June 18, 2021
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No Time For Parties

If ideology-warriors had their way, they would rather have Narendra Modi as the next prime minister than have their ideological purity compromised by AAP.

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No Time For Parties
No Time For Parties

If ideology-warriors had their way, they would rather have Narendra Modi as the next prime minister than have their ideological purity compromised. Soon after AAP's victory, many secularists rushed to declare, on Facebook and elsewhere, that they do not and will not partake of the AAP euphoria. ‘What is their stand on communalism?’, they asked indignantly. Some other friends insisted that Muslims need an assurance about AAP’s position on communalism and it should clarify its stand if it wanted the Muslim vote.

So what do the ideology warriors want? Just when the political agenda for the elections has decisively changed, throwing the BJP into a complete quandary, upsetting its strategic plans, they want the old familiar, secular/ communal divide back in place, opening up the political field once more to the same Hindu-Muslim polarization that we are so used to. The secular/ communal divide has been the millstone around our neck, preventing any other issue from being brought into public debate at election time and effectively preventing the emergence of any new force or formation. And let there be no mistake that in a communal polarization of Hindus and Muslims, secular forces will always, in the on-going drama of secular masochism, have to deposit themselves tied hand and foot, into the Congress party’s dungeon. The Amit Shahs will have a field day, creating one Muzaffarnagar after another, and erstwhile secular mascots like Mulayam Singh Yadav will vie with them in further entrenching the Hindu-Muslim divide. In all of this, the Congress will present itself as the saviour of Muslims.

The Congress, the BJP, the imaginary ‘third front’— all have been able players and winners in this game.

For the first time in decades, an election was fought in Delhi and will perhaps be fought in the rest of the country where the key issues have decisively changed. If politics is above all, about agenda setting, then the initiative has been snatched away from the hands of the Congress-BJP combine. The agenda has been set against their wishes. Suddenly Modi is at a loss for words, he and his party no longer seem to have any credibility left. His only plank was a ‘Congress-free India’ and now his speeches have begun to sound ever more hollow. Even the RSS has had to sit up and take notice.

But the secular/ communal divide is only one of the axes along which demands are being made on AAP to ‘clarify’ its stand. There are others who want AAP to state its position clearly on the class divide, on workers’ rights, on Kashmir’s azadi, on nuclear energy and so on.

During the debate on the vote of confidence motion in the Delhi Assembly, the BJP leader Harsh Vardhan raked up AAP leader Prashant Bhushan’s statement (made quite some time ago) where Bhushan had expressed himself in favour of a referendum in Kashmir. Harsh Vardhan dared Kejriwal to defend his comrade. Kejriwal, the quintessential ‘post-ideological’ aam aadmi, refused to take the bait, much to the consternation of the ideology warriors. His speech was a brief— almost Gandhian— intervention that simply thanked everyone who spoke, for their constructive and non-constructive suggestions, and then went back to the set of issues that his government wants to take up. He concluded the speech with the brilliant one liner: “I am not here to ask you to vote for my government; vote if you agree with our practical programme.” It rattled the radicals no end. He should have, according to these ideologues/ ideologists, come out ‘boldly’ and taken a stand.

It is not an inconsequential matter that both the BJP and the radicals want AAP to go the same way. One can understand why Harsh Vardhan and BJP want Kejriwal to come out with their ‘ideological position’. For they know that between them, communalism and the Kashmir issue can achieve a polarization that will be entirely to BJP’s benefit. Once again the familiar divides will appear and once again, fire-spitting rhetoric will take centre-stage. Empty words will spew forth at high decibel levels and the concrete everyday matters that are now on top of the agenda will once again be brushed under the carpet.

But what about the radicals? Why do they want this scenario to be resurrected? The answer is simple: they have no stakes in anything except their own ‘purity’.

The demand essentially is that the AAP should be what ‘we’ always wanted to be, but could never be and never can. For the simple reason that ideology-warriors are good critics and nothing else. Rest assured that if Kejriwal and AAP were to follow their advice, they too would be reduced to the position occupied by such critics— that of mere spectators. In saying this, I am not for a moment suggesting that AAP and Kejriwal should therefore just go with the flow of things. There are two very serious issues involved here that have to do with what I shall term the ‘dialectic of efficacy’— one of these has to do with the logic of mass politics and the other with the logic of the party-form, both which call for a brief discussion.

