The Aam Aadmi phenomenon

[ Millenium Post, 9 Mar 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 11 Mar 2014 ; Daily Peoples Time, 12 Mar 2014 ]

While the big winner of the forthcoming general elections of the Indian Union may be the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will have achieved something grander – a shift in the political discourse around people’s everyday issues. With Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal taking the fight against the ‘Gujarat model’ straight to the Aam Gujaratis, the party has raised the stakes in what is now clearly a very dangerous game. The AAP may or may not be successful in stemming the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in urban areas of the North and the West of the Indian Union. But in taking the fight against Modi to the Hindu-Chhote-Sardar’s hometurf, he has managed to do what the party of babalogs and dole-funded Delhi-based ‘secular’ talk shops have never been able to do. Perhaps it is conviction, perhaps it is spontaneity, perhaps it is calculation and most probably it is all of the above and much more. But the AAP has made the BJP nervous and it is showing. The way it also has clashed with the AAP in Delhi and attacked them elsewhere shows that they care deeply. The established political class fears one thing more than the present AAP organization – its potential contagion effect. Politics of the poor and the deprived thrives on hope. AAP peddles that as if on steroids. Hence a politics centred on the issues of the excluded majority always has an ‘escape velocity’ potential under those who are both clever and honest. And there are many of them in the subcontinent. This is the thrust that AAP potentially represents for many and those whose reliance on Reliance is crucial for their business do not under-estimate the AAP’s potential threat.

President’s rule over any territory in the Indian Union is always an useful opportunity to study the deep consensus that exists underneath the apparently partisan bickering that is staged for public consumption and political career advancement. During such rules, the police and the administration work according to the ‘common minimum programme’ that is common to the major factions of the subcontinental ruling class. Thanks to sanitized civics books that are designed to instill state-friendly common-sense among common-folk, some people living in urban middle class bubbles might mistakenly think that this ‘common minimum programme’ is the constitution itself. The power of the deep state is seen not in how effectively it rules by its constitution, but how selective can it be in upholding the ‘rule of law’. That which can make exceptions is the true sovereign in this land – it is not the people, it is not the state, it is the deep state. Which is why a Delhi Police, apparently not under any partisan control states that 13 AAP activists and 10 BJP supporters were injured in clashes in Delhi, and decides to detain AAP supporters. In detaining the AAP supporters, the Delhi Police was upholding the rule of law. In not detaining the people who injured the 13 AAP activists, it was upholding the rule of a deeper law, that one which is not the constitution, but the one that decides when the constitution is to be invoked at convenience. The lady of justice in this latter more powerful rule of law is not blind. She sees everything but has blindspots that conveniently guard those who are committed to the preservation of the deep state. The alacrity with which the Election commission takes notice of AAP’s violations is less astonishing than the speed with which corporate media houses are rushing to report these notices as headlines and ‘breaking news’. Equally astonishing is Arvind Kejriwal’s unconditional apology on AAP Delhi’s militant protest and his stern cell to stop all such protests. No such call from those who injured the 13 AAP activists and have been periodically attacking AAP offices elsewhere. These are exceptional times.

The AAP by its evolution has not been effectively contained by the deep-state. It surely wants to make it one of these others – whose periodic musical chair games makes sure it does not matter who loses, but the Delhi-Mumbai based elite illuminati and their retinue of policy wonks, security apparatchiks, immobile scions of upwardly mobile politicians, bureaucrats, professors, defence folks, hanger-ons, childhood friends, civil society wallahs, media-wallahs, suppliers, contractors, importers, lobbyists and pimps always wins. There is a tiny bit of possibility that the AAP may not be easily incorportable in this way of life. Since this way of life and loot is not negotiable, the AAP is an headache, small now, but potentially a recurrent migraine. Big corporates, including foreign corporates, and Delhi-Mumbai elute interests would ideally want to coopt AAP into their model of business-as-usual. The AAP is not totally immune to this threat from the grand-daddies of vested interests of the subcontinent. Even the powerful want to sleep in peace.

