If the AAP experiment fails then the people will be back to being reduced to fixed deposits in ‘vote banks’ of established parties

It is a convention in Parliament that when a new member makes a debut speech, fellow members greet him or her with a thumping of desks. Normally the person is heard out without interruptions even if it is a hotly debated issue. The Chair is also indulgent even if the member exceeds the time limit. It’s the same for first-time ministers. They are not pounced upon for fumbling or giving inadequate replies. This camaraderie is also visible when contentious Bills are taken up and which the Opposition helps the government pass, sometimes without discussion.

But the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is learning along the way after forming a minority government in Delhi, is not being given the same chance that the political class would give to “one of its own.” Even those who were indulgent of JP taking the support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to defeat a “corrupt and autocratic” Indira Gandhi and of V.P. Singh who sought the help of all including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the wake of the Bofors scandal, are not willing to give space to the new “alternative politics” that the AAP stands for.

Capturing voter imagination

It is grossly unfair that while every government gets five years to implement its manifesto, the AAP government is expected to fulfil its within the first month. Even so, the party has taken crucial decisions on water and power tariffs to give relief to law-abiding citizens; 700 litres of free water per day is being given as a “right” and is on metered usage to encourage people to get meters. Those who exceed the limit (of water conservation) will have to pay for the entire use. Likewise, the decision to reduce the power tariff by half — up to 400 units of usage per month — only restores the balance. Citizens’ cries over abnormally inflated electricity bills generated by private service providers went unheard by Sheila Dikshit’s government. For a housewife, the average saving of Rs.8,000 to Rs.10,000 per month alone on these counts helps take some of the sting out of galloping inflation.

Nursery admission guidelines for private schools as well as the CAG audit of power companies have been upheld by the Delhi High Court indicating that the AAP government’s decisions are solid enough to stand judicial scrutiny. Grievance redress helplines are working, genuine and effective.

The AAP has compelled the so-called mainstream parties to take note of its novel ideas. They are aping it not because they believe in its ideas but because they feel the AAP has caught the imagination of voters with its approach to tackling the menace of corruption and to participatory democracy. That is why the Congress has suddenly gone silent on its “game changer” Food Security Act, and thrust the anti-corruption placard into the hands of Rahul Gandhi. After admitting that the 128 year-old party had much to learn from just-born AAP, Mr. Gandhi recently announced that the party will invite in 15 Lok Sabha constituencies applications from common people to contest on a party ticket — a methodology initiated by the AAP.

The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi too is now harping on ridding India of corruption.

There can be no two opinions about the overzealous manner in which Delhi’s Law Minister Somnath Bharti took up the case of flesh trade and drug trafficking in his constituency. Even if one overlooks the manner in which policemen on the spot showed hostility to the Minister, Mr. Bharti could have done it differently and at a decent hour without hurting the dignity of the women under suspicion. Neither can one absolve “poet” Kumar Vishwas of his sexist comments. Both need to be reined in. But for agitated women groups to say that it is because of these two men that the entire party needs to be condemned is playing into the hands of those threatened by the AAP’s growing appeal ahead of the general election.

When Mr. Arvind Kejriwal worked on his goal to empower the aam aadmi he perhaps did not contend with the potpourri that would form the fundamentals of his party. So, if you have a Kumar Vishwas and a Somnath Bharti, there are others like a Yogendra Yadav who has been apologetic upfront about inherent contradictions in his political entity. When asked in an interview about people with divergent views such as social activist Medha Patkar and Captain Gopinath of Air Deccan backing the party, Mr. Kejriwal’s answer was simple — “This is the diversity of our country.” In that sense, the party’s initiative towards participatory democracy on the basis of continuous dialogue with common citizens is refreshing.

Open-door politics

With its origins in Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, the AAP does not shy away from projecting itself as a party in movement mode. Indeed, it is different as a party — not distant, not structured and certainly not white-collared. Those who see politics largely through the prism of a “status quo mindset” and are more comfortable in a “high command” or single leader party structure will perhaps find it difficult to accept the AAP’s open-door politics in which every person counts irrespective of caste, religion, and standing.

In effect, the AAP was truly inclusive when it selected ordinary people, those with no political clout or background, to become MLAs and ministers. With no VVIP paraphernalia — red beacon-light cars, gun-totting security personnel, battery of briefcase-carrying assistants, or the experience — they do not look like nor behave like a conventional VIP.

We have had chief ministers sitting on fasts and organising bandhs, but for the first time the nation saw a chief minister sleeping on a roadside on a chilly Delhi winter night literally metres away from Parliament. He is by no yardstick “mad” as Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde has called him, but, yes, he certainly has the junoon (passion) to force a change in the political system, say his colleagues. And, yes, the change is beginning: Mr. Shinde’s home State, Maharashtra, and another Congress-ruled state, Haryana, have copied Mr. Kejriwal’s decision to reduce power tariffs. Likewise, the BJP-ruled Rajasthan and the Samajwadi Party-ruled Uttar Pradesh have cut down on security for their chief ministers. In Delhi, the police harassing petty shopkeepers, street vendors, three-wheelers, every passing truck etc. is no longer a common sight.

Mr. Kejriwal’s dharna a few yards away from the Union Home Minister’s office was as much against the Central government usurping the powers of the elected government in Delhi, as it was a flashpoint with the Delhi Police seemingly triggered by action against two police constables on charges of corruption. Mr. Kejriwal has realised that without control over the police, his government cannot deliver on its promise of ensuring the safety and security of women. The fight, therefore, appeared more to draw attention to the situation with regard to the police than to anything else. Otherwise, the AAP is the only party which has set up — much before the Bharti episode — a five-member committee on the Vishaka guidelines to look into complaints by women of harassment. The party has a 30-member gender committee headed by Lalita Ramdas, wife of Admiral Ramdas. The only three women MLAs in the Delhi Assembly belong to the AAP party.

With anti-corruption as its plank, the AAP leadership will have to brace itself for even more testing times in the run-up to the general election. Not only will it have to fend off attempts to bog it down politically, it will also have to hold its own against various lobbies, interest groups, mafias, middlemen and even media barons. To its advantage, however, the ordinary people, to whom it has given a voice and primacy, do realise that if this experiment fails then it will be back to their being reduced to fixed deposits of parties in “vote banks” to be renewed once in five years.

gargi.parsai@thehindu.co.in

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