January 17, 2021
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Wrestling With The Snake

AAP's leadership has shown exemplary courage in its choice of representatives. Consider the troika of Medha Patkar, Soni Sori and S.P. Udayakumar...

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Wrestling With The Snake
Wrestling With The Snake

During the early decades of Indian independence, Western observers had often predicted the imminent collapse of India's bold democratic experiment. While the political scientist Selig Harrison averred that India was going through 'dangerous decades' that would trump its democracy, the journalist lately in the news, Neville Maxwell, exclaimed with rank certitude that the general elections of 1967 were, surely, going to be the last one. While such pat declamations are a thing of the past, it can hardly be argued that all is well with our democracy. Although India may be distinguished from its neighbours by its ability to conduct regular elections, of late the Indian voter has been presented with a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Indeed, India's democratic ideals are under severe threat from the votaries of abhorrent communalism on the one hand and spectacularly corrupt 'secularists' on the other.

The political history of modern India has always posed problems for those attempting to theorise the desiderata of a democracy. On many counts, India's internalisation of the democratic principle (if not its true practice) cannot be explained in terms of Western political theory. If our natural adoption of universal adult franchise was a legacy of India's fight for freedom, the struggle against British rule also bequeathed us a vital tradition of civic and social engagement with political practice. It was as early as 1951 that Acharya Kripalani left the Indian National Congress to found the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party. Thereby, Kripalani sought to remind his erstwhile comrades of the fundamental values that animated India's struggle for political and social emancipation. Almost a quarter century later, when Indira Gandhi subverted Indian democracy, she was decisively challenged by that towering figure of modern India, Jayaprakash Narayan, through the Janata experiment.

Straddling the period of colonial rule and the early decades of independent Indian life, JP was the last of India's generation of freedom fighters to command moral and political authority across the country. Although we do not have anywhere close to a larger-than-life figure like JP in Indian public life today, we may nevertheless read events in recent years as belonging to this lineage of external correctives applied whenever our political system goes awry. In this light, the demand for public accountability that was inaugurated by Anna Hazare's fast may be reckoned as the most significant 'moral moment' in Indian politics in the past four decades. The subsequent emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is a salutary reminder of India's capacity for a degree of self-correction.

Hazare and the founders of AAP may have parted ways, but together they have broken the stranglehold that mainstream politicians have had on the public discourse. Back in 2011, in the face of intense public pressure, the ruling dispensation of the UPA sought to stall against the demand for a Lokpal Bill. This was achieved to a significant extent by a cunning 'sense of the House' resolution that was piloted by the current First Citizen of India. But the extraordinary public mobilisation witnessed during the Ramlila maidan protests and widespread disillusionment with the current political class seemed to present an opportunity of a lifetime to many involved in leading the agitation for a Lokpal. In founding the Aam Aadmi Party, Arvind Kejriwal and his colleagues were driven by an unusual political instinct that was nothing short of chutzpah. While sympathetic, many, this writer included, were sceptical of AAP's ability to transform the political system. But the stunning results of the Delhi elections and the subsequent rise of AAP in the nationwide public imagination has laid rest to these doubts for now. Indeed, as the cliché goes, nothing succeeds like success.

In previous Lok Sabha elections a variety of political formations consisting of civil society organisations and activist groups had tried to enter mainstream politics. These attempts hardly impinged on the wider public conscience and remained an important but symbolic protest against the venality of India's political parties. While the AAP also grew out of the same fertile ground of civic and social activism, it crafted an entirely novel pathway to political relevance. In taking on the challenge of building a party with no significant human or financial resources, the first step by AAP's leaders was to throw conventional wisdom out of the window and trust their instincts. Thus, instead of attempting to slowly and laboriously bootstrap a party up from the grassroots, AAP appears to have chosen a high stakes gamble in rapidly growing as a national party. However, its success is not merely a result of sheer audacity but has been engendered by a combination of choices and practices that were ingeniously crafted in a context of high pressure and adversarial public scrutiny.

In the first instance, although many in the AAP leadership belong to a long-standing community of social and political activists, they have often refused to undergo the tests of political virtue that sections of the media as well as many progressive intellectuals have sought to administer. Consider the manner in which the furore over the Khirki incident and the position on khap panchayats was dealt with. Having arisen from an amorphous and contingent coalition of widely differing opinions, the politics and practices of individuals within the party reflects a problematic diversity. But whatever their internal differences and personal views may be on many issues, the AAP leaders have chosen to weather the storm of criticism rather than allow outsiders to dictate the norms of acceptability within the party. While this has left many of the commentariat and fellow-travellers deeply dissatisfied, the AAP as a broad coalition of interests has held for now. In this it is reminiscent of the pre-1946 Indian National Congress that was a capacious tent capable of accommodating a spectrum of political opinions and competing interests.

The second crucial position is on corruption and crony capitalism. Many writers have argued that corruption was an epiphenomenon and sought to disabuse AAP's leaders of their naïveté. But Kejriwal and his cohort have recognised that theoretical formulations apart, for millions of ordinary people, corruption is a very tangible problem that needs redress. By their insistence on this fact, AAP's leaders have cut through layers of unedifying and obfuscating political economy arguments to put their finger on a fundamental ailment that afflicts every aspect of Indian life.

