A common man on the road to power

The new film An Insignificant Man narrates the startling rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Indian politics – a riveting story of outsider charisma and audacity confronting power and inequality.

Billy Sawyers
25 October 2016
Arvind Kejriwal (right) and his party colleagues. Courtesy of Memesys Lab. All rights reserved.

Arvind Kejriwal (right) and his party colleagues. Courtesy of Memesys Lab. All rights reserved.Delhi, India. A scrum of men struggle for space with strained voices and pained expressions. Squirming hands clasp at limbs and clothing, or snatch idly into the air. “The table is about to fall!” Soldiers in green uniforms and berets push back at the crowd, protecting a rack of press microphones that encircle a small podium. Journalists, clinging to their cameras and notepads, press themselves inwards. “Mr. Kejriwal!" 

The sea of bodies parts and a man, seemingly unremarkable, takes position in the centre of the frame. The camera shakes and the shouting increases. Hands and voices reach out to him from all sides, but Arvind Kejriwal is solemn and unflinching, fixing his gaze outwards.

This short scene is one of many powerful moments in An Insignificant Man, a striking new documentary that chronicles the startling rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Indian politics, set in the restless metropolis of Delhi. Evolving out of a high-profile anti-corruption movement, the AAP – or ‘Common Man’s Party’ – became a serious political force in 2012, promising to break the mould of stagnant, opaque politics that has been shared by India’s major parties for decades.

First-time directors Vinay Shukla and Khushboo Rankla have made a impressive debut of their own with this compelling film, a crowdfunded project that saw them work meticulously over two turbulent years in Delhi, gathering over 400 hours of footage. The final result is a distinctive combination of sweeping cinematics, conscientious editing and unrivalled access to the AAP that makes for a remarkable level of intimacy and drama. With the birth of India’s newest party as a point of departure, tension accumulates organically and relentlessly throughout An Insignificant Man, enthralling viewers and bringing them to the protagonist’s side with little obvious effort. 

This protagonist – the ‘insignificant man’ – is Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax official whose exposure to India’s unscrupulous political culture led him to quit his job in 2006 and plunge himself into the chaotic world of anti-corruption activism. With a clear aptitude for leadership, Arvind’s honesty, dedication and stoicism won him a loyal following during 2011’s Jan Lokpal movement, during which he played a key role in mobilising civil resistance against kleptocratic practices in the world’s largest democracy. Since then, the momentum of anti-establishment politics has carried Kejriwal, now a divisive figure, to lofty heights.

But in retelling this extraordinary journey, Shukla and Rankla are careful not to lose sight of Kejriwal’s status as an ‘outsider’ in Indian politics. As the film opens, we are quickly familiarised with a diminutive, middle-aged man who carries an earnest, pensive air as he listens to the grievances of his supporters. We see Kejriwal – a determined activist but long estranged from politics – command the attention of huge crowds and the admiration of volunteers. “Such a small man exposing such powerful people!” As India’s political elite reels from the corruption scandal, it is not long before Kejriwal finds himself pressed from all sides into forming a party.

Arvind Kejriwal delivers a speech. Courtesy of Memesys Lab. All rights reserved.

Arvind Kejriwal delivers a speech. Courtesy of Memesys Lab. All rights reserved.An immediate hero for many, Kejriwal wins the veneration of more and more as his style and approach becomes clearer. His supporters follow him as he rejects charity work in favour of system change, nurture and celebrate him when he goes on hunger strike, and swear oaths to him that they will never again be bribed for their votes. 

The insignificant man becomes a notorious personality and unmistakable leader; soon Kejriwal is at the centre of the political drama film Satyagraha, played by Ajay Devgan. On the streets,  thousands follow Kejriwal’s example by donning the famous Gandhi hat, a co-option of Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy that shames the ruling Congress Party, represented in Delhi by Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. Watched by millions, the emboldened leader of the AAP speaks truth to power, exchanging hard blows with Dikshit, whose seat Kejriwal sets his sights on. 

But the character of Kejriwal is complex, and one of An Insignificant Man’s strongest points is its even-handed portrayal of a man who has both vice and virtue. His single-minded approach to politics can become stubborn and parochial, holding back his transition from activist to political leader. Often this comes down to a trade-off familiar to ‘outsider’ politics: idealism versus pragmatism. As the AAP takes institutional shape in Delhi, it stumbles on questions of participation and devolved power, leading Kejriwal to assert his authority at the expense of his party’s promise for participatory democracy.

Shukla and Rankla have not shied away from depicting these difficult moments with consideration. More than anything, they serve as an important reminder of the challenges that energised social movements must overcome on the road to empowerment. Kejriwal and his colleagues are visibly torn by the tough choices that are forced upon them, by the political establishment but also by citizens who have become wary of debate and sceptical of democracy. As the film progresses, it is hard to escape the sense that compromise is their only viable route past the high walls of Indian politics. 

Though Kejriwal is the film’s anchor, he is brilliantly offset by a range of colourful characters, whose roles in the rise of the AAP are certainly not undervalued by the directors. Early on we are acquainted with Yogendra Yadev, a high-profile political analyst who was key to the party’s formation. Tall, bearded and sincere, Yadev is perceptive and measured where Kejriwal is emotive and forthright. He speaks with lucidity and assurance, giving the AAP an academic rigour that underpins its distinctive approach to democracy and the common good.

The industry and charisma of Yadev and Kejriwal is shown in marked contrast to the complacency of Sheila Dikshit and the Congress Party. Chief minister of Delhi for 15 years, Dikshit leads a campaign that looks solely into the past, rejecting the AAP as a viable party of government. Along with the AAP’s energetic young candidate, Santosh Koli, Dikshit represents one of few women in the political landscape of Delhi, and in the film overall. In fact, there is a noticeable lack of women in Arvind Kejriwal’s movement, not only at the top rung of his party, but also in the crowds, which are frequently dominated by adult men. This apparent imbalance is perhaps the key issue that An Insignificant Man leaves unexplored.

Shukla and Rankla’s documentary is in many ways a fascinating showcase of what makes Indian politics unique, but it also shows striking parallels to other contemporary social movements, especially those that offer a critique of political elites and corruption. This duality resonates strongly with viewers and is certainly a source of pride for the directors. When I spoke to Shukla, he was keen to highlight the huge spectrum of political movements and crises that viewers have called upon, ranging from Egypt to Cambodia, and even to the western world. For him and Rankla, it is these points of convergence that make Arvind Kejriwal’s story so resonant for a diverse array of viewers. These parallels also offer important lessons on the practice of democracy and power in a claustrophobic political landscape, from which almost any social movement could learn a great deal.

An Insignificant Man is probing and arresting, compelling its viewers to be swept along with the highs and lows of the AAP’s journey. We are bewildered by the movement’s mistakes, but also by its astonishing success in a city fraught with corruption and political apathy. As his journey twists and turns through triumph and crisis, through tragedy and jubilation, Arvind Kejriwal is unchanged in his dedication to the cause of the common man. His resolution, in spite of his apparent insignificance, is perfectly captured in this captivating documentary, itself an extremely valuable reminder that even the ‘outsider’ can have a meaningful impact on democratic progress.

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