The AAP(rising) – The Changing Contours of Politics in India
Prashant Negi is Assistant Professor, Dr. K. R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies and Programme on Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be contacted at negiprashant[at]gmail.com.
The Aam Admi Party (hereafter AAP), an offshoot of the Jan Lokpal Andolan, was formally launched by its leader Arvind Kejriwal on the 26th of November 2012. Prior to its foray into politics, much of the support it gained was mobilized around issues of corruption in governance.
Accentuating that its entry into politics was to ensure formulation and implementation of a strong anti-graft bill and appointment of an independent ombudsman to prosecute politicians and civil servants suspected of corruption, the party simultaneously, emphasized the need for systemic change from within and creation of a sustainable and institutionalized mechanism for distributive justice and inclusive growth.
Also, symbolism, it seems, has been an integral part of the AAP’s political strategy. Not to imply that other political parties are bereft of such allegories; the AAP’s symbolism seems to have caught widespread imagination. Whether it is their name, party symbol, date chosen for formal launch and the place of launch, everything seems to be positioned around the core values they confess to represent. Theoretically, it would be safe to assume that the AAP’s political strategy emanates from experiential learning (most of its noticeable leaders are grassroots activists and public intellectuals) and is at the same time, accommodative and perceptive.
Take for instance, the very process of it being branded as the ‘Aam Admi Party’ (Common Mans Party) clearly demonstrates the secular, socialist and progressive credentials of the party, making it apparent that its political positioning is left centrist. Second, the process (of naming) seems to have impacted building of an evocative relationship with the ideology and core constituency the party represents without having to necessarily describe it. The connection then is rather instantaneous and growing, especially if the recent numbers of people joining the party and their backgrounds are to be considered. Third, the extendibility of the relationship seems to be devoid of any ascriptive and structural features (of caste, class, religion, region, ethnicity, culture or language) – ensuring that the relationship is inclusive and based upon fairness of treatment. Forth, the lack of descriptiveness in the process of naming will only be beneficial to the party as it can easily adapt to changing political circumstances and be more flexible over time.
Correspondingly, the generic and reserved symbol of the party, the ‘Jhaddu’ (broom), though ubiquitous, is largely considered unassuming and normatively regarded as powerless. The party maintains that its symbol represents ‘dignity of labour’ and will sweep away the ‘filth of corruption’ from governance besides of course, adding that along with it will be swept away contending political ideologies and political parties. Interestingly, the AAP by a simple act of selecting its symbol seems to have unambiguously suggested that the process of inclusion in the party is based on principles of egalitarianism and individual inclination. The analogy therefore is manifest and rather straightforward – the core constituency that the party represents is that of the common women and men of India and the ideology that it characterizes is that of political decentralization and democratic participation with increased accountability and transparency (read the manifesto of the party for further details).
The date of its foundation, the 26th of November too is rather significant as on this very day, 63 years ago, the Constitution of India was formally adopted. The date commemorates ‘Purna Swaraj’ (complete self-rule) from the British and for the AAP, it implies that “people of this country [are] redeeming a pledge why [they] fought for the country and the kind of India [they] wanted”. Naturally, such a selection has historical connotations and contemporary overtones. In their effort to build anew a social order, the AAP attempted to juxtapose an important historical event in the past, the universal conception of which invokes images of morality and ethics in public life.
Further, the place where the AAP was launched, Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, has been a designated place for all kinds of protests. This was the place where Anna Hazare and India Against Corruption had initially mobilized public opinion and later catapulted the anti-graft movement led by Kejriwal into a political party.
Linguistic symbolism too was not lost to the AAP. The manner in which the politics of the AAP was articulated and debated brought the common person right at the core of the discourse. To begin with, it was contended that the mainstream political parties had left the common man to his fate. Thereupon, an entirely novel discourse was created whereby the AAP was not just working for the common man (rhetorically similar to other political parties), but was a party attempting to bring political power “back into the people’s hands”.
Also, the AAP claims to follow a bottom-up approach in its organizational structure whereby council members elect executive body and also have the powers to recall it. While being criticized as ‘gimmical’, the party ensured that its candidates were initially screened for criminal records and proven corruption charges and then selected by a democratic process decentralized to the very constituency they were contesting from; shunned usage of VIP culture be it red beacons, security or government housing; pledged full financial transparency, whereby details of each donation could be publically assessed on the party’s website; promised scrutiny of each member by constituting an internal Lokpal etc.
These symbols captured the imagination of the common and not so common women and men across the nation and especially so in Delhi. So much so that the fledgling year old party, touted as consisting of ‘mango people’ routed the mainstream Congress in 2013 Delhi assembly elections. Incidentally, the then incumbent Chief Minister, Sheila Dixit, who lost to Kejriwal by a margin of over 25,864 votes, had dismissed the party with condescension that “My reaction to the Aam Admi Party (AAP) is nothing”. “Absolutely nothing”.
