A Positive Trend?

The AAP Phenomenon

Satya Sagar

From time to time in the history of every nation there emerges a maverick force that collapses the existing system by taking its logic to the extremes. Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are precisely that, a 'wild card' in Indian politics, threatening to turn it upside down in ways no one could have imagined before.

Ever since they were born out of the throes of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement, a couple of years ago, everyone has tried to slot the AAP in the regular political categories of right, left and center. Some have dubbed the Aam Aadmi Party as the 'new Congress' and others as the 'B Team' of the BJP. Supporters of the party have hailed its leader Arvind Kejriwal as a 'modern day Gandhi' while one opponent has intriguingly called his party 'right wing Maoists'!

If there is any one term that can be used to describe Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party it is simply 'innocently subversive'. They are simply the most dangerous political formation to have emerged on Indian soil in a long time - though they themselves obviously don't realize it as yet!

So subversive and dangerous in fact, that for now AAP deserves nothing less than the wholehearted support of the people of India. For the threat they pose is not to the ordinary citizen per se but to the facade of democracy papered over the strange mix of feudalism, crony capitalism and rent-seeking bureaucracy India has become.

By forcefully promoting a cleaner, more transparent and participatory politics AAP is calling the bluff of India's very claim to being a democracy at all and unwittingly pulling the mask off a system that hides beneath it a thousand dictatorships. Contesting elections with public donations, involving the citizen in decision making and calling for accountability from public servants and politicians AAP is testing the limits of the country's long rotten, creaking political apparatus.

By its naive insistence on implementing rule of law and 'cleaning' up political practice Arvind Kejriwal and his followers are bringing into sharp focus the complete disconnect between the rhetoric of Indian democracy and the harsh realities that citizens face in their daily life. If they can carry this process forward successfully over any period of time, they would have exposed the true workings of the Indian political process to everyone. Including the fact that almost every mainstream Indian political player has become an enemy of both democratic institutions and values as well as the rights guaranteed to the population by the Indian Constitution.

All these decades since Independence Indian politicians have basically paid lip service to this noble document emerging from the Indian anti-colonial movement, that underpins the very idea of modern Indian democracy, while wilfully violating all its principles in practice. Though mainstream political parties and media commentators have accused AAP of being 'confused' the fact remains that they themselves are the ones who have been most confused on the question of what Indian democracy should be all about.

For example, the Congress, which has ruled India the longest since Independence, has confused democracy with the task of promoting the same dynasty back to power repeatedly and using the 'first family' as a polite front to loot the public exchequer. While Congress spokesmen glibly talk of theirs being a party of 'Gandhi and Nehru' the fact is today they are basically a rabble of rank opportunists with no spine to protect either national sovereignty against imperialism or subversion of Indian democracy by both domestic and foreign corporations. And on the issue of communalism the Congress, despite protestations of being 'secular', has undoubtedly become the 'B' team of the BJP.

The BJP, on the other hand, has confused politics to be the perverted goal of keeping a Brahminical version of Hinduism dominant in Indian society, using every method possible, including regular pogroms against religious minorities, to achieve this. In their last stint in power at the national level the BJP's mother organisation, the RSS, had openly talked of replacing the Indian Constitution and foisting a 'council of sadhus' at the top of the hierarchy of the country's goveranance.

There is no doubt that this fascist plan is still alive on their agenda - something people will hear about more if Narendra Modi manages to become the Prime Minister of the country. Interestingly enough, when it comes to protecting corporate interests the BJP turns out to be the 'B Team' of the Congress, united with its rival by their common love for Mukesh Arnbani and Ratan Tata!

On the theme of Indian democracy, the mainstream Indian Left is the most confused of the entire lot. Spouting the rhetoric of X or Y kind of 'revolution' in their party documents, in practice they are resigned to doing all politics within the iron framework of the Indian state. This gives rise to a strange ambivalence in their attitude towards the Indian Constitution and democracy itself, neither able to defend it vigorously nor transcend it with anything new and creative.