First, the logic of mass politics. For a political formation that seeks to play a transformative role in any sense, it is of critical importance that it take the people along. For AAP to succumb to the demands of ideology and to ‘state its position’ in a ‘clear-cut’ fashion would be to reduce itself to complete ineffectivity, for the masses of people who are flocking towards it today are doing so precisely because its appeal is limited to ‘corruption’— which in the language of the street is the code for loot and plunder with the active connivance of the government. For the person on the street, this covers virtually everything that life is about. But the word is capacious enough to allow other meanings to be filled in as well, and that allows middle class people too, in large numbers to flock to it. Many of these people who come to it on this agenda and prioritize this agenda over others, could actually be with the BJP or the Congress if fault-lines were drawn differently and other matters were to come to the fore (as for instance in a secular/ communal polarization). Their coming to AAP does nothing to change all that. It is only the specific manner of formulation of the agenda that draws them to AAP. Start re-arranging them according to the demands of the ideology-warriors and they will start returning to their old grooves. 


If the transformative agenda has to be pushed and the new experiment in democratic politics is to fulfil its minimum promise of redrawing and re-ordering the limits of what ordinary people experience as the political, then the current momentum must be maintained. The most important part of this experiment is the fact that rank outsiders who speak the language of ordinary people have now taken charge, however temporarily. The beginnings of a new political culture are already becoming visible. For the first time in my memory, a government has openly challenged the might of the two biggest corporate houses— Tatas and Reliance— by demanding that they submit to a CAG audit or face a cancellation of their license. For the first time, the water tanker mafia that had close connections with the major political parties, has been taken on. This is unprecedented in a country where communist parties have ruled some states, in one case for three and a half decades continuously without taking on the really powerful. You don’t have to declare that you are radical and anti-capitalist to be able to take such daring steps; all you need— and the AAP government has shown this— is the guts to stand by the interests of ordinary people.

If this momentum has to be maintained, the government and Arvind Kejriwal will do well to leave rhetorical posturing to the ideology warriors and concentrate as they have been, on doing rather than saying. In the present context, it is of utmost importance that this process go forward, for that alone will initiate a process of change in thinking as far as ordinary people are concerned. New and different ways of doing things initiate different ways of thinking. As Lenin said, it is in moments of actual political turmoil that people learn in months, what they would in years in ordinary times.

But all this is not to say simply that all is well. These are also dangerous times for AAP. It stands at the point where the headiness of its successes combined with the inexperience of its ministers in Delhi, and its leadership more generally, can easily lead it astray.

This brings us to the second issue, the logic of the party-form. There will be pressures to compromise in a myriad ways, as there will be attempts to trap the leaders in situations where they, despite themselves, become embroiled in problematic decisions. It is also clear that within AAP, there are elements whose instinct is to take the more conservative position that goes with the so-called ‘national mainstream’ in matters like national security and nuclear energy. They will try and steer the party in that direction. I have long maintained in various articles and comments on Kafila and elsewhere that, at the root of our political miseries is the specific creation of the last century and a half— the political party. In the spate of contemporary movements across the globe— from the anti-corruption movement in India to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the USA to the indignados and across countries of the Arab world, it is the political parties that have been the target of attack. Political parties have been identified as being responsible for the hijacking of the democratic impulse and for the transformation of democracy to an arrangement in which the rule of capital is entrenched through what all the movements refer to as corruption, thievery and fraud.

This is not an isolated phenomenon in India. Political parties perform, on behalf of the state, the aggregative function of reconciling diverse interests and most often in a way that is favourable to capital and the more powerful interests. In countries like ours they are also entrusted with the ‘responsibility’ of ‘national security’— of rooting out ‘antinational’ forces. There is therefore, always a pressure on all political parties to mainstream themselves and become part of the ruling nationalist consensus. It is not surprising then that both the Congress and the BJP while attacking Prashant Bhushan and AAP on the Kashmir issue, underlined that AAP is no longer a movement engaged in activism or an NGO, but a political party proper. CPI (M) too, added to the criticism by stating that army deployment is a matter for government to decide, not the public.

Clearly, across the political spectrum, all parties are rattled by this new creature that insists on retaining elements of a movement-in-struggle— an identity that is meant to be dropped when you grow up and become a political party.

All these pressures will begin to tell on the party in different ways and resisting them will not be easy. At the moment, AAP embodies something that is a party and yet not one. And yet, it has been pitchforked into a position that demands increasingly that it become a full-fledged party. I am not very hopeful that it will be able to resist such demands for a very long time.

However, if there is one lesson that the twentieth century experience must teach us, then in my view it is that we must learn not to invest in political organizations as long term formations. If the current experience continues through the next election and is able to transform political discourse in some significant fashion, enabling fresh thinking on democracy and politics, it will have laid the ground for a longer term change in political culture as well. If AAP were to suddenly disappear after that into thin air, it will nevertheless have played its historic role.

Aditya Nigam is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). He blogs at Kafila where this piece first appeared

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