Published On : Wed, Dec 16th, 2015

Kejriwal’s ‘psychopath’ barb shows why he is master of media game


In the wake of the Central Bureau of Investigation’s raids on the Principal Secretary of the Delhi Chief Minister on Tuesday, Arvind Kejriwal has pronounced the Prime Minister a “coward and a psychopath”.

Since we do not have the advantage of putting Narendra Modi actually on the couch to check for the correctness of Dr Kejriwal’s amateur diagnosis, we have to assume that the intent of his statement was political.

The most obvious conclusion is this: If nothing else, Kejriwal has shown how to grab the media’s attention. It rests on a few fundamental realities in the media age.

First, if you make a lurid and quotable statement about somebody well known, and get the colourful phrase out in a few seconds when the moment is hot, it will be all over the place. In the world of media, especially social media, the first interesting tweet is the one most retweeted. So when Kejriwal dubbed Modi a ‘psychopath’, one can be sure that this is the word that will be remembered and bandied about, never mind its absolute lack of authenticity.
File photo of Arvind Kejriwal. AFP File photo of Arvind Kejriwal.

In the world of media, where trite phrases and strong words have longevity and get the most traction, getting your blow in first is equal to winning the bout. This is why “maut ka saudagar” or “napunsak”, or “suit-boot ki sarkar” still reverberate in our ears. Denials and counters from the other side don’t get the same press.

Retractions and apologies – if at all they come – again have almost no impact. So score one to Dr Kejriwal for hoisting himself into the news so effortlessly using every opportunity he gets. He wins either way: at the very least he gets noticed (this is the Bollywood technique, where any coverage, even negative coverage, is said to be good publicity); in the worst case scenario, he may get a legal notice, which will allow him to play victim again (poor David is paying for taking on rich Goliath). Court vindications are less remembered than accusations. And, best of all, if his behaviour forces his rivals to run scared of taking him on, given his unpredictability, Kejriwal would have won.

Second, there is the more subtle battle for oneupmanship that Kejriwal has to fight. With Rahul Gandhi now being tutored to take on aggressive stands against Narendra Modi, the national media is following him around like Mary’s lamb, reporting his pearls of wisdom. Thus, whether it is the alleged snub delivered to the Kerala CM for unveiling a statue of R Sankar, former CM of the state, or the alleged denial of entry in an Assam temple, or the death of an infant in the railway demolitions at Delhi’s Shakur Basti, Kejriwal has competition for the limelight.

The problem for Kejrwal is that he is a glorified mayor of Delhi, with limited chances to be in the national limelight, while Rahul has the advantage of dynasty behind him and a national party to orchestrate his every antic as something very important for the nation’s future.

The fact is both Kejriwal and Rahul are battling for the same political space: the left position. If the Congress won 2004 and 2009 by sloganeering around the aam aadmi concept, Kejriwal stole the entire idea by calling his party the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), thus denying Congress the chance to own its own slogan.
But Rahul, outmanoeuvred so far by a more media-savvy Kejriwal, has come up with his own new tricks, by adopting the same shoot-and-scoot strategy, of making wild allegations, throwing in strong accusations, and offering quotable quotes for the media to chomp on endlessly.

Clearly, both Kejriwal and Rahul are out to steal each other’s clothes, and it is not surprising that both appear unclothed in their public utterances. To Kejri-trolls and dynasty chamchas, everything they say is as good as divine revelation, even if what was said was just balderdash.

We can thus predict that, to occupy the same space, both Kejriwal and Rahul will get more daring in their accusations. The problem is, to do this they need an identifiable and credible enemy, and in Modi they have found one. To become the underdog, you have to discover an overdog who appears all-powerful. Currently, only Modi fits the bill.

Third, Kejriwal also knows that when he is under-delivering on his electoral promises, it is best to blame a third person for it and keep the public attention away from his own lacklustre performance. His Janlokpal Bill is a pale shadow of his former proposal on this anti-corruption watchdog. The same man who wanted the CBI to have untrammeled powers is now found whining when the CBI actually came a-calling.

Modi and the Centre are now being blamed for everything he can think of, including the lack of police powers. The idea of keeping the focus on these issues helps obscure the larger question: what is he doing with the powers he does have? Among Indian mayors anywhere, Kejriwal has more executive powers than almost anybody. The reason is Delhi is a state, and he is called Chief Minister, not mayor.

Fourth, and a point few people have analysed, is the fact that Kejriwal does not want to be a mere Delhi CM. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he abandoned his chief ministership and went all the way to Gujarat and Varanasi to take on Modi. After designating Sheila Dikshit as his enemy, he suddenly found her to be a paper tigress and went after the Gujarat CM. The public threw him out in May 2014, but a penitent Kejriwal realised that winning Delhi was the route to power, and duly promised “Paanch Saal Kejriwal” to the voters of Delhi.

Delhi’s voters forgave him but it is unlikely that Kejriwal sees himself as just a glorified mayor. This is why he made Manish Sisodia Deputy CM, when there was no need to. Does an executive CM need a Deputy CM in a city-state? No city in India favours a Deputy Mayor. Clearly, his sights are set higher, on the national stage. This is why he wants Modi as his enemy, and not the Delhi BJP or Congress. Rahul’s recent rise in media rankings is a problem for him, it explains why he descends into abuse as the media has found someone else to follow around.

The chances are we haven’t heard the last of Kejriwal attention-seeking behaviour. He will only get shriller in future.

… By R Jagannathan as published in FirstPost