Mainstream, VOL LII No 5, January 25, 2014 - Republic Day Special
AAP in Perspective: Birth of the ‘New Alternative’
Tuesday 28 January 2014, by
As we stepped into 2014, India seemed prepared for a real socio-political leap forward. More significantly, this leap forward is characterised by one single word: Optimism. And this time this optimism is essentially anti-elitist, directed against the corrupt, opportunist, self-serving class that was dominating the scene since the 1990s. This optimism is still limited to the ‘common man’, that is, about 30 to 40 per cent of our people; but if the guardians of this ‘optimism’ do not falter badly, it will percolate down to the ‘invisible man’, that is, 50 per cent or more people living below or slightly above the subsistence line the consecutive governments so infamously flaunted as the ‘poverty line’.
We have entered 2014 with a New Alternative in the political arena. The New Alternative is different from all old, conventional parties in the sense that it has challenged the traditional mode of governance that had degenerated into a corrupt, elitist rule, and holds out the promise of harnessing the polity on to a real democratic track.
The Aam Aadmi Party, popularised as the AAP, has risen as the catalyst for, and for the time being is also the sole guardian of, this New Alternative in the political arena. But, it is just the first political party of this genre. In all likelihood, in a few years (or, could be decades as well) a number of political outfits spawned by this New Alternative will flesh out into a Front that will challenge the conventional parties. It is also to be noted that this New Alternative political force is a product of a New Alternative movement that was active earlier at different levels of the society. Now it has spilled over to the political arena, the real seat of power. It has assumed the peculiar characteristic of ‘snatching the initiative’. In other words, instead of compelling political parties to concede ground inch by inch, it has come up as a political alternative.
It is to be seen whether the New Alternative antithesis will radically change the polity by, say, 2025. If it does not—and that can happen if only the AAP starts compromising with the ruling ideas, that is, the ideas continuously thrown up by the self-serving elite through all forums including the big media houses they own—the forces of anarchy will be further strengthened. We must remember such mid-way compromises are common practice in power politics. The transition from the Hindu Code to a Common Civil Code for all, the desirability of which Nehru admitted, was never materialised. Again, Mandalisation has not opened up the real spectrum of social justice, as reservation for the Dalits and OBCs has not been extended to the private sector.
We are going to have a general election this year, and, as it seems, this election would be another milestone after 1989. The Lok Sabha polls of 1989 marked a definite departure from the old way of conservative politics. It was not fought on the Mandal Commission plank, but the events that followed—the onslaught of the communal Hinduites (then masquerading as Hindu chauvinists) vis-à-vis the Congress party’s greed for power—brought the Mandal report to the fore and became instrumental in its implementation. This social justice plank made way for the rise of the OBCs and also helped in fulfilling the aspirations of the Dalits (and consequentially has also developed an OBC elite, largely a brand of corrupt, criminal-dependent, and often debauch politicians at different levels of power).
The next twentyfive years since 1989 have been marked by the triumph of a negative political culture. The super-rich became all the more greedy and Manmohanomics provided them opportunities to grab all sorts of gains, many of which could have been legally questionable if not passed on as ‘policy-decisions’. Market, FDI and the US became the trinity of the new brazenness that had in its list of victims not only the Centrists, but also the dwarf Leftists that India now has (the Left Government of Bengal colluded with the big industrial houses and opened fire on the poor farmers who were resisting their forcible eviction). In the new millennium the Congress too shaped up, to the satisfaction of the elite, into a hardcore Rightist party. Sonia Gandhi gradually abdicated her earlier ‘protector-of-the-poor’ role. Manmohan Singh, a man never elected by the masses, was given a free hand to carry out the second-generation reforms (that is, reforms that directly rob the poor man to create opportunities of profit for the rich and the super-rich) like opening up retail, first for the Indian giants and then for FDI.
The elitisation of the polity hurt the Indian ethos deeply. Economically, a grand collusion between the elitist managers of administration and the industrialists opened up innumerable ways of plunder of national wealth and the tax-payers’ money while subjugating two-thirds of the people to the tyranny of inflation (a corollary of growth, they claim!) and oppressive designs, from eviction from land to opening up retail to the Indian and foreign giants. Politically, a class of parasites grew up and this class usurped a host of opportunities, from using red beacons to earning huge fortunes, and was armed with impunity. Socially, a conception that greed is good was woven into the minds of the people in the name of the market economy.
