The opportunity that the Aam Aadmi Party's initiatives present before us to re-invent the way we practise our politics cannot be completely overlooked.
Tujhse naaraaz nahin Kejriwal hairan hoon main (I cannot possibly be vexed by thy antics Kejriwal; on the contrary, I am flummoxed!). That’s how my heart reacts when I think of the man who has become the bete noire of every established political party, every entrenched temple of crony capitalism and every egregious practice of organised politics in the country which, with its dysfunctional political landscape, finds itself devoid of ideas.
For starters, I am not an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supporter. In fact, in April 2011, when the Anna agitation took shape, I was part of the minority section profoundly cynical of it. The memories of VP (Singh) movement leading — though unintentionally — to the dark communal period of Ram Janmabhoomi Movement were very much present in my subconscious, as was the way the rise of the right-wing majoritarian BJP shaped the outlook of my generation's youth toward the minorities, toward our neighbours, toward Hinduism and toward party politics.
Though the Anna movement made a study in contrast, it threatened to segue neatly either into the anarchy of the mid 1970s or the instability of the late 80s. Apart from a Jan Lokpal Bill, they did not have much to offer. They showed utter disrespect for established institutions of democracy, the most sacred of which is the legislature. They indulged in showmanship without making clear the substance. More dangerous was the way the middle class populace of urban areas — the educated sections of our country — was attracted to them without understanding the nuances of the Jan Lokpal bill they championed. All in the name of India Against Corruption.
However, after observing, from a distance, the way Arvind Kejriwal — an IITian with some experience in revenue administration — entered the system as a novice, formed a political party and won the elections, my cynicism found itself getting tempered by optimism. More important in assuaging my anxiety was the fact that he somewhat practised what he preached — he won the elections with little money power or muscle power. However, it was obvious that his overtly anti-establishmentarian style of politics will have an ephemeral stint in power.
Just when the AAP movement had threatened to regress into part of a right-wing alliance, history acted as a credible deterrent. Kejriwal took history seriously and in Delhi, entered into an uneasy alliance with the Congress, only to throw it all away in a spirit of disobedience.
Grammar of anarchy?
From a rank outsider, he became a ruling savior, then a dejected martyr. Once he got out of power, again with his nothing-to-lose attitude, he started training his guns at the corporate honchos, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and finally at the media barons.
These recriminations may all be be part of his grand plans to find greater support for his party, maybe to build a core base before consolidating himself with the help of the very sections he is currently berating. But the opportunity that his style of politics — he even called himself an ‘anarchist’ once — presents to re-invent our country’s politics cannot be completely overlooked.
As pointed out by Mukul Kesavan in this rambunctious read, Kejriwal’s politics is premised on a certain amount of righteousness, a certain spirit of idealism, a certain kind of virtue. His audacity does not just inform his actions; his audacity, by itself, becomes his actions at a time when diplomatese and doublespeak are the norm in public life. In his bluntness, candour and vituperation, he is not unlike the charismatic comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo of Italy, whose Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Stars Movement) won 25.55 per cent of the votes for the Chamber of Deputies, Italy’s legislature, in the 2013 general election.
Though its spirit of disobedience is still present, the AAP lacks a coherent ideology, as a political analyst friend of mine points out. Further, it is still a neophyte with not much of grassroots support, something most other national parties — Congress, BJP, SP, BSP — have painstakingly built. Its anti-corruption stance resonates mostly with the urban middle class, which nurses a certain sense of victimisation because of the policies of the incumbent UPA dispensation. However, as NDA found out in 2004, an ‘India shining’ appeal does not necessarily translate in to an ‘India elects’ outcome.
As Kejriwal has himself demonstrated and as Vidya Subrahmaniam points out in this piece, AAP’s anti-corruption plank need not benefit BJP this time. AAP’s strategist Yogendra Yadav has also made clear, in no uncertain terms, that their party is opposed to Modi’s style of politics.
