Parivar teams on social media have lost interest in him.

But there is yet another explanation and it seems to me to make the most sense. For over a decade, the Indian middle-class saw unparalleled prosperity. As incomes grew, so did the numbers of the middle class: millions more were added to this class year after year. But there was a social compact between the politicians and the middle class. It was taken for granted that the middle class would count for nothing in terms of electoral politics. The middle class did not mind this exclusion because times were good and incomes were rising.

When the global economy hit a road-block and India slipped into recession, that social compact broke down. The middle class was no longer guaranteed a constantly improving standard of living. If the politicians could not deliver prosperity, then, said the middle class, why should it tolerate its exclusion from the political system? This turnaround led to the explosion of middle-class anger we saw on TV, on social media and most notably in the Hazare movement. The politician became the villain because he had failed to deliver middle-class prosperity (“bad governance”) and the middle class searched for non-political solutions.

That phase has now ended. The middle class has realized that nothing really changes in India unless you take electoral politics seriously. So the focus has shifted to elections, to political parties and to new alternatives from within the system, to the likes of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.

Kejriwal and his colleagues have tried to fit in with this shift by launching their own political party. But the middle class has not taken kindly to the transformation. As long as Kejriwal attacked politicians, they loved him. But once he became a politician himself, his utility ended. If the media are going to focus on change brought out by politicians, then why not go with the big boys, the Modis and the Rahuls? Why waste time on a newbie and a minnow like Kejriwal?

It is significant that Kejriwal’s current fast is not taking place in the centre of Delhi. Instead he has chosen to fast on the edge of east Delhi in a place called Sunder Nagri and most of the people who have come to see him are not middle class but belong to the city’s vast underclass. Perhaps Kejriwal has caught their imagination. And perhaps they are the ones who will vote for him.

Because the middle class certainly won’t bother; its denizens have moved on.

(Arvind Kejriwal has announced he will end his hunger strike on April 6)

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