The AAP has come up as the people’s retaliation to this tyranny of collusive elitism that now exists at different levels of governance and business, from the Union Government level to the bloc level, encompassing politicians, administrators, police, the media, and professionals.
When V.P. Singh implemented the Mandal report, none of the bosses of major political forces of the day realised that Mandalisation, both of the polity and society, was inevitable. Rajiv Gandhi, the all-in-all of the Congress party, was no exception. Thus he presided over the semi-demise of the grand old party. From 1989 till date, the period during which seven general elections were held, the Congress never came close to the half-way mark that the party had crossed almost in every election held till 1989. The Congress era gave way to the coalition era. This time too, almost all the bosses of major political parties have failed to foresee the forces of socio-political change unfolding before their eyes. Oddly enough, Rahul Gandhi, the casual politician, has shown initial signs of under-standing the process that has started in the run-up to 2014. His supporting the AAP in Delhi, putting stress on the passage of the Lokpal Bill, bringing to the fore some other bills to prevent corruption in other fields of governance, and finally his condemnation of the Maharashtra Government’s refusal to accept the Adarsh probe committee report have made the old, elitist and amoral leaders of his party jittery. Even the fundamentalist Hindu party (they now love to say Hindu nationalist) BJP stayed away in the Delhi Assembly from the usual practice of cobbling up a majority when one is close to it. But it does not seem likely that the old parties will be able to change them to the standard of pro-majority parties. After all, very seldom in this country a party has ruled the country, or any State, being endorsed by at least half of the voters who visited the booths.
Recognising the Phenomenon
Certain events play themselves out resolutely, often triggering off so severe a sandstorm as to cloud our thoughts. At the moment the meteoric rise of the AAP has done just that. Fortunately this is a positive development, and a welcome departure from the past, nasty ways of politics. The AAP has not just come up as an alternative (like the BJP, which apart from its communal core is hardly different from the Congress), it has shaped itself up as a New Alternative. Unlike Narendra Modi it does not portray for itself an image of being a better Manmohan Singh; it wants to be different from Manmohan Singh. The new phenomenon called the AAP has appeared in the political arena with a promise of trans-parency in administration and politics. This implies every administrative compartment—policy-making, policy-implementation and regular routine deliverance jobs—will be made transparent. It is a huge, huge departure from the ways of politics and governance prevalent in the country.
Like Mandal, the AAP will lead to a certain situation that will be much, much wider than the AAP itself. It is not known whether Arvind Kejriwal or his mates will stand by their pre-election declarations even five years later. It is not known whether so many people increasingly veering around the party are all sensitive men and women, whether honest or dishonest, whether pro-majority or pro-elite. Some disturbing trends of political self-aggrandisement or defending reforms at the cost of the poor have become evident. It is also not known whether the grandeur of power will corrupt, or divide, this new political body. But, surely, the message it has delivered, the agenda it has brought forth, and the hope it has roused will outlive the AAP or its leaders.
What this new body promised that led the people of Delhi to vote for it, in spite of the confusion that a division of vote might bring back the Congress to power, was a dignified life. People voted for them to recover their dignity. The vast majority of people of this country wants a better life, hates to pay or accept bribe, and dreams of liberating themselves from the tyranny of the babus and the notorious force called the police (which, again, has many well-meaning people, more so at the lower strata). In other words, they seek a dignified life for themselves, and aspire to see the end of the high and mighty baddies. Almost all the mainstream parties, including those of the Left, have worked in the new millennium to rob them of their last vestiges of dignity. That is why, when the AAP promised a transparent government that is non-elitist and non-collusive, people came up to endorse the agenda enthusiastically.
And this new outfit that promised to give the people a dignified life was not based on family satraps or caste or religious bigotry. It was the symbol of alternative politics.
However, as a singular party, the AAP will have to face many, many tests in the near future.
The AAP has shown strong signs of satisfying the middle class. Whether it would be able to serve the poorest of the lot—the invisible people, that is, the tribal population, Dalits, the MBCs, the backward Muslims, and a minuscule section of the upper castes—all together half the population who mostly reside in remote areas and live on less than sixty rupees (a dollar)—is still open.