The AAP, which was considered to be a novice of sorts in politics and much berated prior to the Delhi Assembly elections went on to win 28 seats, relegating Congress to a poor third. The only parallel in the Indian politics of a similar electoral success has been drawn with the phenomenal political victories of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Telegu Desam Party (TDP). Even the most vociferous detractors of AAP find it hard to contend that its achievements were less than a political coup. Whether it was their strategy of juxtapositioning the ‘aam admi’ at the core of their political discourse or whether it was the angst of the faceless status quoist common person, which enabled catapulting the party into mainstream is difficult to clearly establish. There are others who argue that it’s rather presumptuous to believe that the assorted formulae that AAP has brought in demonstrates political acumen. What is sufficiently clear is that the political discourse in Delhi has changed the manner in which politics in India is conceptualized, articulated and delivered for times to come.
There are however issues of concern. The AAP decries ‘dynastic politics’ and ‘elitism’ within the political system and has even promised enactment of the ‘Right to Reject’ any candidate. To what extent it will be possible for it to do so remains to be seen. Further, prominent feminist activists like Kamla Bhasin have slammed the AAP as being anything other than gender-neutral; the party maintains that it is “fully committed to the principles of gender equity and will represent women at all levels of party organization”. The issue no longer is of gender equity, as the debate has extended to gender mainstreaming. A political party delineating itself with adjectives such as progressive and different obviously needs to realize this. The midnight raid at Khirki village in South Delhi is a case in point. Possibly, the AAP could begin from clarifying whether its acronym (AAP) is a gender-neutral term and whether its expansion into English to the ‘Common Mans Party’ is simply lost to translation. This is in all probability, a nomenclature and translation related confusion. Nevertheless, it is as important for the AAP to clarify, as is delineating its gender justice strategy in detail.
Equally important is for the party to clarify its position on social justice, particularly on reservations. Earlier, some of its leaders had spoken at public meetings organized by Youth for Equality (YFE), which created a perception of the party supporting an anti-reservation ideology. After being widely criticized, Yogendra Yadav came out with a clarification that the party now has more ‘clarity’ on issues of caste and reservation and that it supports quotas for the SC/STs and the OBCs. Recognizing that caste discrimination in India is widespread, he emphasized on the need to address discrimination based on gender and class and added that the party will fight for additional quotas for lower castes, women and economically backward.
Additionally, the membership of the party has grown exponentially with a potpourri of activists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, media people and other professionals. Obviously, with such a wide landscape, the party opened itself to being criticized as being bereft of an ideology. On the other side of the spectrum is the fact that by being ‘plural’, the party not only reached out to people who otherwise wanted to be a part of the change but could not do so due to ideological differences and also because other political parties were simply exclusionary in that regard. How often has one read about ‘circulation of elites’ and perpetuation of power at the cost of hardworking party members. Some of the prominent people that joined the AAP post its electoral victory include Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy, Captain Gopinath, Ashutosh, Meera Sanyal, Sameer Nair, V. Balakrishnan, Kanubhai Kalsaria, Alka Lamba, H. S. Phoolka, Adarsh Shastri, Mallika Sarabhai, etc. With an expansion in the human capital of the party, came in additional criticism. At the same time, the prominent citizens with acknowledged social, cultural, economic and political capital joining the party as primary members were censured as ‘opportunists’. Contextualized to the debate, this can be analyzed from an alternative perspective. Most in this so-called ‘prominent group’ are not ideologically similar; in fact some represent a rather diverse continuum. However, the group can hardly be criticized for not being homogeneous in terms of how individuals comprising it have proven track records of probity in public life. Perhaps, for most, the party provided a platform wherein they found an extension of the values they stood for – those of social transformation.
Post-elections, the AAP formed a minority government in Delhi with Kejriwal as the youngest Chief Minister at 45 years of age. After assuming office, the AAP delivered certain key decisions within 15 days of assuming power. Be it water or electricity, populism seemed to be a new high in governance. Occupying the center stage brought increased scrutiny to the AAP government, not just from within the political class but outside it. Its policies were ridiculed as ‘populist’ and after the infamous incidents of two of its Ministers allegedly partaking in illegal activism and raids; some even termed the party as being ‘anarchist’.
The pivotal position that the party occupied pre-elections was not lost to it. Whether it was unjestful jokes by Kumar Vishwas (which he is purported to have made before joining the AAP), Bhushan’s views on Kashmir and Telangana, the ‘Bharti/Birla raids’, subsequent protests at Rail Bhawan or the utterances against prominent leaders by Bharti, the party was in the center stage, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
Not only was there a loss of political advantage, the party simultaneously opened itself to unnecessary criticism. The fact that the government had taken up serious issues and even delivered on them was not lost to the people. But a perception had also taken root that for almost everything the ‘common man’ was being invoked and that leadership was being devolved rather than being institutionalized.
With the AAP making its intentions apparent to contest “maximum number of seats” in the April-May Lok Sahba polls, the political scenario has further heated up. The 2014 general elections are being considered as vital by psephologists and appropriately so. It is also being widely argued that the outside support that was extended by the Congress (I) party to the AAP might be withdrawn post-Lok Sabha elections and it was extended in the first place to deny the party any political advantage in the ensuing general elections.
Whether the political fortunes of the AAP will continue to rise or whether they will be delayed beyond redemption are not the questions that one needs to ask. More important is to observe how the hopes and aspirations of millions of ordinary people who believe that democracy and politics can create a just society are answered by their faith in the AAP, irrespective of an expansion or erosion in its political base. It will also be interesting to observe whether the party continues to adopt its existing distinctive, if not radical, political ideology and approach of delivering governance in the event of adverse electoral outcome in the general elections.