Mainstream, VOL LIII No 34 August 15, 2015
Quest for Alternative Politics: First 100 days of Swaraj Abhiyan
Saturday 15 August 2015, by
Independence Day is the annual occasion of remembering the ideals and events of our freedom struggle. It gives the opportunity of assessing the successes and failures in realising the vision of Swaraj which evolved during the national movement since the days of Tilak, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi, Nehru, Subhas and Ambedkar. From this point of view, 2015 has been an interesting year in the democratic journey of India around the goals of Swaraj. There were interesting developments about political alternatives as well as alternative politics.
It was the year which marked the completion of the first year of Narendra Modi-led NDA Government at the Centre as a durable alternative to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). It is another matter that it has experienced rapid erosion of popularity with several controversial moves in the fields of economy [high prices of essential items of daily consumption, Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill], politics [new legitimacy of communal politicians among Hindus and Muslims, OROP (one rank, one pension) protest by ex-Servicemen], and education (growing grip of the RSS over Central institutions of higher studies, and distortions by commercial interests in the arena of school education about economically weaker sections’ children). The Opposition parties were also found to be engaged in re-inventing themselves as the Congress did. It was also the year of the 40th anniversary of the Emergency which generated serious self-assessment by the nation about the strengths and weaknesses of our democratic structure.
At another level, it was the year of the second coming to power of the Aam Adami Party (AAP) in Delhi with near absolute victory (67/70) in the Vidhan Sabha elections. The people of Delhi shocked the Modi-Shah and Sonia-Manmohan teams by decisively voting against them. It was a huge setback for the Modi-led BJP as they had swept only a few months ago the Lok Sabha elections winning all the seven seats of Delhi with convincing margins. The significance of this change was further compounded by two episodes — i) there was baffling purging of some of the founder leaders of the AAP for ‘anti-party activities’ on the insistence of Arvind Kejriwal; and ii) birth of the Swaraj Abhiyan in mid-April as a new national political platform of alternative politics at the initiative of ‘the victims of purging’ and their supporters beyond the framework of the AAP.
There are enough media reports about the NDA in power at the Centre and AAP in the Delhi State. Both are functioning as strong political alternatives with their share of appreciation and criticism. But there is little known about the activities of seekers of alternative politics through the Swaraj Abhiyan. What have they tried in the first hundred days in their quest for alternative politics? Are they reaching anywhere beyond the labelling by the media as ‘expelled AAP leaders’ and ‘AAP rebels’? Is there any reconciliation being worked out between the idealists and the pragmatists as hinted by media reports about Annaji’s advice and statements of Arvind Kejriwal or have they gone in two divergent paths of politics?
It is true that it has a very low media profile at present due to the deliberate policy of not entering into controversies with the AAP or about the AAP in the media spaces. It has created an illusion of passivity and withdrawal for media observers. But there is a different reality on the ground. There is adoption of a new programme of political mobilisation which has emerged through a series of 21 zonal and State level Swaraj Samvad held between May and July. They have covered all States except the North-East provinces. It has formed a National Steering Committee and a National Working Committee with represen-tation from 16 States. They include several members of the AAP National Executive and National Council apart from a number of other eminent social activists and campaign leaders. They have adopted a new Constitution and are now in the process of membership till September 30 to be followed by organisational elections from January 2016.
It has underlined four focal points for collective mobilisation and intervention in the coming months—the kisan question through the Jai Kisan Andolan, issue of communal harmony (creation of a network of pro-active Aman Committees), the need for a national anti-corruption forum to promote active citizenship through the RTI and PIL, and problem of educational discrimination and mismanagement (Shiksha Swaraj). It has put a draft document for national consultation titled ‘New Agenda for India’ covering nearly all major challenges before the nation. It is also proposed to create a string of social service-cum-awareness and leadership-building centres called Swaraj Kendras at Ward and Panchayat levels.
The Jai Kisan Andolan has been given top priority by the Swaraj Abhiyan with ‘nearly ninety per cent of their energy and resources in it’. The mobilisation has been organised around a three-point agenda: 1. withdraw the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill; 2. make law for guaranteeing minimum income for the kisan households; and 3. rationalise the crop damage-related compensation system. There is a task force, headed by Prof Yogendra Yadav, active since May 2015. It is significant that the Swaraj Abhiyan was invited to make a presentation about its objections regarding the controversial Land Bill by the Joint Parliamentary Committee headed by S.S. Ahluwalia. It also served a public notice to Prime Minister Modi about illegal persistence of a Race Course Club across the PM’s house on public land. It has demanded getting the land vacated by the private club and converted into a place for a Kisan Memorial and a Kisan Haat. The invitation of the Jai Kisan Andolan has received positive response from more than 50 kisan organisations which agreed to come together for a Kisan Rally before Parliament on August 10 in support of a 13-point charter of demands. It has also undertaken a national Kisan Tractor Yatra covering the Green Revolution zone of India—Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and Delhi. It began on August 1 from Khetriwal village of Barnala in Punjab to converge with the August 10 Kisan Rally at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. They have also collected soil from fields of villages and brought Kalash to Delhi for a Kisan Memorial.
The communalisation of the political discourse and cultural spaces is a cause of constructive initiatives by the Swaraj Abhiyan in response to the increasing efforts of creating mistrust and conflicts among Hindus and Muslims—the two major faith communities of India. Gujarat, Maharashtra, UP, Rajasthan and Haryana seem to be more sensitive about it than other States. Most of these States are under the BJP-run administrations. The Atali episode of Vallabhgarh in Haryana saw the first active effort for justice-based reconciliation by the Swaraj Abhiyan. Ch. Ramjan, Prashant Bhushan, Dr Ajit Jha, Hema Badhwar, and Adil Mohammed are among the key activists engaged in conceptualising and initiating the Aman Committee work.
