May be it’s time we looked at the world through the eyes of a child.
Long have we despaired of the seemingly unavoidable free-fall of our democratic aspirations. We were obsessed with the intimidating magnitude of the problem. We sank into despair. This ‘quantitative fallacy’ blinded us to a remedy. The malady seemed too overwhelming, too widespread to be amenable to solution. We nearly gave up.
Charles Dickens faced the decay of his times, but without despair. He made a diagnosis of sorts. He saw that the corroding problems of his times were, despite their air of autonomy, self-inflicted. What is invited can also be averted. Dickens could see this truth because he looked at the adult world through the eyes of children. The vision of the adult world is impaired by hypocrisy. There is light in the eyes of a child. To see the truth, the light within is as important as the light without. The adult world sees, mostly, by the light without; children see by the light within as well.
The promise in the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) needs to be seen through the eyes of a child. The shaping principle is simple and obvious. Kejriwal and Co. have changed the perspective from the elite to the common man, from the rulers to the ruled, from the oligarchs of democracy to the objects of democracy. Child-like, AAP sees the simple truth that the building block, which legitimises the exercise of power in a democracy, is the common man. When democracy disowns the common man, it becomes something else that merely passes for democracy.
What is promised — these are early days yet — is a paradigm shift from the ruling elite to the common man. It is at once significant and symptomatic enough to make mainstream political parties confused and nervous. It will take them a while to get used to an altogether new political idiom. The masses, in contrast, are responding to it with a sort of fervour and hope that border on religious zeal. What could this mean for the renewal of our democracy?
It affirms, first, the power of the common man to dethrone caste in politics. Contrary to what the architects of our freedom advocated, caste has conquered rather than vacated our politics. A covetous and hypocritical political culture driven by the lust for power and profit had made caste the engine of our political practice, projecting it as a viable alternative to good governance.
Caste politics and good governance can never go together. The aam aadmi is the alternative to the caste voter. He is a citizen without the divisive labels of caste, creed or regional colour. A citizen is a national entity, not a caste asset. Every citizen is, by definition, an aam aadmi.
For the first time now we have the opportunity, at least in theory, to eradicate caste from our political culture so that we can begin to be democratic. Of course, only time will tell if this aam aadmi face of AAP is a mask or its shaping vision.
Aam aadmi, unlike the ruling elite, can be committed to principled politics. As a rule, principles and values are vexatious to those who wield power. Power, which the ruling elite sees as its birthright, militates against the welfare of the people. Power disenfranchises the common man for the simple reason that he will always be the victim and not the wielder of power. No one, not even benign dictators, has ever grabbed power purely for altruistic purposes. Power, therefore, was always grabbed in the name of the aam aadmi but never wielded for his sake. As long as power remains the shaping paradigm, in the hands of an elite inaccessible to the aam aadmi, it will not represent the interests of the people. A citizen is, in such a context, only a voter with, at best, instrumental value.
The aam aadmi craves to live in peace. He is not interested in violence or communal atrocities. The aam aadmi has neighbours — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, atheists. He does not despise or hate his neighbour. Only when the aam aadmi is indoctrinated and corrupted with communal poison does he hate and hurt. It is imperative for AAP, therefore, to enunciate a national culture that abjures violence. Violence and corruption are the two sides of the same coin of anti-people politics. Such politics has criminalised our society and undermined progress. It includes, among other things, an economic model that puts profit above people, corporates above communities, and power above public service.
If the political focus is kept unwaveringly on the common man, there will be a shift from greed to need. This could involve, inter alia, a re-thinking of the extant developmental paradigm and index it to the welfare of the people. It is not clear how corruption can be contained, much less eradicated, without curtailing greed. The dogma that greed alone can drive development needs to be interrogated. ‘Development with a heart’ needs to become much more than just a concept.
For now, the entrenched political parties are dazed. They haven’t figured out a way to cope with a radically changed political discourse, which is Greek and Latin to them. This, in itself, is proof that something refreshingly new is in the offing. Enormous moral stamina, sincerity and discipline will be required on the part of the merchants of this new dream to deliver their promise. They hold the hopes of a billion people in the cusp of their political creed. May they, for the sake of the people of India, prove equal to the task.
The writer is the Principal of St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi.