What India’s Arvind Kejriwal can learn from Indonesia’s new president

This is what winning looks like.
This is what winning looks like.
Image: Reuters/Darren Whiteside
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It is tempting to imagine Arvind Kejriwal looking at the success of Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president-elect, and saying to himself, “That could have been me.”

The two men have much in common: their political careers are manifestations of the growing disenchantment of Asian democracies with entrenched elites, and the corruption and nepotism that bedevil their countries. Both also represent the aspirations of rising middle-classes tired of ineffective institutions and incompetent governance. Using smart social-media outreach and old-fashioned street campaigning, both men have built powerful movements that have rattled the establishment.

But while Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, is now slated to become the new president of the world’s third-largest democracy, Kejriwal is struggling to find his feet in the largest. In the general election earlier this year, Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party won just four out of 543 seats in the lower house of India’s parliament.

There may yet be hope for Kejriwal; spectacular comebacks are commonplace in Indian politics. But he would do well to examine Jokowi’s success closely. Three clear lessons emerge:

Build a record: Jokowi’s rise was swift, but he didn’t become a presidential contender overnight. In 2005, the furniture businessman successfully ran to become mayor of Solo, a city of about 500,000 in central Java. In 2012, he was elected the governor of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, a megacity that’s home to 9.6 million people. Two years later, he is now president-elect.

Kejriwal, on the other hand, was sworn in as the chief minister of Delhi not long after entering politics. But he never built a record for governance, quitting after only 49 days in office because he couldn’t pass an anti-corruption legislation through the state assembly. Many voters concluded Kejriwal was better at campaigning than at governing, all talk no action. It proved debilitating to the AAP in the general election.

Work the system: Jokowi, the son of a carpenter, is an outsider in an Indonesian political system dominated by former military men or scions of the elite. But he was careful to build alliances with establishment figures. His party—known as the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle—is led by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is also the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.

In India, Kejriwal broke away from the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare to form his own political outfit. But AAP was not strong enough to govern on its own, and an alliance with the Congress Party—the very embodiment of the establishment that Kejriwal claimed to be challenging—proved unworkable.

Stand for more than one thing: Kejriwal’s political movement was built around a single issue: corruption. Millions of Indians responded to his call for clean government, and his rallies were vast and vociferous. But in the general election, the AAP was unable to offer solutions for India’s myriad other problems. In contrast, Jokowi’s manifesto was wide-ranging: he promised improved infrastructure, streamlined regulations and good governance.

If that sounds familiar to Kejriwal, it’s because those were the very promises made by the man who beat him in the constituency of Varanasi and who emerged as the biggest winner from India’s general election: the new prime minister, Narendra Modi.