At the same time, publicly naming and shaming the plenipotentiary Mukesh Ambani was a bold and laudable move. Indeed, it won the grudging respect of many of AAP's inveterate critics. However, with a brilliant sense for the dramatic, Kejriwal went many steps further with his stormtrooper foray into Gujarat. While many opposed to the politics and prejudices of the BJP's prime-ministerial aspirant have attempted to unmask him through derision, it was Kejriwal who dealt a severe blow to the image and discourse on development assiduously cultivated by Narendra Modi. And through the contest in Varanasi, the battle for the right to shape the future of Indian politics has been well and truly joined.

It has been a long standing conceit that progressive values were the prerogative of the liberals or leftists who demand their articulation in terms of a predefined vocabulary and politically correct positions. It is therefore unsurprising that the CPI(M)'s Prakash Karat accuses the AAP of being neo-liberals masquerading behind a non-ideological mishmash of policies. But what is missed in this bilious characterisation is that the AAP's dramatic confrontation of both Ambani and Modi has done more to clarify its ideological position than the pious declarations demanded of it. A strategic dimension in AAP's attack on Modi's claims for the 'Gujarat model of development' was that Kejriwal did not challenge the fundamental assumptions about the meaning of development. Instead, he critiqued Modi with stunning effect by relentlessly pointing to the fact that the emperor had no clothes.

This simplified discourse should not lead us to believe that the Aam Aadmi Party does not have a position on the larger question of the constituents of human development and the means to achieve it. The answer, yet again, is presented through its practice rather than precept. Thus, the third and perhaps most important move by AAP has been its drafting of many well-known social activists into contesting elections. Amongst the many public figures who have donned the Gandhi cap and are wielding the broom in the run-up to the elections, consider the troika of Medha Patkar, Soni Sori and S.P. Udayakumar who are AAP candidates for seats in Mumbai, Bastar and Kanyakumari respectively. As a pioneering anti-dam activist and an unyielding advocate of the rights of the poor and dispossessed, Patkar has been a bête noire of the establishment for decades. In the process, she has visibly challenged the conventional understanding of development that adversely affects both people and the environment. Accused of being a conduit for the Maoists in Chattisgarh, Sori has been a victim of brutal police torture and is a brave representative of Bastar's Advisasis who are caught in the crossfire between the state and the Maoists. For his part, Udayakumar has emerged as the leader of a poignantly non-violent protest by Tamil Nadu's fishing communities affected by a nuclear power plant at Kudankulam.

In extending a friendly and honourable hand to these and other representatives of many poor and oppressed communities under siege by India's scramble for growth and development, AAP's leadership has shown exemplary courage. There was a time when Patkar was vilified in Gujarat and elsewhere as a conspirator against India's economic progress. In more recent times, Udayakumar has been attacked as an agent provocateur against the state and has had charges of sedition slapped against him. And in the Orwellian world that is Chattisgarh today, any imputed association with the Maoists is enough to damn one in urban Indian eyes. Therefore, there cannot be a sharper challenge posed to the received wisdom on development than these three candidates.

Arguably, more than taking on the political establishment and powerful capitalists, it is AAP's willingness to stake its popularity— and middle-class votes— by fielding Patkar, Sori and Udayakumar that is indicative of the truly radical potential of the newest entrant into India's political arena. Indeed, it is rather remarkable that a Patkar or an Udayakumar has not raised the hackles of middle class votaries of the party. Perhaps it is this new turn of events that worries the establishment. One may recognise this discomfiture in the Congress aspirant Nandan Nilekani's characterisation of AAP as a party with ''agitational DNA''. It was better, he claimed, ''to work with the system''. Presumably the irony of his admonishment is lost on Mr Nilekani, considering that his party claims to be the same one that filled colonial jails in the cause of Indian freedom, instead of working the legislatures that the British designed for us.

Many in the Aam Aadmi Party have spent a lifetime doggedly fighting for the public good. If they have now entered electoral politics, perhaps they are reprising what Mahatma Gandhi memorably wrote in 1920 :

"If I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircle us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake."

But Gandhi also most keenly recognised both the potential and pitfalls of political power and always sought to yoke it to social and economic transformation. Throughout his public life, Gandhi personally embodied this dialectic between mass politics and the constructive work programme, thereby advancing the commonweal. With his death in 1948, this link was sundered to the detriment of both.

Given the nature of its birth and rapid expansion, the AAP is as yet a work in progress. This is bound to create serious challenges for AAP in the future. At the same time, it is no one's remit to claim that all its positions are fully acceptable. However, cracking open the carapace of middle-class complacence and cynicism is a worthy enough contribution of a fledgling outfit. More importantly, through its espousal of many righteous causes as symbolised by its electoral candidates, the Aam Aadmi Party has taken the first steps in once again establishing the essential relationship between the political and social spheres of our lives. When the dust settles on the world's largest electoral exercise on May 16th, the far greater challenge of forging a new idiom of politics and social change begins. Will it be up to the task ?

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