Many of the voters are with them because they feel the AAP is the right force to realise their dream of a new India. No one knows what the other man’s idea of this new, resurgent India is. Someone may be happy with industrialisation that cannot provide employment for even ten per cent people, and support eviction of the poor farmers. Someone will be happy if the essential subsidies for the poor are withdrawn and a new indirect subsidy for the industry (free infrastructure, land at very cheap rate that later can also be used for building flats, or exemptions from taxes) is introduced. Someone may think new India means beautification of the big cities (laying new footpaths and organising Commonwealth Games). The leaders of the New Alternative have to come clear on these issues. They will have to spell out a clear-cut economic policy. Industrialisation is a must, but it cannot be at the cost of the poor. Business has to prosper, but not by throwing out millions and millions of retailers and their suppliers. Subsidy for the poor is a necessity that is beyond any debate (those who debate the need for food to the hungry are followers of the devil). The AAP has to clarify their stand on all these points. However, we have some inkling into it as we hear Arvind Kejriwal daring the Tatas and Ambanis to leave power distribution if things do not suit them.
This, however, does not mean it has to be a monolithic party. It should not take diktats from one man, one family, or Nagpur. Dissent must be allowed. A democratic party should uphold, as Kumar Vishwas said in an interview (on Prashant Bhusan’s opinion on Kashmir), Voltaire’s concept of freedom of speech.
Kumar or Kejriwal—the ‘nationalists’ as Kumar has claimed—have proved they were quite off the mark as far as Kashmir is concerned. It became evident when the party distanced itself from Prashant Bhusan’s demand of holding a referendum in Kashmir on whether the Army should be there for internal security. It is something that will make most of the Indians sans Kashmiris happy, for the elite has taught them this to be the only way to rule Kashmir. Now, the need of the hour is to educate people about the risk of perpetuating colonial rule (in the form of the AFSPA and other things) in Kashmir, in Manipur, or in Bastar. Either these regions should provide to the inhabitants normal life that other Indian citizens enjoy, either the aam aadmi there should have equal rights on deciding their fate as a part of Indian democracy, or else the whole country will run the risk of facing a disaster. Any suggestion of perpetuating atrocities against such minorities is not ‘nationalism’, but just the opposite of that, a recipe for destroying our motherland. The AAP has, initially, failed to understand that these regions are integral parts of our country, and so the aam aadmi of these regions too are entitled to a dignified life. Anyway, as the AAP has failed them, one should look forward to see the rise of other New Alternative parties in J&K, in Bastar, in Manipur and so on.
In fact, educating the people should be an important agenda of the New Alternative political forces. The people who organise khap panchayats in Haryana and order the killing of any couple marrying within same gotra, or those of Madhyamgram (West Bengal) who abused a 16-year-old rape victim in such a way that she lost interest in life, may not be essentially bad people. They have not been taught what they do goes against humanity. A CM like Hooda will always support the khap mentality, for he needs votes. But the New Alternative political movements or parties need to go beyond this.
And then, the AAP or similar other New Alternative parties that may grow in future will have to respond to the grievances of the people directed against the industry and business (like, for example, abnormally high prices, which inevitably will come after grievances against government servants). Subsidising power is no solution; power discoms should be forced to price power at appropriate levels, without trying to earn super-normal profits.
As soon as the AAP will try that in case of all products, it will have to face the wrath of the media. The media, particularly the bigger ones, are neither neutral, nor value-driven. They are votaries of Manmohanomics, and most often have a hidden agenda (like supporting Modi and denigrating Rahul Gandhi) to buttress their unholy gains, and they raise those selected issues that will serve their purpose. In other words, they would show or write about insensitive actions of one party and its allies, but not much of its opponents. Facing this uninterrupted wrath of the media is quite a different ballgame. The wrath would be greater when the New Alternative parties will go farther to fulfil essential social justice agenda, like reservation of jobs in the private sector.
Again, they will have to solve a host of contradictions, for example, how to ensure complete change in the policing (stopping their extortion, wilful inaction and atrocities against the weaker people) while preventing anarchy. And they will do well to remember free or cheap water should be given to those for whom paying the price is a real burden, not to the others. The government earns revenue to protect the weak, not the moneyed class (as was being done by subsidising petrol that was used by the car-owners).
We cannot expect the AAP to fulfil all these requirements. But the AAP is just the first step towards that direction. It will not remain the only New Alternative political force, and wherever it will fall short, some other New Alternative force will take over. Surely so, because this New Alternative is the product of a long process that started more than two decades ago, and it will go on evolving in future as well.