It is in parts of its line-up that one sees a possibility that such co-option, even if it is being tried at this moment, will not be a cakewalk. While many suspiciously looks at AAP as a motley crowd of over-ambitious jholawalas, the reality that the party is pitching a big tent in which there are a spectrum of forces and interests jostling for space and do represent a curious collection. These include victims of police brutalities to RTI activists to single-generation knowledge-industry millionaires to veterans of people’s struggles to aam aadmi, who are actually very khaas in being veterans of quotidian aam existence but distinguish themselves by their outspokenness and conviction in the AAP experiment. The AAP Lok Sabha candidate list includes Medha Patkar, the grand dame of non-party people’s movements, leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, honest to the core and deeply committed to issues of the poor and the marginalized. And incorruptible. Dayamani Barla, the indefatigable fighter from Jharkhand who led the movement for preservation of the adivasi forest rights against the mining giant Arcelor-Mittal, had joined AAP and might contest too. SP Udayakumar of the Koodankulam anti-nuclear movement has joined. In all their ‘anti’-ness, they collectively represent a humane approach to politics that has been altogether missing for a long time in the electoral arena. The people’s right to knowledge and governmental transparency has bloomed many RTI activists, many of whom have joined AAP. Among them, Raja Muzaffar Bhat is their candidate from Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. In the subcontinent, forgotten atrocities form the underbelly of this apparently calm land. This is the land of 1984, Delhi and Bhopal. HS Phoolka, the tireless warrior for 1984 anti-Sikh riot victims’ justice is an AAP candidate. So is Rachna Dhingra, a person who gave up a luxurious life in the USA to start working among the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and fights for their rights to this date, living in Bhopal. Today the parliament has more supporters of Dow Chemicals/Union Carbide in its power corridors than those who want justice for the Bhopal gas victims. AAP represents a threat to this state of affairs. The list of illustrious people in the AAP candidate list goes on – Mukul Tripathi, Jiyalal, Lingraj, Baba Hardev Singh, Sarah Joseph. Typically the state has co-opted such people by felicitations, with politicians standing beside them to be seen as patrons of such people. Just as they patronize goons. Different charades for different stages. It has attracted a fairly impressive set of tycoons and technocrats to its fold, especially those who fit the bill of being ‘self-made’ single generation millionaires. This class is averse to dynasticism and might have a certain kind of idealism that makes them resonate with AAP’s staunch anti-dynastic stance. If one suspends cynicism at some risk, one cannot also discount that some of them may be looking for redemption, at some point of their careers. Everyone wants redemption, at some level. Some of these types used to flock to the BJP before that ‘party with a difference’ simply introduced different dynasties, big and small. They also perceive themselves as non-receivers of the special favours from the political establishment, which makes them stand for clean and ‘fair’ business practises as opposed to crony capitalism and outright loot of state resources. There are civil society activists, academics, grassroots workers and quite a few aam aadmis and aurats. There is however a serious concern that its candidate list does not reflect the caste demographics of the land. While numerical representativeness is not enough, it is a start. A move away from that to faces more often than not from urban and higher caste backgrounds is a point of concern. Many from the left have pilloried the AAP for not coming clean on structural issues. If any group is most seriously concerned about AAP, it is the left of all hues, as the AAP seems to have struck an emotive cord with the people around pet issues that the left-wingers thought was their home ground. The AAP is clearly pushing the envelope on common people’s issues and that is broadly reflected in its choice of candidates. The AAP has learned from the past that small, localized movements, however spirited and however much they enjoy people’s support, ultimately suffer from a problem of failing to be scaled up to a size that matters, in an electoral and hence legislative sense. Part of the AAP leadership clearly wants to wed the politics of people’s movements to a pragmatic large-scale alternative that cannot be wished away. They have partially succeeded. The AAP is also limited by its perception of being a North-India party, with the name itself being distinctly Hindustani. A comprehensive commitment to making the Union into a truly federal one, which also is in line with the party’s focus on decentralization, should go a long way in clearing some air on that front.

At one level, AAP is like Gandhi’s Swaraj or Jinnah’s Pakistan. In the imagination of the people, it is whatever one thinks it to be, the harbinger of good rule. But what is good for one sector of the population may not be so for other sectors. It cannot be all things to all people at the same time. The long-range future of AAP, if it at all has one, will depend on which of these collective fantasies it will ally itself most closely to. Given its big tent character, there will be tussles and splits for sure. And that is not necessarily bad.

Like any populist political formation, the AAP has a demagoguish potential. The only real insurance against that is democratic control of a political formation. Similarly a state that runs rogue can only be restrained by democratic control. Some of AAP’s Lok Sabha candidates have been at the receiving end of the some of the most brutal acts by rogue state. The politics of changing the nature of politics is a means to changing the nature of the state – initially to convert a rogue state into a state having some rogue sections. This is no easy job as rogueness is not simply a character fault. It comes with wielding unaccountable and undemocratic power at any level. Unaccountable power that is beyond democratic control is the mother of all corruptions. One does not need to abuse this power. It is abusive to the people by its very existence. Many faces of the present AAP Lok Sabha line up understand that only too well. But they are not alone in understanding that. Those in power, including those who were victims of extraordinary abuse during the Panditain’s emergency regime are also aware of this. Awareness of abuse is not enough. Conviction is equally important. There is a difference between pimps and anti-trafficking activists. Both are ‘aware’ of the abuse. One thrives because of abuse, the other wants to end it. One can transform into the other – as the trajectories of many of those from the JP movement shows. Any political formation that wants claims to be difference in this age has to ponder deeply what is it beyond ‘personal honesty’ that will sustain politics, what is it beyond leadership that will sustain such politics. After all, the Patna University Student Union leader who later went to jail for the fodder scam was the same man who the Indira Congress locked up during the emergency. The AAP’s fielding of a few good men and women can be a start but not a long-range solution. If times can change people, what is it that will ensure that gains from one time idealism are not wasted. The AAP has pointed to greater and greater democratic control of political institutions at all levels, with an eye towards decentralization. If it is serious about this democratic decentralization, which in the political scene translates into a call for true federalism in the Indian Union and greater non-alienable powers to the bottom of the pyramid, then it may be onto something. Even if the AAP experiment fails, if it is successful in making democratic decentralization a key issue, just like it has done successfully with corruption, it would have made a greatly positive contribution to this Union.

1 Comment

Filed under Change, Democracy, Polity, Power

One response to “The Aam Aadmi phenomenon

  1. M Mass

    The greatest service they have done has been to Modi and Amit Shah. They shredded the votebanks of SP, BSP and the Congress, royally messing up the caste arithmetic.

    However, if AAP is indeed serious about politics, let them contest Assembly elections in Punjab. They have a good chance there. Punjab is a small, prosperous state that is clearly sick of the Akalis and is willing to give AAP a chance. Unlike Delhi, Punjab is a full fledged state where the CM controls the police and the Governor has no executive powers to block legislation. They have enough time to build a nice campaign before Assembly elections are due there.

    Let AAP show us a consistent demonstration of this “clean governance”. Let Punjab be a model state and their “karmabhoomi”. But they will NEVER do it. Beyond dharna-ing, state administration is a tough, tedious and thankless job. This is why they stick to Delhi. Delhi can be run on auto-pilot giving Kejriwal tons of free time to rail against the Central government for anything and everything. So far I see no drive in these rudderless, left-leaning activists to actually hunker down and prove themselves able administrators.

    I hope they prove me wrong… by actually running a full-fledged state.

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