Who would have thought that the AAP would crash from its pedestal in the blink of an eye?

Barely months ago, the Aam Aadmi Party exploded on the national political scene like a firework, bringing with it a searing energy that promised to cleanse and burnish anything it touched. Who could have thought that the party would crash from that pedestal in the blink of an eye?

Led by the indefatigable Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP brought freshness and hope into an arena contaminated by greed, graft and unashamed opportunism. The party was the antithesis of its rivals, each more powerful and resourceful than the other. The debutant had nothing to show except spunk and idealism. Yet there was in its offer of transformative politics a glimmer of hope that pulled despairing citizens to the polling booths. The poor turned up to vote expecting deliverance from daily extortion and oppression. But, surprisingly, Delhi’s famously disconnected elite too joined the serpentine queues. The record voter turnout of 65 per cent in the assembly election testified to a collective popular craving for clean and responsive governance.

Riding on the mood for change, the AAP toppled the Congress and stopped the Bharatiya Janata Party in its tracks. Yet less than a month later, that terrific photo-op moment stands upstaged by events the AAP’s worst critics could not have anticipated. Today, the sheer excitement of the December election, the AAP’s sensational debut and its installation in office, all seem a blur, a false dawn that has melted into the dark of the night.

The lingering image is of the more recent chaos on the streets of Delhi. It might seem impossible that a duly elected government could turn rogue, betraying its solemn pledge to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law. And yet what would one call the phenomenon of a wayward Law minister raining abuse on his political rivals and a Chief Minister calling himself “anarchist” and declaring his contempt for the Republic Day commemorations? Delhi’s Law Minister Somnath Bharti and Chief Minister Kejriwal plumbed the depths of lawlessness when they brought governance to the streets defying prohibitory orders, but they resorted to this insanity for a shockingly unworthy cause. Of the three instances of police misconduct cited by Kejriwal, where he demanded the suspension of the local Station House Officers, two perhaps could be justified. But the third, involving the Law minister himself, was a reverse case of official intimidation and misbehaviour. The minister had led a screaming mob late in the night to a neighbourhood allegedly in the grip of an African-run drug and sex racket. Undoubtedly this required investigation but by means of proper procedure. With the police refusing to oblige, the crowd set upon four Ugandan-origin women residents, subjecting them to racist insult and worse through the night. There was no specific complaint against the women, nor has anything been proven against them.  

This was a fit case for the AAP to sit on a dharna over — but on behalf of the wronged women, not to protect the illegal act of detaining them by a minister too drunk with his own powers. The irony is difficult to miss. The incident reeks of the same ministerial arrogance and highhandedness that till now formed the core of the AAP’s clean-up campaign. The evidence was against the minister but the demand was for the removal of the police officer who insisted on due process. Even assuming there was sex trafficking, the women required being treated as victims and not as offenders.

The only conclusion the episode allows is that the AAP Government allowed moral indignation and righteousness to override the requirements of due process. Kejriwal justified his dharna in a painfully illiberal language, arguing that his minister was being prevented by the police from cracking down on sex and drug rackets. He refused to get into whether a generic complaint of crime against African nationals could be turned into a specific complaint of crime against four Ugandan women. He would not dwell on the impropriety of detaining women at night and without the presence of women police.

This is where the troublesome aspect of the AAP comes. The party has obsessed over corruption, and rightly too. But this blinkered angst has been at the expense of an enlightened social vision. Kejriwal has reduced everything to simple, practical solutions. The AAP’s contempt for ideology and intellect can be appealing in the short run but governance is as much about delivering water and electricity as it is about safeguarding the rights and liberties of citizens — and, yes, of foreign nationals too. Only a political party with a liberal core can balance the conflicting interests of diverse groups and negotiate the minefield that is India. The AAP has unfortunately come up short on this expectation. Nor does it offer clarity on its economic philosophy. 

The AAP, and Mr. Kejriwal in particular, have relentlessly made fun of ideology. “I want to fix problems. I don’t understand right or left,” said the Chief Minister on a TV show. Fair enough, but surely he could have spoken of the Constitutional vision. The Indian Constitution is an outstandingly progressive treatise that beautifully meshes together individual and group rights, state obligations and the goals of welfare and distributive justice. But a Chief Minister who proudly disrespects the symbolism of the Republic Day would hardly quote the Constitution. 

In retrospect, it would seem that the AAP, which originated from the Anna Hazare movement, has made a superficial transition to political office while retaining both the restlessness of the movement and its vigilante orientation. Team Anna hit out at the political class and shamed any politician who asked to share space on the stage. The crowds at the fast venues raised lynch-mobbish cries, asking for politicians to be hanged and thrown to the vultures. The movement also barely concealed its right-wing preferences.

 Arvind Kejriwal moved to saner positions when he formed the AAP. This combined with the party’s clean-up zeal brought distinguished citizens to its fold. The party set the agenda which its rivals competed to follow, from refusing to form opportunistic governments to promising to field clean candidates to constantly referencing the common folk.

The AAP has spoilt its own party with its reckless tryst with lawlessness.

vidya.s@thehindu.co.in

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