Just another Leap Forward
While some radical change of socio-political reality through the New Alternative is inevitable, one has to remember nothing can start off with a sudden notion. The phenomenon called the AAP has come after a long process of purifying our democratic process.
As soon as the drift towards elitism began, positive forces started fighting it.
The course of our history could have been very different, and would have never come to this pass, if the only aam aadmi to adorn the chair of the Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, could rule the country for a long time. But before taking meaningful steps his life was cut short in Tashkent. Since then no aam aadmi ever rose to the highest seat of power. Those who became PM coming from a humble background, or those aspiring to become one, had or have records of misusing power for narrow selfish interest. It reduces them to a level so disdained by the aam aadmi.
Three decades after Lal Bahadur Shastri, the purification process was started by T.N. Seshan as the Chief Election Commissioner. He occupied that chair in 1990 and continued till 1996, the time when Manmohanomics and its corollary evils started unfolding. Seshan changed the role of the Election Commission, and those who followed him to that position had to carry on the tradition. At the same time, wide use of an instrument called PIL or public interest litigation (first used by Kapila Hingorani) obtained very favourable responses from the Supreme Court and went a long way to curb the whims and insensitivity of the Manmohanomics-era elites. The mid-day meal scheme is a glaring example of the SC’s positive intervention on behalf of the ‘invisible man’ who had and still has no voice. At the same time, many NGOs waged relentless struggles against elitism. And a few people played the role of whistle-blowers. Such interventions in the system spread the consciousness on the feasibility of getting justice of all kinds—social, economic and political.
V.P. Singh took the decision of implementing the Mandal report basically to fight the fire engulfing him. But it turned out to be a real shaker. It was a body-blow to social injustice that was the order of the day, and stoked up the aspirations of (an estimated) half the population known as the Other Backward Castes, and at the same helped the Dalits (the original Backwards) to scale a new height. It was the beginning of the end of higher caste domination over politics. This domination was being challenged by Lohia and his followers from the 1960s (though the history can be traced even half-a-century before that, for example, from the time of formation of the Triveni Sangh in Bihar). The period 1989-90 made this historical aspiration triumph over the forces of conservatism, and shaped up as the glasnost of the Indian socio-political scenario. Its economic dimension has started acquiring significance now, and will take a decade or two to become obvious.
Beyond Mandal, curbs and checks on the elite by the Supreme Court failed to impact the political culture. Instead the rot deepened. The Ministers, MPs and MLAs took themselves as masters of the people with a pliant bureaucracy and police ever ready to serve them in their evil pursuits, and gradually developed a political culture characterised by goondaism, nepotism, debauchery, appropriation and misuse of power (like using red beacons) to evoke fear in the minds of the people. Like the British colonial rulers, the political elite provided complete impunity unto themselves. Since 2004, a very honest Prime Minister presided over this (recall his last attempt to provide immunity to a politician convicted in the lower court) distortion, and India got the most corrupt government in the post-independence era.
This corruption, apart from breaking the laws or rules, was evident at the policy-making level. There are four facets of this amoral policy-making: (1) causing erosion of national wealth and the Union exchequer (like providing undue favours to different industrial barons, for example, giving telecom licence or coal blocks for a song); (2) giving away huge subsidy to the industry in various forms like land and tax exemptions, best exemplified by creation of a neo-zamindary called SEZ; (3) creating artificial needs to fill the coffers of the greedy (like wasting taxpayers’ money for merry-making like Commonwealth Games and beautification of Delhi); (4) robbing the common man of his last resort, through means like forcible eviction from land or allowing the corporate giants to enter retail business. All these encouraged the lower levels of government as such to dupe the people with projects like the Adarsh Society (infamously known as Kargil for profit), thus using the excuse of martyrs to give unto themselves undue favours. One beneficiary of this was Devyani Khobragade, whose alleged wrongdoing in the US was wholeheartedly supported by the Indian Government and the media in recent days.
Manmohan Singh too, during his last press meet, stooped so low as to claim that all corruption of UPA I did not matter any more as people had voted for UPA II. Earlier this argument was used by lowly politicians to wash off charges of crime or corruption. Now even a Prime Minister, one earlier known for his probity, is talking the same language!