The Maoists are an exception to this trend on the Left of course, with their open claim of trying to 'overthrow the Indian state' and obvious contempt for the Indian Constitution in both theory and practice. However, they have become largely irrelevant in the national context and remain merely of nuisance value to the Indian state. By choosing to hide deep in the forests and operating with methods that have no traction with a majority of the Indian population they have lost a great opportunity to creatively shape the future of the country.

AAP, on the other hand, has started the process of exhausting the possibilities of India's Constitutional democracy. By fiercely trying to make the system work according to its own theoretical framework they are both helping realize the best of its potential and also exposing its contradictions. While it is too early to read their exact future they are at least paving the way for the creation of better alternatives to the current system and that too, with considerable public participation.

The emergence of AAP is historic for its ability to open up new space and fresh entry points into the existing theater of Indian electoral politics, hijacked for long by money, muscle and media power. What is attracting people to it in droves across the nation is the open nature of AAP's project that gives them a say in the politics of power for the first time in a direct way.

By focusing on specific, tangible issues that affect the lives of ordinary folks—water, power, roads, health, education, interface with state agencies and so on—the AAP is politically educating the Indian masses on the fly in an unprecedented manner. It is upto the Indian citizen—all of them to the last person—to seize the opportunity to get involved and arm themselves with the ability to run their own affairs without reference to leaders or special centers of power.

And AAP is managing to do all this while appearing to be totally naive in its politics and without any grand revolutionary rhetoric, save the slogan of 'going back to the Aam Aadmi' for its political inspiration and decision making. In fact, the AAP's radical potential arises precisely because it has few pretensions or grand goals.

Instead it stresses ordinary processes to solve ordinary problems together with great faith in the wisdom of ordinary Indian citizens, thus restoring agency to them. All this emphasis on the 'aam' or 'ordinary' makes AAP's truly khaas as this has never been attempted before, with the politics of the right being elitist and activism of the left mostly vanguardist.

It is not yet clear what stand the AAP will finally take on the idea of the 'Indian nation' itself, in particular regarding movements for autonomy and independence in Kashmir or the northeast. Furthermore, AAP with its base largely within the urban middle-classes has also not spelt out its position on class and caste—probably the most important political themes in Indian society.

Nor is it really possible to support the AAP's narrow, accountant's definition of corruption. The Jan Lokpal Bill, it promotes is a somewhat laughable attempt to find a new 'tough law' along with a 'few good men' to fix the problems of Indian society and its goverance. As if in an age, where finance capital swirls around the globe like a tsunami, it is possible to keep one's physical self, leave alone morals, tethered to anything stable!

There is much greater corruption, obviously, manifested in the deep-rooted caste system, institutionalised discrimination against religious minorities and women or the accumulation of wealth through inheritance of property. None of these can be sorted out through mere passage of legislation in the Indian parliament and need much larger social mobilisations and many hard battles.

There is also no telling at this stage of course how long AAP's current streak of sincerity and zeal for a clean politics will last-tested as it will be by the dynamics of actually wielding power, even in a limited sphere to begin with. Who can guarantee that the AAP will not be 'defanged' by the very system they have taken on and turn out to be yet another failed promise, like so many in the past?

While all these doubts surely need to be answered the real question is whether one should be a passive bystander in this process; and cynically wait for the AAP to make all the usual mistakes, collapse and disappear forever? Given the emerging political scenario even those who don't concur with the AAP on everything should work with them and build upon those aspects they can agree upon.

Spurning the option of being a rocking chair revolutionary one should rather reflect on the harder question, "If the Aam Aadmi Party represents any hope for a better Indian politics and democracy what can concerned citizens do to strengthen them?"

For given the barrenness of the Indian political soil in terms of new ideas, quality of participants and processes, the AAP certainly represents a positive trend that needs to be supported. As in romance, in good politics too, it is always better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all...

Vol. 46, No. 28, Jan 19 - 25, 2014

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