A New Focus

Peace, Bread and AAP

Satya Sagar

Among the epithets, most frequently hurled at Arvind Kejriwal by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the run up to the Delhi assembly elections, were 'anarchist', closely followed by 'urban naxal'. What is it about Aam Admi Party (AAP) that threatens the Sangh Parivar to a point of its exhibiting such great hysteria and anxiety?

AAP, despite some novelties, is after all a very mainstream political formation, operating completely within the ambit of the Indian Constitution and no pretensions of turning the system upside down. Is there something deeper happening here?

One possibility is of course that, in its name-calling, the BJP presumed the average Delhi voter would run scared, straight into the waiting arms of Papa Modi. In that case then, it was obviously a complete misreading of the public mood of anger and defiance against established national parties.

As it turned out, the BJP's attribution of various 'dangerous' tendencies to Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party only endeared them to the youth, poor, and minorities, resulting in their historic landslide victory. Kejriwal's 'we are the people your parents always warned you about' touch proved attractive to young people and the marginalised, certainly way more than Auntie Kiran's boring, inarticulate prescriptions of 'stability' or 'law and order'.

Again, in dubbing AAP as 'anarchists', were the BJP spokespersons referring to Kejriwal's threat to disrupt the Republic Day parade last year and questioning the need for an expensive display of arms in a country full of starving people? That is hardly 'anarchist', as Indian politicians over the decades have said and done things that were far more extreme than anything AAP can even consider.

Just to give an example—Periyar's Dravida Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu burnt the Tricolour, the Indian Constitution and the Ramayana as part of the Dravidian movement way back in the fifties. Laldenga, in Mizoram, fought a full-blown secessionist war with the Indian state, before signing a peace deal and going on to become an elected Chief Minister.

Or, maybe the Apollonian 'Ram bhakts' in the RSS are upset with Kejriwal for describing AAP as a 'Shivji ki baraat', in other words an 'open house', in terms of its diverse membership. Are the Sanghis worried that their idea of a 'Ram Rajya' is now going to be challenged by a 'Shiv Rajya'? Is this the resurrection of an ancient battle for domination between the straightlaced Appollonian Vishnu—preserver of institutions versus the long-haired, pot smoking, Dionysian Shiva—destroyer of the establishment?

Truth is, to be really anarchist, in the political sense, would mean eschewing state power and opposing hierarchies everywhere, including class and caste structures. So far, aside from the promise of direct democracy through local-level 'mohalla' committees or improving the transparency of state agencies, there is nothing to suggest that Kejriwal is against hierarchy anywhere, within or outside the party.

If anything, AAP is only trying to clean up the existing system, by democratically contesting elections, promising a crackdown on corruption and implementing social welfare policies. As of now, they may be more sincere about achieving all this but there is nothing to differentiate them otherwise from many other parties in the Indian political spectrum.

What is more, the leadership and active cadre of AAP (barring a few) all come from the Hindu upper-castes and they wave the Indian flag with more enthusiasm than any half-wit in a half-pant. As for violent intent on their part, AAP is so peace-loving they want to even avoid any public discussion of class and caste issues.

Maybe, that is what is getting the BJP's goat (or cow, if they prefer)—that there is nothing extreme at all about AAP's theory or practice. It is just a normal, mom-and-pop political movement, winning over the Indian public by simply spouting the mantras of 'wiping out corruption' and providing 'good governance'. No painstakingly built organisation, no political experience, no disciplined cadre, no sacrifices—just a few popular slogans and they have stolen the BJP's thunder.

If the Saffron camp really wants to understand the pedigree of the AAP phenomenon in the Indian context, they should go back in history to the era of the Buddha and the Bhakti movement and their challenge to the deeply entrenched domination of upper-caste Hindus. Or in more modern times, check out the political strategies of leaders like Lenin and M K Gandhi.

Buddhism's success essentially lay in its ability to eliminate the 'middlemen' between Nirvana and those seeking it by offering the aam aadmi a low-cost spiritual alternative to the heavily taxed route to God(s), monopolised by the Brahmins. Helping people save money on services, spiritual in this case, was the key to the spread of Buddhism and not just their noble ideas. And by promoting peace and brotherhood between various tribes it cut the influence of marauding Kshatriya warlords too, thus winning widespread support from peasants, traders, and ordinary folk, who were tired of being taxed heavily by the savarnas.

The entire tradition of the Bhakti movement in medieval times too was all about doing away with the expensive, self-appointed 'middlemen' between devotees and their deities. The movement also promoted peace between communities by emphasising the unity of all religions and gods. In more recent times, Lenin wrote up many grand Marxist theories but the success to the Russian Revolution lay in the simple promise of 'peace and bread' to the war-weary and hungry Russian population. Gandhi's mass appeal too lay in his combining the campaign to oust British colonialism, their departure potentially increasing resources available to the Indian people and lowering taxation, together with the message of non-violence to avoid social strife.

AAP's political formula is based on a similar strategy as in the examples above. Its campaign against corruption and crony capitalism promises to lower the costs of basic government services, while its refusal to play the politics of religious polarisation is helping reduce communal tensions in Indian society, whipped up by the Sangh Parivar. Though Arvind Kejriwal does not dance (in public at least), he is singing openly about 'bhaichara'—and like a modern-day Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, connecting his flock directly to the Gods of 'paani, bijli, shiksha' [water, electricity, education].

The rise of AAP has of course been predicated on the worsening Indian social and economic context. It has benefited from the public anger built up at the betrayal of public interests, by all established political parties, through economic policies aimed at making the rich even richer and pauperizing the common citizen. Professional politicians, acting as middlemen between the state and businesses, have become the object of much hatred and cynicism.

Cities, like Delhi, which attract migrant workers and unemployed youth in search of a better life have become reservoirs of discontent, their dreams shattered by existing political, social and economic structures that block their upward mobility. For the religious minorities, the attempt by the BJP to divert attention from these basic issues by making them into scapegoats and threatening violence, has provoked both disgust and fear.

Kejriwal, by irreverently challenging the status quo, has offered all these sections of the population 'hope' of a new, more just, equitable and humane order emerging from this process of social churning. While AAP's prescriptions for solving national problems are somewhat simplistic, their simplicity has also given a wide cross-section of citizens a 'united front' to rally around. In the long run AAP's most important contribution may well be, through its new models of fund raising and mobilisation, it has made it easier for a wider range of ordinary Indians to participate in electoral politics, thus deepening democracy.

The real dilemma for AAP now, is that their future political success or growth nationally, may lie in their ability to keep the 'peace and bread' flowing while remaining a threat to the existing political order. And delivering the promises made in its Manifesto will mean fighting all the battles of class and caste at the micro-level that national parties have usually glossed over or compromised with.

If AAP gets tamed into accepting 'business as usual', after making a few cosmetic changes here and there, that will breed even greater cynicism amidst the population with unpredictable consequences. It is the responsibility of all those who seriously support AAP to make sure the accusations of their being 'anarchists' and 'naxals' do keep coming, now and then.

AAP may not be 'extremist' or even want to be, but given the dire economic and social crisis in the country today, the people of India soon will be.

[courtesy : Kafila]

Vol. 47, No. 38, Mar 29 - Apr 4, 2015