Comment

The return of the AAP

PROSPECTS IN POLITICS: “The question now is not about the election but about the party’s future behaviour and strategy.” Picture shows AAP supporters during a road show ahead of the Delhi elections.

PROSPECTS IN POLITICS: “The question now is not about the election but about the party’s future behaviour and strategy.” Picture shows AAP supporters during a road show ahead of the Delhi elections.   | Photo Credit: Tsering Topgyal

Over the last month the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut has been busy celebrating itself, narcissistically pleased as it looked at the electoral mirror. It has already become the majoritarian phenomenon that critics feared it would become. As a policy formulator, the regime seemed to love spectacles. It was delighted with recommendations from world leaders and the diaspora. Yet it knew that the context was changing in Delhi. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), instead of destructing itself fully, as many critics hoped it would, has been reinventing itself. It is today a formidable prospect in Delhi. Amit Shah, the formidable strategist of electoral chess, seems to have been outplayed by the AAP. There is a fable here that we must understand.

Politics in India does not get exhausted by current parties. The Congress, the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are conventional structures which have no new ideas, styles, or experiments to offer. When the AAP emerged, it created a politics which was different in style and substance. It played out its existence as a protest movement and as a party. Its success was so overpowering that spectators could not decide whether it was a cameo performance or a full-blooded new movie. For a few stunning months, the AAP created hope before destructing itself in a predictable fashion.

What kept it alive was its supporters — its rank and file enthusiasts for whom politics had become the vocation. Behind it were groups of shrewd advisers who worked to stem the rot. These groups reflected something deeper in politics. They were symptomatic of the need for a different politics, an imagination and an organisation which could go beyond the noise of current politics to the silences that haunted Indian democracy.

Possibility of new politics

In its first foray, the AAP provided for the possibility of a new politics. First, it stoked an enthusiasm for politics. I want to emphasise that a pursuit of power is different from a passion for politics. One is an act of self-aggrandisement; the second a creative search for the public good. What marked the AAP was a younger generation of idealists who felt moved by politics and its possibilities.

Second, the AAP did not talk in terms of the standard vocabulary of parliamentarians —of parliamentary privilege or legislative priority — but attempted to create a new language of empowerment. AAP’s was not the old legislative style of politics where politicians proposed and disposed of issues. Here the citizens defined politics as fresh acts of problem-solving. It was this approach that got superficially understood as anarchistic. Our politicians were correct in fearing it and condemning it as anarchism in the original sense; one which sought to empower communities rather than the state. This is why Narendra Modi >equated the AAP’s anarchism with Naxals as a threat to the state.

There are dangers of such an experimentalism to the AAP. One makes mistakes and mistakes can lead to a chain reaction of errors which can become tragicomic. But the beauty of the AAP was that it held through the crisis and became sure-footed, even nimble. The leadership realised that Delhi was critical for its future and it apologised for the error of abandoning power in Delhi earlier.

People also realised that the BJP was no great problem-solver. The party preferred shows of strength to acting normatively on that strength. Gradually the AAP’s scorecard, while not impressive, looked credible. The citizens of Delhi, especially the marginalised and parts of the middle class, felt it deserved a second chance.

The BJP is now clear that the AAP, not the Congress, is its real opponent in Delhi. Such a confrontation adds to the magic of the electricity of politics. Democracy feels more justified when the underdog threatens the dominant party.

The BJP’s nomination of Kiran Bedi as the chief ministerial candidate was an attempt to mimic the AAP’s politics by calling an outsider to lead the party. In an ironic way, Ms Bedi appeared mechanical, a gudiya of the party, unwelcome to many in the BJP cadre. She was as stolid as Arvind Kejriwal was effervescent. She seems happier with a lathicharge than the politics of persuasion and negotiation. Worse, she is an indicator that the BJP has been outfought by Mr. Kejriwal.

Future of the AAP

It is clear that the AAP is back. The final numbers can be totalled up tomorrow, but surveys are clear that this party is here to stay in Delhi. The question now is not about the election but about the party’s future behaviour and strategy.

As a sympathiser who wishes to be both critical and constructive, I hope the AAP will be continuously inventive. Its idea of an ombudsman for the party was a creative one. Corruption and drugs were two great issues that it raised in a brilliant manner. It also raised issues about how much should one pay for education, water, electricity if they are to remain public goods. Politics as the search for public goods must now look at services in terms of a new audit of access, quality, participation, everydayness, instead of mere economics. The citizens as user and consumer must have a say in the nature of service provided.

In the first few months, the AAP set the tone and style for such audits. It emphasised that audits in a slum and audits in the middle class areas have to be metered differently. It asked that corporations like Reliance treat the oil they process as part of a commons of resources. These were path-breaking themes which went beyond World Bank pieties.

The AAP also has to rescue livelihood issues from technocratic and managerial notions of the economy which seek to emphasise security and profit. By raising the logics of livelihood, it raises the question of how the marginalised people in a society perceive the mainstream definition of a problem. The idea of livelihood is more complex than employment. Livelihood links life, lifeworld, life cycle, lifestyle to issues of access, quality, and participation. It opens citizenship out to the world of problem-solving instead of treating every problem as a technical answer to a technical question to be solved only by a technocrat.

One sees this most clearly in the debates about nuclear energy. By raising the debates in Kudankulam to a national status, the AAP has showed that local problems are not locally bounded. It argued that fishermen as citizens had the right to respond to the location of a nuclear plant; that their protest did not verge on nuclear illiteracy but showed that citizens could raise technical issues rationally and passionately. The AAP’s ombudsman, Admiral (retired) Laxminarayan Ramdas, has an impressive track record on linking security to issues of livelihood, sustainability and democracy. The politics of livelihood and sustainability should be the party’s running preoccupation.

The party needs to realise that reworking party politics is not enough. It has to reinvent the city, not as a smart city, but as an inclusive urbanism which understands the role of the migrant and the power of informal society.

The party must also realise that the culture of politics needs a theory of politics of culture. It must take stands on issues like gender, religion, science on an active case-to-case basis, according to context.

Deep down the AAP must learn to listen to the silent screams of politics and amplify and translate them. By moving beyond the politics of the gaze, which created structures of planning and surveillance, to the politics of listening, it becomes open to the language of suffering, obtaining a sense of the diversity of world views. Its very inventiveness and everydayness make it the party of the future. The challenge before it is to sustain this politics of hope. In redefining politics and reinventing democracy lies the real future of the AAP.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 27, 2020 12:52:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-return-of-the-aap/article6871559.ece

Next Story