Power to the people: an open letter to Arvind Kejriwal

In 2013, openDemocracy published Pradeep Baisakh’s interview with Arvind Kejriwal, charting his transition from Gandhian social activist to politician. One year on, Baisakh writes an open letter to the leader of the Aam Admi party, urging him to once again take up Gandhian principles.

Pradeep Baisakh
Pradeep Baisakh
6 August 2014

Arvind Kejriwal

Arvind Kejriwal. Demotix/Rohit Gautam. All rights reserved.

Dear Arvind,

I know you find yourself in a situation where Delhi’s politics seems to be heading nowhere. After your resignation in February from the position of Chief Minister, no popular government has been in place for the last five months. You are right in your demands that the State Assembly should now be dissolved to prevent 'horse-trading'.

For the sake of transparency, I must mention here that I briefly worked with you in 2005. I know of your deep concern for the cause of the people, particularly the poor; your Gandhian viewpoints and courage to tread the non-conventional path. I still follow many of the principles that I learnt from you.

But what I want to discuss must go well beyond Delhi’s state politics, to focus on national politics and your dream of ‘Swaraj’ (self-rule).

Your crusade against corruption and declaration of a people-centric politics did yield unexpected results. The Aam Admi Party (AAP) was able to attract a wealth of volunteers, who left their jobs in business and medicine to join the party and pursue the vision of ‘Swaraj’ that you so nourished. You won 28 seats (though short of a clear majority) in the Delhi State Assembly elections of December 2013, and formed a government which lasted for 49 days. You resigned after anti-corruption legislation was stalled. You have already accepted that you should not have resigned and that has been your forte: accepting mistakes and attempting to amend them.

Four years ago, I was with you in Odisha when we discussed your vision of ‘Swaraj’. You described it as a complete revolution though legislation. I asked why it could not be a revolution from grassroots movements asserting the right to self-rule, through laws where elements of self-rule are well defined. But we both agreed that, although there are many ways to achieve ‘Swaraj’, it is a most worthy goal to pursue.

As you know, there is no fundamental difference between the two main parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Nor do I see a fundamental change in governance with Narendra Modi in power now. Who wins and who loses is of minimal difference to the people at large. Both parties fought the election with heavy corporate backing and Modi will have to pay them back. An alternative politics, which the AAP contends for, is an urgent vision.

The challenges are manifest. The Aam Admi Party and Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement from which the former emerged have both been urban-centric. In a country in which 70 percent of people live in rural areas, these large rural pockets stayed out of your reach.

The Anna Hazare movement is often compared to past anti-corruption movements: Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s and V.P. Singh in the 1980s. But while older movements’ spread was nationwide, the Anna Hazare movement was not. An over-dependence on social media for spreading a political message necessarily excludes the marginalised rural poor. And it may well preclude the exercise of traditional ways of linking to the masses and spreading a movement. Past movements had no recourse to social media, and yet people rose up throughout the country against the establishment. Modi’s ‘Chai pe Charcha’ (chat over tea) initiative, utilising video conferencing to connect to tea stalls across the country, is an excellent form of decentralized communication. One could well take a tip from that.

As for cadre building, you appealed to the educated middle class youth. But Gandhi gave the freedom movement against British imperalism its mass form by bringing farmers and workers into the fold. Until you raise the issues relating to the poor, the daily labourers, the small and marginal farmers and the roadside vendors, how can you make a mass movement and bring about a revolution? The vision of an alternative politics cannot merely be electoral performance. The vision of ‘Swaraj’ is to provide a space for the people’s voice. Your initial platform, based on the fight against corruption, is already built. Now you must expand it.

No political party raises the issue of rural suicide rates. It is for you to visit these places, and see how ‘Swaraj’ could be established there. I need not remind you that Gandhi, in his early political career, visited and took up the cause of indigo farmers in Champaran, Bihar in 1917, of farmers in Kheda, Gujarat in 1918 and of workers in the Ahmedabad mills in 1918. In all these places, he experimented with his ideas of ‘satyagraha’ (peace and non-violence) through techniques of civil disobedience and non-cooperation. He won these battles in favour of the poor before taking up the national movement.

Micro-finance companies have ruined households, enforcing a high female suicide rate. Across a country in which 50 percent of the population lives in poverty, children, the elderly and widows are dying of starvation, and workers are leaving behind their farm land and a peaceful life in villages to migrate to cities to labour in the low-paid unorganized sector and inhabit slums. To see this, you have to leave Delhi, tour the country and stand by the people who decide the result of the election, but hardly get the benefits of development. When a tribal woman from Odisha, a Dalit from Andhra Pradesh and a Muslim from Gujurat declare that they are with you to establish ‘Swaraj’, that will be the beginning of your mission.

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