It is always an onerous task, as well as tricky, to estimate the number of people comprising a crowd listening to a leader. But you have to be incredibly poor at estimating the numbers to claim that the throng which gathered to watch and hear Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal at Rohtak, Haryana, was just around 10,000-strong.
Not only was the HUDA ground, where the AAP held its first rally to herald its national ambition for the forthcoming General Elections, packed, a mass of people spilled out on the roads, clambered on top of buses, lined up on the flyover overlooking the venue, and even tore through the flimsy fabric of the shamiana to squat in the clearing around the dais. It prompted old-timers who have covered political rallies in Haryana over the years to claim that only parties in power succeed in managing mobilisation of this proportion.
The size of the crowds at election rallies is considered an important yardstick to judge which of the competing parties is on the rise. This game of numbers political parties play to influence the media and the TV audiences to win the battle of perceptions. It’s precisely why national parties and regional outfits spend lavishly to bus people to rallies, paying them and providing free meals as well. The bigger the rally of a political party, the greater its chances of winning, conventional wisdom would have us believe.
No doubt, the AAP rally in Rohtak evoked awe and admiration all around. And it wasn’t only because the crowd in the HUDA ground, and outside it, easily exceeded 50,000. It was also because the mobilisation was voluntary – groups of people from different parts of Haryana pooling their resources to hire buses or Sumo vans to reach Rohtak. There were no food packets being handed out, not even a bottle of water. At the point where I and two other journalists sat watching the proceedings, a man sneaked in near the dais, squatted on the ground, opened his tiffin-carrier and shared the food with five others.
As with so many other aspects of the AAP, you need quite another marker to judge the response of people to it. Bereft of lavish funds other parties boast of, the AAP’s strategy seems geared to create an ambience, a stage for people to express themselves. It was palpable to us as a few of us journalists followed Arvind Kejriwal’s cavalcade of five vehicles from Delhi.
At several points, from Delhi’s outskirts to the rally site at Rohtak, people gathered to welcome Kejriwal. No doubt, many of these stopovers were selected beforehand, but what wasn’t orchestrated was the response as people jostled to catch a glimpse of Kejriwal, or wave or touch him. The cavalcade simply grew longer as vehicles joined in the swift journey to Rohtak, which is considered the fiefdom of Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
Over the weeks, the AAP is likely to pay greater emphasis on road-shows as a more cost-effective method of reaching out to people than rallies. The paucity of resources, quite clearly, hobbles the party’s ability to ferry people to rallies. The strategy of road-shows works for it as there is a great deal of curiosity about the man who has demonstrated the audacity to challenge the powerful faces of the established order.
Rohtak is important also because the rally has further bolstered Kejriwal’s image of being a rebel, a challenger who seeks to recalibrate the moral compass of India’s politics. No doubt, it is too early to forecast the future, but Rohtak has redefined the agenda for the General Elections: Against Narendra Modi’s plank of Gujarat-like growth and Rahul Gandhi’s slogan of inclusive development, Kejriwal’s is about the symbiotic relationship between big business and the politician, the two combining to enrich themselves at the expense of the common man.
Indeed, the name of the axe that Kejriwal will wield against Modi and Gandhi in the election campaign will have the Ambanis embossed on it.
On Sunday, Feb 23, as Kejriwal began to speak out on the issue of gas pricing in Rohtak, I thought it was an issue which couldn’t possibly appeal to the audience largely comprising villagers. He spoke on the cost of producing gas, how it has been scaled higher now, and why it would skyrocket should Modi become the prime minister. The reason, he explained, was because Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance was funding Modi’s rallies, and providing him its choppers to hop from one part of the country to another. He spelt out the Swiss bank account numbers of the Ambani brothers and challenged Modi to repatriate to India their allegedly ill-gotten wealth parked there.
In what is decidedly unprecedented in Indian politics, it wasn’t the politician but the businessman who was represented as the Establishment. Hooda may have been called a property broker, Robert Vadra accused of appropriating massive tracts of land, Modi decried for currying favours with the corporate sector, but it was Mukesh Ambani who came out as the principal villain in Kejriwal’s narrative. Both Modi and Gandhi were depicted as leaders working for the benefit of Ambani. In other words, to vote for Modi or Gandhi would be akin to voting for Reliance, Kejriwal argued.
In many senses, Kejriwal’s narrative of politics has as its principal theme the crisis of the Indian economy arising from the malaise of crony capitalism. It is this, he argued in Rohtak, that leads to farmers being alienated from their land, for not being paid a requisite price for their produce, for the inflation to spiral out of control, for the hypocritical silence on unpaid loans of the corporate sector even as a hue and cry is raised over subsidies for the poor.
Initially, the throng of the people was silent, making you wonder whether they were listening to him in rapt attention or found the complexities of crony capitalism difficult to comprehend. But such misgivings were dispelled as they began to clap and cheer at acerbic or snide remarks. The connect between the people and Kejriwal became obvious when they laughed uproariously at his quip: “Modi says he is a tea-seller. Then how is it that he has so many helicopters to fly around in.”
Indeed, you don’t judge an election rally by its size, but also by the intensity of its response to the speakers. For instance, AAP leader Yogendra Yadav evoked tremendous response from the crowds as he laid out what an AAP government in Haryana would seek to achieve, including a law on the lines of the Jan Lokpal to examine the corruption cases of the last 20 years and video-recording of every government job interview.
Nevertheless, beyond Hooda, Haryana and the size of the crowd, Rohtak will be remembered because it marks the beginning of war on Big Money’s corrupting influence on India’s democracy.
By Ajaz Ashraf
Image Source: Arvind Kejriwal Rally