The performance of the Aam Aadmi Party in the just concluded Assembly elections in the Capital city of India has been, however you look at it, a phenomenal event, and very likely a watershed departure in the political culture of Indian democracy. Indeed, India’s Left parties must wonder at the circumstance that where they have failed election after election to make a dent in Delhi’s hitherto customary two-party political structure, a fledgling new force should have out of nowhere succeeded with the aplomb it has the very first time it chose to wet its feet.
This for the reason that the credibility of its appeal did not remain limited to the yuppie sections of metropolitan society but, indeed, penetrated to sections of the hoi polloi who have traditionally belonged to a habitual Congress party vote-bank. In that sense, pundits who had imagined that the campaign of the AAP would not cut across classes have been proved wrong. One reason why Narendra Modi’s trumpeted interventions in Delhi fell equally flat—notice that the vote-share of the BJP, instead of sky-rocketing owing to the Modi infusion, has actually gone down to its lowest ever in the Capital—has been that many falanges of the petty bourgeois class, for example, auto drivers, switched to the Kejriwal persona that seemed palpably more intimate and more quotidian in its temperament and quality of touch.
On a personal note: from the beginning of the Anna Hazare “movement” against corruption in high places and for a Lokpal of his choice, I have argued that systemic transformations of the scale which the movement envisaged could not materialise except out of a more totalised revolutionary conjuncture, such as could relate the rottenness of systems to the overarching political economy that the UPA has practised since the Washington Consensus and the neo-liberal macro-economic switch to privatising all wealth and reducing the state and its interventions to a nullity.
I was thus one among those who advocated the need for social movements like the Anna Hazare one to walk through the door and do an elephant trick from inside the room. After all, there was some lesson to be learnt from the collapse of the partyless democracy idea of the Jayprakash Narayan days of the decade of the seventies. Indeed an even larger social upheaval that which, like it or not, did fall on its face from the inadequacy of its merely pietistic agenda which had come to be appropriated by Rightwing moralisers and corporate moneybags. Given that, it must be seen as a hugely heartening event that the AAP has received the sort of electoral endorsement it has.
But my cavil with the dear friends who have come to be the lead faces of the AAP, friends whom I hold in the highest esteem, must still be stated, if you like, in the sort of honesty which they prize above everything else.
Precisely bearing on the word “honesty” itself. It says a great deal for the disillusionment of the aam aadmi at large that the platform merely of unanalysed “honesty and transparency” combined with personal probity should have drawn such support. But, in the days ahead, the AAP may need to consider that just as partyless democracy was after all a dream idea merely, a party with only “honesty” for its agenda may find it hard to go far enough in either comprehending the nuts and bolts of a caste and class-based democracy or realising transformations that may have a lasting yield for the honestly labouring citizenry. In other words, the question whether a vaguely well-intentioned resolve can take the place of a structure of ideological clarities will have to be faced rather more squarely than seems evident for now in the articulations of the AAP leadership.
For example, questions related to the systems of the production and distribution of wealth, the role of the state and of private enterprise therein, the relation of the Constitution and laws thereof with social power-structures, the distorted inadequacies of the current representational practice of electoral majoritarianism and first-past-the-post model of democracy, the place and dues of religious, ethnic, and other minorities, and legal and legislative remedies for correcting discrimination in laws and social practices, the systems of ownership and control among the media outlets, and the consequences thereof, the furtherance of a rights-based regime of governance, the remodeling of the state-apparatus across the board, emphases in foreign relations, near and far, the substance of secular pluralism and its enforcement mechanisms, a science policy and institutional investments and social and public preferences thereof, and determinations overall as to the merits variously of an inegalitarian or egalitarian democracy, chiefly with respect to not just the political but the economic and social rights of customarily deprived and denied segments of citizenry—women, Dalits, adivasis, religious, ethnic, linguistic, other cultural minorities, children across the class and social spectrum, health services, sanitation rights, rights to free sexual choice, old age rights will ask for answers that exceed the for-now-enticing platform of “honesty and transparency”.
After all, it will be the structure of responses to this clutch of considerations on the part of the new party that must, in the longer time, tell us how it situates itself vis a vis the Congress and the Left on the one side, and the Bharatiya Janata Party on the other, assuming that the AAP does not intend to confine itself to being a regional force merely like so many other parties in the mofussil. And conversely, how the AAP shapes in these contexts cannot but have a complementary impact on the introspections and transformations of the other political formations. Its successes may indeed cause lasting changes in their self-perception and political practice, and, equally, its failures may encourage their status quoism in particularly deleterious ways. And the new party will also need to consider whether it means to remain a wholly autonomous formation countrywide, or whether it may strike partnerships with other forces, and along what ideological affinities.
There can be no doubt that the success of the AAP has given us something to think about and hope for. All the more reason that its further career will not but be a fraught one, wherein for sometime the electorate may continue to live by a new faith, but not for long.
Speaking of which, the refusal thus far of the AAP to accept outside support from the Congress party—unconditional support, it should be emphasised, whatever motives the Congress may have in making that offer— and take on the offer of government formation is already the subject of controversy and debate. Time will tell whether or not the AAP’s penchant for “purity” will be vindicated by subsequent public endorsement or not, but this writer is surely reminded of a resonant precedent. Namely, the “historic blunder” (Jyoti Basu’s now famous words) that the CPI-M committed in disallowing Jyoti babu to accept a fairly all-party invite to take over as the country’s Prime Minister in 1996 on the ground that the party after all had only a pitiful presence in that new Parliament and could not hope to push any of its own agenda through government action.
I was among those at that time as well who suggested that had that offer been taken on, the politics of the Left overall would not but have received a new countrywide exposure, recognition, and boost. Had the CPI-M taken charge of some Ministries that deal rather more directly with public concerns at large, it might have had the opportunity to foreground a new political culture, and lay the groundwork for gains in the years ahead.
Conversely, it must be a matter of speculaton as to when parties outside the two “main-stream” ones may hope to obtain electoral majorities in Parliament so that their agendas may be implemented without let or hindrance.
I would therefore have been of the view that the AAP, without giving or taking support, might have formed the government, gone ahead with implementing a few items of its agenda that most impinge on the lives of the hoi polloi, and, in the event of a foolish withdrawal of support by the Congress, gone back to the people to seek a clear mandate.
But, as we know, the AAP has chosen to return to some sort of a “referendum”—a wholly arbitrary exercise, after all, and without constitutional legitimacy—to ask whether or not it should form government. This is sought to be done in the name of a new form of participatory democracy. Laudable as that might be, the question will remain as to whether such recourses to referenda may be taken every time there is lack of clarity on any item of its professed manifesto. And whether its own electorate may be expected to bear for long with this paradigm of governance. Raising the further apprehension that, come the next round of voting, the Delhi voter may think it less bothersome to give the BJP a clear majority. Consider that the Organiser has already argued editorially that the best nationalist course for the AAP is to lend strength and support to the BJP—an idea that might catch on should the former prolong its politics of “honesty” into the form of a non-viable abstraction.
It remains to be seen how the “referendum” turns out; one would venture the thought that this exercise may indeed become the basis for the AAP to pick up courage and wet its feet in executive waters.
Let us wish them well.