Arvind Kejriwal: India’s Hugo Chavez?

One is a middle class poster boy in Delhi and large swathes of urban India. The other is a dead demagogue who engendered admiration and revulsion in equal measure.

On the face of it, there seems to be little in common between Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal and late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. But dig a little deeper and the parallels are startling.

A quick search of Hugo Chavez on Google threw up this passage on Wikipedia: “Chávez and his followers described their aim as ‘laying the foundations of a new republic’ to replace the existing one, which they cast as ‘party-dominated’; the current constitution, they argued, was no more than the ‘legal-political embodiment of puntofijismo’, the country’s traditional two-party patronage system.”

Replace Chavez with Kejriwal in the above paragraph and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

The two dominant political parties – the Congress and the BJP – the AAP leader declares from every pulpit, are two sides of the same coin. They have set up, and are milking for their own benefit, a party-dominated patronage system in which only crony capitalism, corruption and chamchas thrived.

Kejriwal’s recent threat to send journalists to jail goes against every tenet of the liberal democracy we all swear by but, increasingly, is in keeping with the AAP leader’s intolerance of any point of view but his own.

Also, in his own mind and that of his followers, at least, he seems to have arrogated to himself the right to have the first and last words (as well as all the words in between) on everything that is wrong with our system. Again, the parallel that comes to mind is Chavez.

Kejriwal was ready to break every constitutional norm in his quest to get his version of the Lokpal Bill passed by the Delhi Assembly. He threw the rulebook to the winds when he backed his law minister Somnath Bharti’s vigilante raids on the houses of some African residents of Khirki Extension. And he brazenly tried to reward lawbreakers by proposing a discount for people who had evaded electricity tariffs that Kejriwal had decided, without any authority or even proof, were unjustified.

Let us step back a little more to recap Kejriwal’s short but eventful political career. Like Chavez, he positioned himself as the outsider, the leader with the common touch, the man who dared to raise his voice against the VIP ‘lal batti’ culture that has left so many of us completely disenchanted with the Indian political system.

That’s not all. Like the Venezuelan leader, Kejriwal, too, started out as the rank outsider in the Delhi elections and managed to maintain that image even after becoming chief minister. Since then, he has cemented his image as a champion of the common man by

# Taking on Anil Ambani’s power distribution company, which he accused of overcharging customers

# Filing an FIR against oil minister Veerappa Moily and Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani for alleged corruption and collusion in fixing gas prices

# Accusing unnamed businessmen of looting the country and, by extension, the aad aadmi.

Along the way, he seems to have alienated large swathes of his original middle class constituency, but is banking on support from the subalterns, the traditionally underprivileged voters, to ride to power.

Note the parallels. Like Chavez, Kejriwal and AAP seem to prefer referendums of dubious accuracy to push through pet decisions. Like the South American leader, he seems willing to upset his middle class supporters to win the backing of the much more numerous underclass of Indian society.

I could go on. But these, and other superficial similarities, will be of interest to trivia buffs only. There are other parallels that are more disturbing.

The two dominant themes of Kejriwal’s politics seem to be a dangerous, even economically suicidal, populism that can win him instant support of an electorate fed up with venal politicians and a strong authoritarian streak that brooks no dissent.

Shades of Chavez? But here, there are two key points of deviation. Despite all his flaws, Chavez did win more than 50% of the vote every time he went to the people. And importantly, he could depend on Venezuela’s massive oil reserves to pay for his populism.

Kejriwal, despite all the media hype, couldn’t even win a simple majority for his party in the Delhi election. AAP wasn’t even the single largest party. But that didn’t stop him and a till then fawning media from calling it a spectacular victory for the fledgling party.

And far from having a seemingly never-ending supply of oil reserves to bankroll economically debatable schemes, Kejriwal, if he becomes Prime Minister at the head of a fractious coalition, will inherit a wobbly economy desperately in need of hardnosed policies to put it back on the growth path.

Kejriwal’s economic vision is still nebulous. His motley band of supporters, ranging from top corporate executives to leftwing anarchists, has come out with contradictory statements. But going by his track record, it can be safely assumed that he will do things that will win him a few extra seats, even at the cost of long-term damage to the country’s economy.

We are complaining about economic stagnation, lack of jobs and opportunities and the absence of good increments when the economy is growing at 5%. Imagine what would happen if this rate slows further…

But populism doesn’t pay in the long run. Chavez’s successors are fast losing political capital with the very constituency that wholeheartedly backed them just a few months ago.

Why? Because Chavez’s reckless policies have left the Venezuelan economy tottering on the edge of a precipice.

Do we want a replay of that in India?