It has organised a convention of students, teachers, and concerned citizens at Allahabad on May 16 under the banner of Shiksha Swaraj. The issue of education has been taken up for urgent attention as there are several unhealthy develop-ments, including corruption and political interference, in school education, university management, and research activities. It is also supporting the agitations of civil service aspirants against malpractices at the level of public service commissions and other recruitment agencies including Vyapam in Madhya Pradesh and Public Service Commission in UP. A legal expert and former student union leader of the BHU, Dr Umesh Singh, has taken the task of coordination with active support from anti-corruption crusaders and academicians.
The formation of the AAP out of the India Against Corruption (IAC) had disrupted the RTI activists’ platform in several ways between October and November, 2012. A team led by eminent PIL lawyer and one of the prime movers of the Swaraj Abhiyan, Prashant Bhushan, has been assigned the responsibility of identifying resource persons, particularly lawyers and RTI activists, for creating an All-India Anti-Corruption Forum to promote citizen activism against corruption through the RTI and PIL. It is going to be initiated by the Swaraj Abhiyan as an independent forum of RTI activists so that it is immune from political diversities and disorientations in future.
It has also initiated the process of establishment of Swaraj Kendras at the local level to function as hubs of constructive, mobilisational and organisational activities. These Kendras have been conceptualised as centres of character-building among the volunteers. These will function as sites of counselling and social service for the needy and citizenship and leadership-building among the marginals. It has to also function to promote convergence of concerned citizens and a site of public dialogue. It wants to break the ‘election machine’-model prevailing among most of the political parties and promote ‘public sphere’-like spaces. The aim is to set up 272 such Swaraj Kendras in Delhi so that there is one such centre in each ward in the near future.
It seems that the kisan question has given the Swaraj Abhiyan activists a new space and identity. The Jai Kisan Andolan has attracted the attention of kisan activists who were otherwise quite fragmented and pessimistic. Similarly there is a wave of new initiatives among the erstwhile AAP activists who were quite disenchanted with the Delhi-centric approach of the AAP and supremo-like functioning of some of its key leaders. They have found a new basis for local and regional initiatives about the people’s concerns. But all is not smooth and easy. So what are the present challenges before the activists of alternative politics under the banner of the Swaraj Abhiyan?
First of all, there is crisis of confidence about the future of the new initiative due to the deep disappointment with the decline of the AAP. There was an evident drift towards opportunism in order to win the Delhi elections. This has caused a huge trust deficit. The individual credibility of many of the prime movers is being offered as a guarantee for a different future. This is working to some extent. But it has to be based upon the institutional aspects of the Swaraj Abhiyan which are at best in the making.
The second question before us is about the right way to have membership, volunteers and leadership-building. Is there any virtue in having two classes of membership—general and active? What are the options about training members for alternative politics and sustain their commitment in an atmosphere of political opportunism, power-manipulation, and patron-client networks? What will be the basis of engaging and sustaining persons as full-time volunteers? Alternative politics cannot afford to have the models from the routine mass parties or cadre-based parties which are mostly failed models. Can alternative politics be sustained by part-time volunteers only? If not, then how to arrange resources for the full-timers and for how long—honorarium, fellowship, maintenance stipend, etc. etc.?
Then, there is pressure from the sympathisers, not so much from the activists, to convert it soon into a regular political party with preparations for future elections. It is more obvious in States which are approaching elections of their State Assemblies or local self-government bodies. It is being argued that a non-electoral political platform will be too amorphous for creating a social base. It is better to grow roots in the political field through alternative ways of agenda-setting, manifesto-preparation, candidate-selection, election campaign, transparent resource mobilisation and constituency-nurturing. Election is a mass democratic process which cannot be ignored or neglected. But there has to be a foolproof system of preventing it from becoming the central purpose of alternative politics. What can it be? More homework is needed for it.
The Swaraj Abhiyan has made quite a journey in the first 100 days without any major lapses or problems. It has established a viable national team of like-minded activists with time-tested credibility and commitment. There is a structuring of responsibilities and roles with a pro-active communication network. It has created a new orientation through the Jai Kisan Andolan work. The bonds of trust among the founders have grown stronger with unity of purpose.
It has definitely expanded beyond the frontiers of the AAP. It has also retained the reputation of being an initiative of idealists among the anti-corruption crusaders. The presentation of a new ‘agenda for India’ draft is not an ordinary break- through in these times of power politics. The first moves about the kisan crisis, communal harmony, anti-corruption forum, Shiksha Swaraj and Swaraj Kendra have found reception among the concerned citizens, interest groups and communities. The fianancial self-sufficiency and evolving a volunteer base are two sources of satisfaction even if there is publicity-deficit and pressure of power tactics. Furthermore, there are some more barriers to be crossed in terms of organisation-building and promises to be fulfilled before it can be claimed that there is a durable platform of alternative politics. The Abhiyan protagonists have found the way but are not quite there.
The author, who retired as a Professor of Sociology from the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, was a founding member of the Aam Aadmi Party and was expelled by the AAP leadership including Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal from the National Excutive of the AAP along with several others in the recent past. He has since joined other expelled AAP members in launching the Swaraj Abhiyan of which he is the National Convener. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org