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Kejriwal To Sanders To Trump, Activists Simply Don’t Get It

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hat politics has turned nasty does not need any iteration. What is pathetic is how the same finds favour with the voters. The single factor that saw Donald Trump ousting all other Republican contenders, many with successful track records, had been his foul mouth. He kept on hurling invectives against all other running mates who could not pay him back in his own coin. Not everybody can abuse effectively. Thus, Trump managed to remain the lone abuser standing in the Republican primary.

A mellowed down version of political abuse is aggression. Bernie Sanders, an outlier in US politics and civil rights activist who managed to reach the upper echelons of US politics is a case in point. Like all activists, Sanders’ appeal is targeted to a section and is never broad-based. Looking in isolation, activists sound absolutely justified when they espouse a particular cause, but when the same is placed in a broader perspective, they fail. Activists are more suited as tragic heroes than as statesmen. Activists are megalomaniac control freaks. Sanders is no exception. Activists are not guided by any campaign decency. The description fits Sanders perfectly. He dismissed Hillary Clinton as unqualified to run as President. Little did he bother to check his own track record!

What are the reasons for outliers like Trump, Sanders and closer home Arvind Kejriwal to attract attention and score some success? An important factor is support from the young. In every era, the youth have been rebellious. They find comfort in denouncing the oft-accepted crossing of the Lakshmanrekha of decency. In the world of activism, theirs is the last word.

us-election-2016-617688The youth have been rebellious and non-conformists. Politicians used them in the past for good or bad purposes. They know even not-so-accurate facts dished out by them will pass public muster as did Bernie Sanders who said, “A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932. He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important.” Incorrect though the facts are, Sanders could position himself a victim turned crusader with this statement. Like Kejriwal did with his odd-even formula of movement of private cars in Delhi using pollution as a ruse.

Apart from the rising share of younger generation in population, present-day youngsters have easier means to agitate, thanks to the burgeoning social media. Gone are the days when they had to physically assemble, carry placards and demonstrate. All they need to do is use social media and keep creating trends. Their success will be measured in terms of persons liking and sharing or repeating — re-tweeting if you may — the same. Activists know how to sustain a campaign in the cyber world. Just a little fact check will remove all doubts. The Sanders campaign, for instance, collected huge donations online; it is reported to have attracted over one million individual online donations. His campaign received a major momentum through social media. Sanders uses Twitter and Facebook to post contents, and has answered questions on Reddit.

In the Indian context, Narendra Modi, an outlier, emerged on the national scene in 2013 and used social media successfully. But Modi cannot be called an activist of the Sanders or Kejriwal mould, neither can he be said to be a gatecrasher like Donald Trump. His political experience has been deep rooted and so was his background as an elected representative and chief minister of Gujarat. For politicians, it is one thing to assume positions of importance and another to remain as a perennial voice of opposition. Thus, outlier though he was to the New Delhi-centric politics of India, Modi did not fit into the cast of Sanders, Kejriwal or Trump.

Modi is a quintessential campaigner; he uses hyperbole in campaigns to arouse his supporters. He has the ability to blow hot in a campaign and blow cold when in an official meeting with the same chief minister whom he attacked on the campaign trail. Such swings in both the directions cannot come naturally to a gate crasher like Trump or activists like Sanders. Even Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, brought up in the culture of decent political debates, may find it complex to emulate Modi. In a campaign trail, Modi can seamlessly move over from hyper-criticism to messages of hope and growth. The end result of a Modi campaign is, therefore, mixed — just not bitter. It is easier even for the campaigner to digest the bitter and present a picture of paragon of humility.

vantage_kejriwal_14_jan_2015An activist, in contrast, cannot accept loss. As we saw in Kejriwal and now in Sanders, there is a dogged refusal to acknowledge defeat. Even after Hillary receiving more than her quota of delegates, Sanders keeps on talking of a contested convention. In contrast, all politicians withdrew from the Republican ticket contest when the picture of a Trump win was apparent. This is the problem with an activist-turned-politician. They place their activism over everything else. Like Sanders has been doing, in effect weakening the Democratic campaign to retain the White House.

Kejriwal, too, is busy almost every day painting the Indian Prime Minister and the central government in poor light, treading always on the welcome mat laid out by a large section of Lutyens’ media. For an activist, the cause of activism eventually yields space to an ego-centric espousal of personal braggadocio. For Trump, self-glorification has been the reason for coming into the presidential contest. There never was any overt or covert agenda of glorifying any cause except himself. Trump needs our sympathy. But activists-turned-self-worshipping-politicians like Kejriwal and Sanders are bigger threats to democracy since they can sway the impressionable young to a path of adventurism that harms democracy, society and economy.

Unless democracies can build a wall against such threats, there may be a serious issue with democratic political systems everywhere.

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Sugato Hazra
Public policy analyst based in Delhi

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