The fall of Arvind Kejriwal's allegation politics
The electorate is realising that the AAP chief's allegations against political adversaries are little but a political ploy to create confusion.
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A movement that feeds on people's angst against corruption needs more than allegations to sustain itself. Today, the author of allegation politics - making unsubstantiated allegations of corruption on political opponents - and as the self-appointed certifier of honesty, Arvind Kejriwal, is probably realising that the tool has outlived its utility.
By apologising to Shiromani Akali Dal MLA and general secretary Bikram Singh Majithia for making allegations about his involvement in the drug trade and calling him Punjab's drug lord, Kejriwal is changing the script of his political engagement.
"In the recent past I made certain statements and allegations against you regarding your alleged involvement in drug trade," Kejriwal wrote in a March 15, 2018, letter to Majithia that displays a submissive tone that's alien to an otherwise roaring leader, testing the patience of his followers.
Kejriwal: "These statements have become a political issue." But that was what they were in the first place. Otherwise, why would he time it to precede Punjab elections?
"In one month of our government coming to power his government would put Majithia behind bars," Kejriwal had said in a January 21, 2017, 1 minute 59 second video clip, tweeted by the AAP handle.
Kejriwal: "Now I've learnt that allegations are unfounded. Hence there should be no politics on such issues." On what basis were the allegations made in the first place? Were they based on any valid evidence then?
Further, what makes him believe that these allegations are "unfounded" today? The lack of evidence remains the missing jigsaw in both, the allegations as well as their withdrawal.
Kejriwal: "Because of my allegations against you at various political rallies, public meetings, TV programmes, print, electronic and social media, you filed a defamation case against us in the Hon'ble court at Amritsar. I hereby withdraw all my statements and allegations made against you and apologise for the same."
On his part, Majithia has accepted the apology.
CM @ArvindKejriwal has tendered an apology to me in the court,for all the baseless&false allegations he & his party levelled against me in drug https://t.co/Fl679yeKHW mother suffered the most due to all this&this apology is vindication of her faith in Waheguru’s power of justice pic.twitter.com/YXs3f710eu— Bikram Majithia (@bsmajithia) March 15, 2018
What happened? Revelling in the initial successes of the instrument, Kejriwal went too far and stretched the limits of allegation politics. The pathetic unravelling of Punjab AAP and the predictable victimhood justifying his apology notwithstanding, these limits have cracked on three key fronts.
First, they have broken politically, as the electorate for whose consumption these allegations were made is exhausted by their repeated failure, leading to a contemptuous yawn every time Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi
Party makes them. When Kejriwal had introduced a personalised allegation politics, it worked. When Kejriwal raised the pitch of his allegations from the general to the specific, he had an amazing early run during which he threw allegations on the high and mighty - Congress' former president Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra, BJP president Nitin Gadkari, then law minister Salman Khurshid, and finance minister Arun Jaitley.
His allegations took the political class by surprise. This was a disruption in the tools of political engagement. Beyond defending themselves with statements, there was nothing they could do. It did help that the overall atmosphere was one where the electorate was exhausted of corruption and wanted to believe in these allegations. Politically, therefore, it worked. Now, the same electorate is realising that these allegations are little but a political ploy to create confusion and nothing has come out of it in real terms, this game is over.
Second, the power of allegation politics has broken in the media, as those allegations are now confined to inside pages at best, with only the recent apology to Majithia hitting Page 1. Newspapers and TV channels serve their readers and viewers and once their attention has shifted, the media follows. Right now, the big issues are around economic growth, the Congress' attempt at resurgence, the political playfield turning adversaries into partners to fight the BJP and so on. There is little space for Kejriwal's allegations. He has exhausted the media's patience.
Third - and this is crucial for the breakdown of Kejriwal's model of allegation politics - it has broken legally. His "victims" are now striking back not with empty rhetoric but armed with the strong arm of the law, pushing him into a corner from which the probability of his becoming a "convict" from merely an "accused" are rising. If found guilty and turned into a convict, Kejriwal will need to serve a sentence of up to two years (Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code or IPC) - and will not be able to contest elections for the next six years (Chapter 2(8)(b)(iii), Handbook For Candidates, Election Commission of India).
With 2019 around the corner, and 13 state elections over the next two years, this is a risk he cannot take. There could, therefore, be some truth in reports that the apology to Majithia is only the first among several that will follow. Majithia has accepted the apology. Will others too? We wait and watch.
Kejriwal's allegation politics was possibly banking on three exceptions in Section 199 of the IPC. First, imputation of truth which public good requires to be made or published. Second, public conduct of public servants.
And third, conduct of any person touching any public question. The first exception requires "public good", the last two "good faith". The term public good is wide enough to allow almost all defamatory acts to get away under "free speech".
But even free speech is not really as free as imagined or wished for. While Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution gives citizens (and not merely journalists or politicians) the right to freedom of speech and expression, in the very next Article 19(2), the Constitution places "reasonable restrictions" in the interest of, among other things, "defamation". Thus, the constitutional freedoms and their restriction need to be read alongside IPC to get a complete picture and protection.
Read together, the three legal limits of the Constitution, the IPC and the Election Commission rules, when brought before the courts, suddenly acquire a political hue that can end the career of a politician who uses disruption as a political tool. With the Mathijia apology, Kejriwal is probably ending his brand of allegation politics.