True, Congress is all set to lose in the elections. However, any alternative — party or alliance — cannot afford to antagonise the corporate Gods. By training his guns, first on Modi’s cozy relationship with corporate barons; then even media magnets, Kejriwal has distanced himself from the UPA and the NDA alike. However, he has not made it clear how he himself will handle the pressure from corporates if he comes to power.
Flair for theatrics
My friend points out that, in terms of vision and effort, Mamata Banerjee as an activist-turned-politician is no different from Kejriwal. But Kejriwal is more than just an activist. He is a strategist, a raconteur, a media manager. Kejriwal had played his cards extremely well, be it in terms of the issues he has chosen to highlight, the venues where he has made his speech or the constituencies from which he has announced his intention to contest.
He first positioned himself against three-time Chief Minister, and a once-favourite, Sheila Dikshit, in the New Delhi constituency and defeated her by a margin of about 26,000 votes. As a sequel, he took pot shots against Modi in his own bastion, the ‘swarnim Gujarat'. Finally, last week, he announced what was widely expected, his intention to contest from Varanasi against the PM-in-waiting.
We need to remember that Varanasi is a constituency from where BJP has itself decided to defy history by fielding an OBC candidate, Modi, instead of the three-time winner and the incumbent, Murli Manohar Joshi, a Brahmin who, until recently, was the BJP favourite for the ticket. In this, my friend says, Kejriwal has probably taken cue from Niccolo Machiavelli’s principle that one needs to choose his opponent wisely. But to my mind, this brings an even shrewder dictum, “The only way to get smarter is by playing a smarter opponent." (Fundamentals of Chess, 1883)
My friend also says Kejriwal is following Kanshi Ram’s template: the first election is yours to lose, the second is yours to get an adversary defeated; and the third is to win. Kejriwal has already portrayed himself as a martyr in the first, he will, perhaps, act as a spoilsport in the second before becoming a conqueror in the third.
It is too early in the day for his party to nurse aspirations of coming to power at the national level. However, this is the opportunity for him to take his vision to the masses, to the local level, where his style of politics may lead to a revamping of the entrenched caste-based, religion-based, class-based voting carried out by the citizens. It needs to build its base in the third-tier mentioned by Dr. Yogendra Yadav here, one where he says AAP currently has only a symbolic presence.
In this, Kejriwal can take inspiration from someone like Indonesia’s Joko Widodo (Jokowi as he is popularly known) or a veteran like Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva whose national appeal derives from his local base, rooted as it is in his humble origins and history as a trade unionist. As I reflect on Kejriwal, Jokowi has already been nominated as Indonesian opposition’s presidential candidate.
Power to local bodies
Kejriwal’s style of politics can result in greater decentralisation of decision making, at the local level, in the long run and make visionary pieces of legislation like the 73rd and the 74th Amendments, which led to the creation of Panchayats and Municipalities, acquire greater dynamism. Power would then be truly residing as little packets of energy in the hands of the Aam Aadmi and not concentrated in the hands of the politicians or the corporates with deep pockets.
But, as my friends point out, AAP currently lacks a committed cadre that can keep its finger at the pulse of local issues. It would take a while for the party to build such a support. But as Dr. Yadav has mentioned here, AAP wants to project itself as a long-term alternative. For that, it needs the baby steps of a tortoise to understand the gravity of the situation at hand before it attains the velocity from where it can escape the Earth’s gravity.
Another question that remains unanswered is, does our Constitution have enough space to accommodate such a paradigm shift in the way politics is practised?
But don’t we have directive principles in Part IV of our Constitution which should inform our politicians’ decision making? Doesn’t the state need to do more to empower local bodies, prevent the concentration of wealth in a few hands, ensure a living wage to all citizens and promotion of cottage industries, things that Lula and Jokowi championed to great effect in their respective constituencies?
These principles were incorporated as ideals which were to subsequently take the form of rights. It is time we give them their due and make attempts to bring them to Part III of our Constitution which would make them fundamental rights.
For this, a shift from the current style of practising politics is necessary. Alternatives like the Aam Aadmi Party should provide inspiration to other well-meaning educated individuals to form their own political outfits and contest. Lest it become dictatorship of the Aam Aadmi party rather than power to the aam aadmi.