The Aam Aadmi Party is in favour of a solution-based, commonsensical approach to problems and seeks to escape the trappings of the Left or the Right
There is a tremendous new energy on the streets of Delhi and, almost surreally, it is spreading to other parts of the country. The phenomenon is a tribute to the Aam Aadmi Party, a spunky political debutant already in government in the national Capital and with plans to contest over 400 Lok Sabha seats.
In retrospect, it is clear that the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP tapped into popular resentments bubbling under the surface. The emotions found release with Mr. Kejriwal’s promise of systemic overhaul and transformative politics. The stampeding crowds at the AAP’s offices, the rush of the who’s who to join its rolls and the frightened responses of its political rivals, all speak to the newcomer’s emergence as a harbinger of hope in a political environment sullied by greed, graft, waste and incompetence.
Yet the danger with excessive expectation is that it can quickly turn into disillusionment and despair. The AAP faces two potential pitfalls. First is its near free-for-all style of governance, evident in such hasty and baffling decisions as turning the Delhi Secretariat into a Janata durbar (since dropped) and calling upon people to sting corrupt officers. Without a proper structure and discipline, these solutions can degenerate into tools of vigilantism, leading to a blurring of lines between liberty and licence.
The second is the AAP’s refusal to define itself ideologically. In an interview to CNN-IBN, the AAP’s national executive member, Yogendra Yadav, denied that the party was socialist and said that the “binaries of the 20th century, either Left or Right, do not make sense”. An entry in the AAP website, now removed, had ridiculed the demand for ideological clarity, saying ideology was for pundits whereas the AAP saw itself as solution-based, open to using solutions from the Left and the Right.
The attractions of a solution-based, commonsensical approach are undoubtedly enormous, especially to audiences fatigued by the opportunistic aspects of politics. It is also true that there is a jaded, outmoded feel to politics compartmentalised as Right or Left; secular or communal. More so when parties and politicians themselves feel no discomfort in crossing the divide, often for the flimsiest of reasons.
But can a party function without a sense of history, without an understanding of its own roots and why and how it has evolved to its present? The Anna movement had a strongly regressive streak. The AAP has moved away to saner positions without frontally confronting and interrogating that past. The AAP’s army of supporters may want to treat ideology as baggage and see the party as a grand standalone phenomenon, but that would be delusional because history has lessons to offer to forget which is to risk repeating it with tragic consequences.
Consider the fate of India’s previous anti-corruption movements. Two kinds of popular movements have led to party formation in India — those based on self-respect and identity and the more pan-national ones focussed on political corruption and misrule. The former category is made up of largely regional parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
In the second category fall a series of anti-corruption mobilisations of which two are regarded as milestones in Indian political history — the Total Revolution call of 1974-1975 and the anti-Bofors movement of 1988-1989.
Led by Jaya Prakash Narayan and V.P. Singh respectively, both movements targeted the Congress, and the end result of each formed a political alliance — the 1977 umbrella Janata Party and the 1989 Janata Dal coalition — that eventually disintegrated because the leadership mistakenly believed that ideology could be brushed under the carpet. Both accommodated the RSS, believing its involvement to be necessary to fight the ‘corrupt’ congress. But there is a curious back story to this story.
The rightward tilt of the two movements can be traced back to 1971 when the Opposition banded together into a Grand Alliance to fight Indira Gandhi’s ‘destructive’ politics. That alliance was routed.
However, JP’s 1974 Total Revolution call and the then ongoing student protests in Gujarat provided the perfect backdrop for the Grand Alliance constituents to regroup. JP gave the constituents credibility and they gave his movement political muscle. This mutual support resulted in the formation, in 1974 itself, of the Janata Morcha, a loose coalition that went on to defeat the congress in the 1975 Gujarat assembly election. This setback, coupled with her unseating from the Rae Bareli Lok Sabha seat, led Indira Gandhi to impose the Emergency.
The 1971 Grand Alliance was formed by the Congress (Organisation), the Swatantra Party, the Jan Sangh and the Praja and Samyukta Socialist Parties. The Congress (O) was backed by big business, the princely class and the media. The Swatantra Party drew its membership from the princes, wealthy industrialists and extreme right-wing elements. Driven by the RSS, the Jan Sangh had a clearly spelt-out Hindu nationalist goal. The Socialist parties joined this grouping because like the rest they abhorred Indira Gandhi and saw her policies as destructively leftist. The 1974-1975 Janata Morcha, which began as a coordination front for JP, consisted of the Congress (O), the Jan Sangh, the Socialist Party (formed by the merger of the two socialist parties) and the Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD). The BLD in turn was a coalition of seven parties, among them the Charan Singh-led Bharatiya Kranti Dal and the Swatantra Party. The 1977 Janata Party was a product of the merger of the Congress (O), the Jan Sangh, the Bharatiya Lok Dal and the Socialist Party.
Confusing? Far from it, what the narrative establishes is a rightwing continuum. The 1971 Grand Alliance, the 1974-1975 Janata Morcha and the 1977 Janata Party all had roughly the same constituents. The RSS provided the logistical support for each of these formations as it would do more than a decade later for the Janata Dal. Indeed, by 1989, the leading lights of the Janata movement had faded away. But, as before, the RSS and its political offshoot, now the Bharatiya Janata Party, would drive the anti-corruption movement.
JP believed that the RSS had changed. He said in March 1975: “I have to admit that the RSS has undergone a change and is still changing… By including these organisations in the movement for Total Revolution, I have made an attempt to decommunalise them and now they are not communal..” Indira Gandhi’s response to this was typically caustic: “Anybody who has read the speeches of RSS leaders can judge for himself … Many of them are positively against certain communities in India… Such forces have been given respectability. They have been given an opportunity to reach out to areas where they had no foothold before. This is extremely dangerous to the future of the country..” (Source: Ajit Bhattacharjee; Unfinished Revolution).
JP’s blinkered view of the fight against corruption led to the inevitable. The socialists opposed the Jan Sangh’s continuing allegiance to the RSS, resulting in the collapse of the Janata Government. The fall of the V.P. Singh Government in 1989 was almost an action replay, with VP realising too late that his accommodation of the RSS and the BJP gave the latter credibility and a chance to revive itself post its 1984 debacle. The clash of ideologies was written into the script.
Three interesting facts emerge from this. All pan-national anti-corruption movements so far have been against the Congress. All of them have had a strong right-wing content which led them to self-destruct. The Jan Sangh/BJP gained in respect and influence by associating with these movements.
The Anna movement was uncannily similar to the earlier anti-corruption movements. The JP and Anna movements sought to overthrow the system and were set against the same background of corruption, runaway inflation and an explosion of public anger against those in power. V.P. Singh’s anti-Bofors campaign struck a powerful chord with the people in much the same way as did today’s 2G and other scandals. And like his predecessors, Anna chose to be ideology-neutral, associating himself with Baba Ramdev and holding up Narendra Modi as the ideal Chief Minister. His protégé Kiran Bedi has since come out in open support of Mr. Modi.
Baba Ramdev was Mr. Kejriwal’s first port of call on his anti-corruption journey. It was later that he turned to Anna. But, since forming the AAP, Mr. Kejriwal has evolved in a more progressive direction, which is surely the reason why someone like Mallika Sarabhai has joined the party. But the AAP also harbours the very regressive and gender-insensitive Kumar Vishwas, the video recordings of whose comic shows make for cringe-inducing viewing.
The fight against corruption is critically important. But the neglect of ideology can prove ruinous for this cause. The AAP has a historic responsibility to make a clean break from the past and emerge as a party that can combine systemic overhaul with a progressive, clearly-articulated vision.