9 March 2014, New Delhi, Garga Chatterjee
Politics of the poor and the deprived thrives on hope. AAP peddles that as if on steroids, but not without offering systemic change, says Garga Chatterjee
With the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Arvind Kejriwal taking the fight against the ‘Gujarat model’ straight to the aam Gujaratis, the party has raised stakes in what is now clearly a very dangerous game. AAP may or may not be successful in stemming the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in urban areas of the North/West of the Indian Union. But in taking the fight against Modi to Hindu Chhote Sardar’s home turf, 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. Yet, AAP has made BJP nervous and it is showing. The way it also has clashed with AAP in Delhi and attacked them elsewhere shows that they care deeply. The established political class fears one thing more than the present AAP organisation – 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 underestimate the AAP’s potential threat.
President’s rule over any territory in the Indian Union is always a useful opportunity to study the subterranean 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 applicable to the major factions of the subcontinental ruling class. Thanks to sanitised civics books 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, 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 Constitution, but the one that decides when 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.
AAP, by its evolution, has not been effectively contained by the deep state. It surely wants to not become one of these others – whose periodic musical chair games make 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, hangers-on, childhood friends, civil society wallahs, media wallahs, suppliers, contractors, importers, lobbyists and pimps always win. There is a tiny bit of possibility that AAP may not be easily ‘incorporatable’ in this way of life. Since this way of life and loot is not negotiable, AAP is a headache, small now, but potentially a recurrent migraine. Big corporates, including foreign corporates, and Delhi-Mumbai elite interests would ideally want to coopt AAP into their model of business-as-usual. AAP is not totally immune to this threat from the granddaddies 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 cooption, even if it is being tried at this moment, will not be a cakewalk. While many suspiciously look at AAP as a motley crowd of overambitious jholawalas, the reality is 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 aadmis, 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 marginalised. 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 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 peoples’ 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, 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 coopted such people by felicitations, with politicians standing beside them to be seen as patrons of such people. Just as they patronise 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. Some of these types used to flock to 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 practices 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, with faces more often than not from urban and higher caste backgrounds, is a point of concern. Many from the Left have pilloried 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 AAP seems to have struck an emotive chord with the people around pet planks that left-wingers thought was their home ground. AAP is clearly pushing the envelope on common people’s issues and that is broadly reflected in its choice of candidates. It has learned from the past that small, localised 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 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. 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 decentralisation, 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 roguery 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. AAP has pointed to greater and greater democratic control of political institutions at all levels, with an eye towards decentralisation. If it is serious about this democratic decentralisation, 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 decentralisation a key issue, just like it has done successfully with corruption, it would have made a greatly positive contribution to this land.
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