A few days ago Arvind Kejriwal kicked off the Aam Aadmi Party’s electoral campaign by doing what he does best. Pulling a few rabbits out of his hat in front of an audience in Rohtak, he called the Haryana chief minister and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate names, once again pointed a finger at the chairperson of a prominent industrial house. This is the persona middle-class Indians have come to love, a David pitched against the Goliaths of the establishment, a saviour of the common man both bewildered and aghast at the monumental scale of his accusations.

His Rohtak polemic followed a speech to industrialists at the CII. Three days after resigning as Delhi’s chief minster, Kejriwal took it upon himself to assure members of the chief industrial body that he was no firebrand radical out to decimate their business.

He was all for capitalism; it was “crony capitalism” that his party was against.

That distinction clearly did not assuage the anxieties CII members may have about the economics of the AAP, and Adi Godrej expressed them well by drawing a line between fighting corruption and attacking industry.

But he was asking too much of a party that has lived off sensational accusations and cared little, so far at any rate, to support or create novel and meaningful solutions to proven cases of graft.

As chief minister Kejriwal had ample opportunities to show how he meant to identify business malpractices and bring to book their perpetrators. He should have used the power vested in him by the aamaadmi to do more than hand out freebies and sleep in the cold. Engaging in populism put him squarely in the camp of the very parties he wanted to distance himself from.

Had he continued to behave in this fashion, the opposition would have been able to level at him the charge of fiscal profligacy.

Cronyism is capitalism

We do not yet have a sense of how the AAP draws the distinction between crony capitalism and capitalism. If the east Asian crisis of 1997 and that of Japan earlier were blamed on cronyism, so could the bailouts of banks and financial conglomerates following the crisis of 2008 be so attributed.

Ironically, it was the deregulation of the 1980s that was meant to keep governments off the business of business that got governments close to industrial and financial conglomerates. Kejriwal made the point rather naively at the CII that once governments left business to the private sector, crony capitalism would cease.

We should know from Barack Obama’s experience and from the rollback of social security nets in Europe that the nexus between powerful economic interests and governments always re-invents itself.

Yet the more obvious forms of crony capitalism, where bureaucrats and politicians rather than markets influence the allocation of national resources to specific businesses, could be tempered by mitigating institutions.

Any party that pegs its fortunes on the need for clean governance owes it to the people to propose precisely such mechanisms. And on this count, the AAP’s main rivals seem to have snatched the initiative from by the introduction of the Lokpal law. Kejriwal had quixotically imagined that his Jan Lokpal ‘law’ being endorsed by the people at a mass rally was enough to institutionalise the fight against corruption. In the process he brought to a head a central dilemma that has plagued the AAP’s politics ever since it decided to contest the Delhi elections.

Electoral politics

For Kejriwal in particular, the politics of renunciation mattered; renunciation of what constitutional politics represented. The fact that he hardly referred to experiments in decentralisation made by earlier governments in his booklet Swaraj was telling. His solutions did not flow from a critique of existing arrangements for devolution; instead he offered the gram sabhas and resident welfare associations as unique ideations of his own culled from ancient traditions. His contempt for and dismissal of the Lokpal law was part of the renunciatory ethic as was his emphasis on mass rallies as the arena for reforms.

But then he accepted power. And his renunciatory struggles became irrelevant and collapsed into symbolism and a threat to public safety. He refused the lalbatti privilege and the official residence, no doubt, but contempt for the Delhi police and incipient vigilantism embodied in the loaded idea of power to the people led to the Khirki Extension midnight raids.

Kejriwal’s resignation was inevitable. To cleanse the government and the body politic he had to renounce power in order to continue denouncing those who misused it. The logic demanded mass mobilisation, a transformation in civil society centred on swaraj , this time not from foreign rule or ideology but from the ideology of state-sanctioned self-aggrandisement, from corruption not just by a few but by successive governments that have allowed black money to mount to 50 per cent of the GDP.

Third alternative?

But the temptations of power have brought Kejriwal and his flock of dewy-eyed followers, the latest being Rajmohan Gandhi, back to the fold of constitutional politics. The politics of renunciation, of asceticism, always sporadic and personalised, never turned into a political weapon to forge a new national consciousness of how to live differently. It earned the leader of the AAP a charisma he could never have acquired otherwise and that is about all. He may rail against the electronic media and some print media but it is he alone who turned a sleepover on a wintry Delhi night into pure theatre.

And yet the AAP and Kejriwal in particular will make a huge difference to our perceptions of politics despite all the missed opportunities for a truly mass movement to cleanse the way we live. After decades, the nation has a third, national political formation in contrast to regional parties and groups with national ambitions. So, regardless of how it fares, the AAP’s concerns will always have the potential to provide an alternative site for a new consciousness.