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Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s unusual dharna in the heart of Delhi in the peak of its harsh winter is over. But it’s unlikely that the cold backlash against him and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will dissipate soon. The whiplashes keep coming. The party hasn’t had a reprieve of late, whether it’s over Kejriwal’s open defiance of law in the very shadow of Parliament, over his ‘lawless’ law minister Somnath Bharti’s racist, vigilante act in south Delhi’s Khirki Extension or over its leader Kumar Vishwas’s crudities.
Never in recent times has the country been treated to the dramatic image of a CM spending a night out in the open in protest. Neither have we seen someone charged with upholding the rulebook flout it the way Kejriwal did in his ‘aam aadmi’ style. Many who had voted for AAP, hoping it would set the house in order, are worried it might well bring the entire house down. Kejriwal and his cohorts are being accused of anarchy, a charge the CM only seemed to endorse when he said—perhaps sarcastically, or perhaps flirting with radicalism—“Yes, I’m an anarchist.”
Many are disillusioned that AAP, which promised order and efficiency, has resorted to vigilantism and street-fighting.
As Kejriwal ended his protest and cleared the venue for the Republic Day parade after Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde gave in partly to his demands, BJP leader Arun Jaitley tweeted that Shinde may have “saved the Republic Day parade but weakened the republic of India”. Many outside the BJP will endorse that. After all, will AAP be judged only on the basis of how well it disrupts and overthrows or on its ability to construct and offer alternatives? As social activist Mallika Sarabhai, who recently joined AAP, says, “I believe that to change the system, one has to take the system into confidence.”
One of the principal causes for the protest—a demand to bring Delhi Police, now under the Union home minister, under the Delhi government—is something many support. The provocation was alleged police failure to prevent the gangrape of a Danish woman and inaction in two cases in which two Delhi ministers had intervened. But the means adopted—flagrant disregard for the law by a CM and massive disruption at the venue of the Republic Day parade days before the event—left many disillusioned. More so because the CM backed away on securing just a minor concession in a face-saver deal. Against his party’s demand to have five cops dismissed and for bringing Delhi Police under the state government, AAP settled for having two cops sent on paid leave and an inquiry against five expedited.
“The tenor and kind of language some in AAP have been using is certainly not suited to those holding elected office.”
So what was the moral posturing all about? Did Kejriwal realise he’d gained enough brownie points in public perception? Or that the tide of support was turning? Many even interpret the drama as a red rag for the Congress to withdraw support so that Kejriwal may claim martyrhood during the Lok Sabha elections, which the Congress is said to have studiously denied him. But Amiya K. Chaudhuri, senior fellow at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Calcutta, says one shouldn’t fault AAP for failing to achieve what it set out to. “In politics, one may not achieve the ideal, but can definitely approach it,” he says. “At least they managed some reward and brought into focus the important issue of police reforms. Memorandums and petitions would have resulted in nothing from this corrupt and disorderly government.”
Another forthcoming flashpoint is over AAP’s promise to pass a Jan Lokpal bill in the Delhi assembly, one that will give sweeping powers to the Lokayukta. The Centre has said the state government will have to seek its clearance. AAP is adamant and even wants the bill passed at Ramlila grounds, site of the original stir that started it all. Says Shazia Ilmi, an AAP core committee member, “I think people are going to see a lot of action as opposed to the status quoist attitude of other parties. Our methods may not make sense to some and we’ve been labelled anarchists from day one. All we’re seeking is accountability.”
But the brazen disregard for the established order—Kejriwal even called on cops to abandon their responsibilities and join his protest—has unnerved many who voted for AAP. BJD leader Baijayant Panda, who supports many of AAP’s goals—weeding out criminals from politics, for instance—says some of the methods it has adopted can prove counterproductive. “It’s important to reform and build institutions, to bring about a structure of law rather than only go about targeting individuals,” he says.
“Our methods may not make sense to some. We’ve been called anarchists from Day 1. But what we’re seeking is accountability.”
Monish Gulati, a research fellow at the Society for Policy Studies, Delhi, who, incidentally, voted for AAP, says the party is trying to “inveigle” itself into the local set-up and create a parallel set-up instead of fixing the existing one. “This is like the CPI(M) in West Bengal or the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra: people depend on the party for tasks that are the responsibility of the local administration,” he says. “AAP got our vote to change a system bent and twisted by corruption. We hope AAP will straighten it, not bend it in another direction.”
Much of the vitriol has been aimed at Bharti—and AAP and Kejriwal’s inexcusable defence of him. The minister, who reportedly used to run an infotech firm that was ranked as a top spammer, led a mob in a raid in Khirki Extension on hearsay that the area was inhabited by African drug peddlers and sex traffickers. He brought out the worst stereotypes associated with Africans, saying they were “not like us”. What’s worse, there are accusations that those in the mob forced some Ugandan women to give urine samples in public. “I’m deeply disturbed at the xenophobia on display,” says Sarabhai, speaking as a women’s activist rather than an AAP member. “Many laws were broken by the law minister. His racist comments have deeply disturbed me and I was shocked by how the women were treated.”
The trouble with vigilante action of the sort the minister led is that most often innocents suffer. Tresor Bokondi, a Congolese management student living in Khirki Extension, knows it well. Days after he moved into a one-bedroom flat, neighbours thumped on his door. “They said I must clear out as the police had issued eviction notices against Africans, something they had no proof of,” he says. “I had to pacify them, pointing out how I had never done anything to disrespect or inconvenience them.” Richie Lontulungu, Delhi-based president of the Congolese Community of India, says that, even if some Africans were involved in illegal activities, it was for the police, not the minister, to intervene. “Also, by focusing on Africans, others involved in the trade, for instance Indians who may have recruited these Africans, are never revealed,” he says.
“AAP has to bridge the gap separating an activist from a statesman, negotiate between local and national issues.”
As disgusting as his vigilantism was Bharti’s public expression of his desire to spit on the faces of BJP leader Arun Jaitley and senior advocate Harish Salve. “I want to tell them to mend their ways...I warn you, the public is going to hound you and beat you,” he said. For those who had voted for AAP seeking cleaner politics and public life—after all, corruption isn’t the only dirt that needs mopping up—this must have been a new low. AAP leaders like Yogendra Yadav may have condemned his words but having him continue as a minister seems increasingly like a liability for AAP. Equally riling is Kumar Vishwas (whom the party plans to field in Amethi) with his sexist remarks and crude jokes about Moharram and Malayali nurses. For a party seeking to endear itself to a wide swathe of society, these two stick out like sore thumbs.
Of the “anarchist” tag pinned on AAP, Dipankar Gupta, director of the Centre of Political Affairs & Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University, Noida, says, it’s unfair—especially when it comes from those responsible for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots or the Babri Masjid demolition. “I think the sight of chief minister Kejriwal sitting out in the cold has won him support from those who have no desks to work on or those who have to bear the brunt of the law,” he says. “But the vigilantism of some of their members does bother me. I hope the sober voices in the group speak up.”
If Kejriwal is seen as a politician still under an activism-induced hangover, he is also being praised for the unusual step of taking to the streets to get himself heard. Isn’t that what the aam aadmi does, unlike the khaas aadmi, who knows how to work the system? Here lies the dilemma at the heart of the politics being crafted by AAP. A few months from now, in the heat of India’s summer and electoral politics, we should find an answer.
By Debarshi Dasgupta with inputs from Anuradha Raman