The origins of AAP
The spectacular success of the Aam Admi Party in the recently concluded Delhi Assembly Election has opened floodgates of appreciative hyperbole for it in the national media in India.
The party was born out of an apolitical and popular anti-corruption movement which is better than parties born out of tea ensembles. It was created by a faction that felt a political formation is needed to enforce its ideas of fighting graft. There was a bit of schism within the movement; there were some who felt this faction was opportunistic and was degrading the high pedestal that the aspiration for power should not be allowed to pollute. But the beauty of democracy is that political ideas are judged only by the number of votes it can win and, therefore, at least the current Aam Aadmi Party definitely represents the more sensible faction of that movement.
The event of formation of AAP itself challenges the roots of the spirit of high moral ground of Non Governmental sector enterprises, particularly in developing countries. Here was a formation which started away from politics, much with the spirit of unaccountable do-gooders, but felt they needed to dirty their hands in administration and get into the rhetorical slugfest in the arena of politics. They felt they actually needed a political programme which is refreshing in an era when politics is shaped by the media, who are not really direct participants.
Personally, my admiration for this party starts there but very nearly ends there as well, simply because, in my view, they are trying to popularise a notion that you do not need to be political in order to govern a country, as vast and diverse and unequal as India. As if, being honest and transparent about administrative action is enough and as if there is no such thing like politics of administration.
Anna Hazare is a Gandhian who was the inspiration behind this anti-corruption movement which demanded for Lok Pal bill in parliament. Lok Pal is designed to set up an administrative/ legal ombudsman and other modalities of vigilance on officials but with the assumption that the current vigilance processes are inadequate particularly in terms of speed of resolution and independence of decision-making.
A few words about the background of Shri Hazare won’t be inappropriate for those who have not followed his achievements in rural Maharashtra. In Ralegan Siddhi, he pioneered water conservation schemes and various other self-help and education schemes but gained fame by his anti-alocohol movement. He was highly respected and popular indeed locally but, it has to be said, Gandhi was and remains bigger than many Gandhians that followed him. Gandhi was one of first few leaders who realised the importance of non-violent mass mobilisation in the politics of our famished, colonised country. He also invoked pre-modern and therefore, by implication, pre-colonial and Indian symbols of life, social practices and culture, the khadi movement, the use of Kabir’s and other Bhajans were part of that very specific campaign. He was also fiercely anti-alcohol or anti indulgence in general. But he had his ‘finest hour’ (due to Professor Sumit Sarkar) during the communal riots of 1940s. He practically stood in between sensibility, civility, humanity and blood-thirsty madness and cynicism in Kolkata and Noakhali.
Shri Anna Hazare, like many other Gandhians after Gandhi, has not yet played that towering role which symbolises uncompromising stand in the question of communal harmony in India after independence, not as yet. Though due respect has to be given to his work on social reform agenda and environment consciousness, however localised.
It is important to understand Anna Hazare’s political ideology in order to understand the anti-corruption movement and therefore the AAP.
There is a strong emphasis on individual morality in AAP, which is a logical extension of its anti-corruption stance. There is an attempt to revoke Gandhian symbols (the Gandhi cap, the chorus of Bhajans etc.) and it is amusing to see that after so many years of material progress and celebrated triumphalism of consumption-led growth in India there is no other political figure who has more universal appeal here at least for symbolic/respectful reference.
The interested reader can have a look into the published documents of the Aam Aadmi Party, including its manifesto, made available through its website. The AAP’s view on the Lok Pal is significant for its omissions. In AAP’s view, the Lok Pal does not for example, bring the business corporations and non-governmental organisations into its ambit. It is specifically designed for Governement officials.
There is a view that the Left could have taken the agenda of anti-corruption as graft is easily associable with crony capitalism in the aftermath of economic reforms first started in the early 1990s. If we take the example of privatisation of mines, the connection is glaringly apparent in the matter of allocation of coal blocks to privately-owned units in a political environment where the government believes firmly in privatisation of mining sector as a matter of economic philosophy and, to be fair, has every right to do that. But the problem is, it is not entirely consistent with its commitment to welfare and protection of natural resources particularly in context of our country. The beneficiary organisations of the allocation are not always known for engineering or management expertise as well.
There is no evidence to suggest that Left parties never pointed to issues of corruption but, yes, corruption is not the only issue it has dealt with. The case of irregularities in Bailadila mines was brought to national attention by prominent leftist member of parliament, Gurudas Dasgupta, and Left was part of the Janata Dal-led group which won the last election fought primarily on the issue of corruption in India in 1989. It was the Bofors deal then and ‘impeachment’ was the term which had bigger currency than Lok Pal at that time. The law ministry in subsequent years talked about Lok Pal but later on the issue got buried in worse news.
