I’ve been quite perplexed, and somewhat saddened, by the general public reaction to the serial apologies by Arvind Kejriwal ( four so far and still counting). One expected the hoots of derision and taunts from the Lutyens Delhi crowd, the mercenary press, the OG-turned-saffron columnists, but certainly not from those who are capable of thinking independently, those who have a finer understanding of the nuances of our deteriorating democratic values. But they have also succumbed to the devil’s wind that is blowing through our country these days. They are all wrong: the apologies don’t demean Kejriwal, they diminish us all. Let me explain why.
Kejriwal has apologised for calling a bunch of politicians crooks. Did he have the evidence for this?- we will never know now, though there are SIT and ED reports with the govt. about the gentleman from Punjab, and minutes of DDCA meetings ( which the court has not allowed Kejriwal to access) that may throw more light on another worthy from Delhi. Assuming that Kejriwal had no hard evidence he should not have made these allegations ( so goes the argument of Lutyens Delhi) and therefore it is only right that he should eat humble pie ( and his words) by apologising. But why should this be a reason for jubilation and twitter sarcasm? It should, instead, be a cause for despair and anger, because it proves that the truth will never out, and that those who dare to speak out will be swiftly cut to size.
Kejriwal’s primary appeal lies in his anti-corruption crusade, his opposition to the status quo and the quid-pro-quo culture which has ensured that 1% of the population has cornered 73% of the wealth generated in the last three years. His accusations of political corruption are generic in nature, and he takes names to put a “face” on the evil, just as political parties put up the “face” of a CM candidate to crystallize their promises in an election. And the people believed him, because the citizens of India don’t need any so-called “evidence” to convince them that all-well, almost ALL- our politicians are corrupt to the core. Look at the forest, not the trees. According to the election watch-dog, Association for Democratic Rights, in the current Lok Sabha 82% of the MPs are crorepatis: the percentage has been increasing consistently- in 2004 it was 30% and in 2009 it was 58%. [ The country’s poorest Chief Minister, who had just a few thousand rupees in his bank account, just lost the election in Tripura. What does that tell us about the state of the union and the context of Kejriwal’s charges?] As is to be expected, the same trend is observed when it comes to MPs with criminal charges: 24% in 2004, 30% in 2009 and now 34%. THIS is the evidence which the voters intuitively accepted when they brought the AAP to power, the propellant for the change they desperately wanted. Individual names are inconsequential. Evidence is not needed.
It is another story that Kejriwal had to withdraw his charges against some individuals. It was not just lack of evidence which made him do so, but a combination of our legal system and political machinations. In most mature democracies a distinction is made between political claims and personal allegations, and the former is given liberal latitude: courts are reluctant to entertain defamation cases based on the free-for-all of electioneering. In India that judicial discipline is missing. Secondly, in no other truly democratic dispensation is defamation a criminal offence: in India it lies at the heart of the law because it is a useful tool to silence critics. Given this politico- legal ecosystem, and a Central govt. which has been hounding him from day one, Kejriwal never stood a chance. 33 defamation cases were filed against him in half a dozen different states; in the fortnight when he issued his first apology he was required to personally appear in 22 cases! The interesting thing is that he was being targeted by just about every political party that had all five fingers in the cookie jar. None of them targeted each other, for that old code- honour among thieves-still holds good in politics at least. Since they are all in the same boat, no one wants to rock it. Kejriwal was the rookie outsider who had to be taught a lesson lest he sink the boat- and so the artillery barrage of defamation cases, facilitated unknowingly by a judicial system which is truly blind.
No one, not even an incumbent Chief Minister, can defend 33 cases in which he has to personally appear at each hearing, and still continue to discharge his duties responsibly. This is what the BJP and Congress had planned for- like with Gulliver, tie him down with a hundred shackles and render him impotent and inert. Kejriwal perhaps read this diabolic strategy a bit late, but when he did he has adopted exactly the right course of action. The apology is a strategic retreat and not a comedown for him : he has not retracted his allegations, he has regretted making them. His core base of supporters recognize this.
The whole affair, however, is a sad day for our country for it demonstrates how entrenched forces can use the unscrupulous and venal systems of our polity and jurisprudence to take down anyone who dares to challenge them- all done “legally”, of course. And therein lies the danger to our democracy: the technicalities of law being used to muzzle serious allegations against a category of people who continue to prosper while the rest of the country goes to the dogs-or cows, in the present age. No one will speak out now.
Kejriwal was perhaps wrong to have made the allegations without solid evidence. He has done the right thing- strategically, ethically and legally- by apologising. But that is no reason for us to celebrate. It is, instead, reason enough for us to introspect whether this is the real road to democracy. What does the common citizen do when the government won’t act, when the courts won’t convict, when the press won’t publish? Kejriwal’s enforced apology has just ensured that we can’t even bark any more. It’s worse than a dog’s life.