Ten years of the Congress-led UPA rule clearly established that Indian ‘democracy’ has become a rule of the elite, by the elite and for the elite. Certain essential social security was being provided to hide the true character of governance. But much hullabaloo was raised over such measures that characterise all civilised welfare societies. It was an elitist design to show as though the underprivileged were being favoured in a unique way. In reality, it reinforced the fact that India under Manmohanomics has stooped so low as to believe an ideal society is a barbaric one ruled by the original sin.
The Lokpal movement, and the demand for a very strong Lokpal that we still do not have, symbolised the people’s revolt against all this. And the confidence that change can be brought about stemmed from the success stories provided to the people by the Supreme Court, Election Commission, NGOs and many other men and women.
While it is true that the AAP is just the first party of the New Alternative and may fail to deliver on many counts, what shape the polity will take in the near future under its impact? Like in the next couple of years? How much would the old parties change themselves to prevent the further rise of the AAP or AAP-like parties?
The BJP now stands as a party that wants to take the AAP and its ideas head-on. Being a Hindu communal party that has projected as the Prime Minister a man who rose as the hero of Gujarat only after genocide of the Muslims in 2002 (before that he was a little known person), it has no other choice. It owes its existence to the RSS, which stands as the antithesis of a secular civil society. Such a party has to find an Advani (the leader of the Babri mosque demolition movement) or a Modi to take a big leap forward whenever faced with an existential crisis. The elite and the media they run know this well, and yet the BJP has bought their allegiance by flaunting the Gujarat model. Though never spelled out in detail, this model is based entirely on the principles of Manmohanomics. Gujarat’s indifferent record of human development stands testimony to that. It had little chance of forming the next government even before the AAP’s emergence due to its core anti-Muslim posturing. Now, after the AAP’s emergence, ensuring 200 seats in the next Parliament will be a miracle for the party (I would consider it has done very well if its tally crosses 160), as it has already projected itself as a better follower of Manmohanomics than Manmohan Singh. That has sealed its fate.
Among the smaller political parties, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress have fought the elitist onslaught in a limited sphere. But they cannot be considered a part of the New Alternative for various reasons.
When V.P. Singh implemented the Mandal report, none of the bosses of the major political forces of the day realised that Mandalisation—of both the polity and society—was inevitable. Rajiv Gandhi, the all-in-all of the Congress party, was no exception. Instead of supporting the Mandal cause against the kamandulu politics of the BJP, he decided to go for realising his personal vendetta and voted against the VP Government. Thus he presided over the semi-demise of the grand old party. From 1989 till date, the period during which seven general elections were held, the Congress never came close to the half-way mark that earlier it crossed in almost every election. This time, Rahul Gandhi decided to support an AAP Government in Delhi. And he has started utilising the defeat (not so much of other States, but that of Delhi) as an opportunity to reorganise his party. It shows, unlike his much-praised father, Rahul has understood the phenomenon and is preparing to face the avalanche of change it has brought along. But two factors would block his path. First, his arrogant princely attitude, as evident from his claim after the defeat that he would take lessons from the AAP and would do a better job. He does not know that he, the casual politician, lacks the credibility Arvind Kejriwal has. This credibility crisis is likely to affect him severely as he was an admirer of Manmohan Singh and a supporter of FDI in retail trade. After all, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Secondly, his party, at least ninety per cent of it, will encumber his path even if he sincerely wishes to imitate the New Alternative course.
The AAP may get any number of seats—five or fifty—in the next election, But its leaders will do well to remember success at any point of time does not matter in a long struggle. V.P. Singh was scarcely a success in politics, but he was the only Prime Minister with the ability to change the socio-political course of our land. The elite would never award him a Bharat Ratna, though the long-term impact of his policy as a Prime Minister has only one parallel: Indira Gandhi, who made our eastern border Pakistan-free. Similarly, the road ahead is not smooth for the New Alternative in politics at this moment. The AAP or any other similar party of the future will have to be prepared for a long haul. Meanwhile, they must search for the rooted anomalies in the system, find out the severe shortcomings of the colonial mould of Indian administration and governance, and make explicit in their documents the alternative they suggest. The AAP should utilise their stint in power in Delhi to see things from the inside. After all, every opportunity is a challenge, and every challenge is an opportunity.
Diptendra Raychaudhuri is an author-journalist, now based in Kolkata. He can be contacted at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org