The AAP, for all its errors, represents a kernel of good.

In the midst of the raging debate over the Aam Aadmi Party’s actions, inaction and reaction to various events, some fundamentals are getting buried. Some of these fundamentals have a direct relationship to questions of women’s safety and their status. The intense media scrutiny to which AAP has been subjected, and which some would argue is unfair and excessive, has raised many issues that go beyond the future of this one fledgling party.

What is the basic premise that is now being challenged? AAP has campaigned for putting power in the hands of “people”. It holds that the governance deficit can be overcome if people are empowered, if decision-making moves from government offices to neighbourhoods; it believes that everyone has a right to know and to have a say in how government should run and what it should do.

Within days of AAP coming to power in Delhi, we have witnessed some aspects of this being played out. And those used to a different way of business being conducted are legitimately uncomfortable. This is disorder, not order, they say. Who are “the people”? How can you let them decide?

The most unsavoury aspect of this, of course, was what happened in Khirkee village in Delhi, where “the people” chased and caught women who they had decided, without any evidence, were soliciting and therefore had to be punished for introducing “immorality” into their neighbourhood. When power to the people is interpreted as this kind of vigilante justice, not just women but any minority group will feel unsafe.

There are hundreds of incidents across India of precisely this type of lawlessness that cannot be justified in the name of democracy or “empowering” the “people”. Surely, when members of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) decide that “the people” are fed up of north Indians in Mumbai, and go about demonstrating this by roughing up poor street vendors, it is not an action that anyone who believes in democracy can support. Unfortunately, so far, AAP has failed to put in place processes that check vigilantism while still allowing a space for ordinary people to express their grievances and seek redress.

What would be the fallout of this for women? As Pratiksha Baxi points out in a prescient piece on the website Kafila (http://kafila.org/2014/01/25/the-politics-of-raid-governance-aam-aurat-v-khas-aurat-pratiksha-baxi/), AAP’s formulation of constantly referring to the women in Delhi as “ma, behen, beti” actually lays the grounds for problems for all women because whether they mean it or not, they are saying that as long as you are “their” women you are safe, but if you are not, you are on your own. That is not the kind of assurance of safety that any woman wants. In fact, even the safety guaranteed if you “belong” to a group of men is hardly something to celebrate given the insecurities that women face when surrounded by the men tasked to “protect” them.

The deeper problem, however, with the debates in the media and elsewhere is the issue of whether “the people” can really participate in governance. By focusing on an individual, in this case the actions of Delhi’s Law Minister Somnath Bharti, and one incident, the vigilantism displayed in Khirkee, there is a real danger that the baby will be thrown out with the bath water, so to speak.

For there is no question that AAP’s attempt at being inclusive, by involving ordinary people in decision-making and in politics, is something that is essential to strengthen democracy.

The panchayati raj system, with all its shortcomings, has been an outstanding example of how this has worked, and women have been the principal beneficiaries of this. Of course, there are problems. Of course, it is not perfect. But it is far better than top down governance. It is far better than excluding women from institutions of governance. It is far better than concentrating powers in the hands of a few.

Even in the panchayati raj system, it has not been easy to ensure that the powerless, including poor women, actually have their say. In too many instances, the powerful find proxies who run the show.

There is also the very real danger, especially in our cities, of “people’s power” being distorted into moral policing, or into attacks against “outsiders”, whoever they are.

What AAP is attempting, much like earlier such experiments as part of the Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement did in the 1970s, is complex and not just a convenient slogan. It is something that should not be dismissed lightly or disparaged to the point that even the kernel of good it represents is crushed.

The danger of pulling this sapling up from the roots before it has had a chance to establish itself is that it will lay the grounds for the demand for strong, centralised leadership, one strong individual who will sort everything out. India has gone through that phase once. We do not need it repeated.

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com