The issue of corruption regained a lot of public attention in that historical period when various corruption charges, all implicating the central government, came to the fore. The more interesting fact is that all such issues were associated with allocation of business licenses to large corporations in coal and telecom sector. The bigger issue for the traditional Left was privatisation itself. It has always opposed divestment in mining, oil and gas companies or banking and insurance companies. But then it was ridiculed for being influenced by ghosts of the Soviet-style planning. It will be interesting to see if AAP takes a stance in favour of public sector enterprises or at least increases public financing in general. There is every chance that the charm of ‘non-ideological’ AAP will immediately degenerate into a perceived spectre of Bolshevism in the eyes of its new posh fans.
AAP cannot avoid defining its own economic philosophy for too long and neither can it avoid taking sides in wider economic debates.
Reasons of Popularity
So what were the factors that helped the Aam Aadmi Party win 28 seats in the Delhi elections? Yes, the anti-corruption stance was the main plank; it is a sacred agenda item which fans the simpleton’s belief that the administrative stance against corruption, against government officials, is enough to make up for the absence of policy; or worse, money rescued from the clutches of corruption creates stashes of cash enough for adequate social investments and for that there is no need of an explicit political will.
The party was canny enough to have some more items in its agenda. AAP promised (and now actually delivered) gross reduction in power tariff for personal consumers. But it was also canny enough not to mention the dreaded S word (S being for subsidies). It also promised reduction in water supply prices (have just delivered that as well), however the cost to exchequer is not estimated yet. It has promised simplification in tax filing for traders and, most importantly, has promised legalisation of some of Delhi’s famous jhuggies or shanties.
One can be dead certain, if similar measures based on subsidies or federal assistance were called for by traditional trade unions or Left parties, the media would have been less kind or less focused on apolitical service delivery. For example, the fear of deficit budgeting reached such a height in West Bengal during 2011 Assembly elections, the anti-left combine talked mechanically about PPP, private-public-participatory, model whenever they proposed a new welfare or infrastructure scheme in its manifesto and did not know how to finance it without Federal assistance.
One has to accept though that the AAP is spot on in identifying simply that the section of the urban middle classes, who have been otherwise either disadvantaged or left out by changes of globalisation, will be happy to welcome relief in utilities prices. The high inflation rates of recent years are also a part of the context.
I will wait to see how the agenda of regularisation of jhuggies is implemented, because that is a relatively more radical agenda in the face of current doctrines of urban beautification and real estate boom. I am afraid, legalisation of inner city jhuggis or large investments in utilities or waste management in those areas will test AAP’s friendship with its elite/middle class friends. Nobody minds central funds or subsidies in any capital city in the world; it is just that rural areas or smaller towns do not get proportionate investment. My hunch is that no elite/middle class citizen will mind conceding bits and pieces of full statehood status for Delhi in the absence of balanced revenue distribution between states and centre in order to secure inflow of central development funds. I guess social housing will meet some resistance in the planning doctrine or it will at best be a localised exception aimed towards political appeasement. For that we will have to wait and watch their strategy.
Escapism and its captive clientele -- methods of ‘solution centricity’
AAP’s triumph has really not been in inclusion but in avoidance of pressing issues for our nation and narrow focus on issues that concerns Delhi only.
Here is a quote from the Hindi manifesto: ‘Agar dilli ka tala khulegaa to desh bhar me badlao ki khirki, darwaje khulenge, chaabee aap ke haath me hyaay’ (if Delhi’s locks are open, then doors and windows of change in the whole country will open, the keys are in your hands)
This view makes the Aam Aadmi Party just an aam party, for it again fans the misplaced wisdom that whatever works for Delhi will work elsewhere and road to corridors of power for the whole country is in Delhi.
Do you want to know what the Aam Aadmi Party’s view is on the SEZ or Special Economic Zones or land commodification in general? Honestly, there is not much view available. This is one of the main issues of fierce political debates and violence in the past few years in India. If you want to know what the Aam Aadmi Party thinks about Gujarat riots or Kashmir situation or Muzaffar Nagar riots or special power to armed forces in some areas in the country, there is no clue. Yes, there was some attempt by civil rights supporters to connect civil rights activists of various areas in the anti-corruption forum but it did not last for long. We do not know why or we do not know enough, and I won’t mind a rejoinder from a party enthusiast here.
What do we know about Aam Aadmi Party’s vision on the contentious matter of positive discrimination of cast-based reservation in education and in jobs in both public or private sector? All they have promised is that their own internal committees will be well-represented from all sections of people which, like other issues, is not a bad start but quite a few miles away from clearly stating its policy.
Yes, one can argue, it is a new party, formed out of a single issue -- the anti-corruption movement -- and has no more rhetorical range than other single issue organisations, for example, and I won’t discourage those who see possibility in them after all.
Let AAP also form its opinion on how to handle insurgencies in North East or generally the Maoists in the heartland, its administrative approach to terrorism, and its foreign policy. Will it be militarily aggressive? Will it be dialogue- or rehabilitation-oriented? Because both are ‘solutions’ so to speak; it is just that they are different kind of solutions with different intended results. We are yet to know. Nor do we know the view of AAP on farm subsidies and rising prices of fertilizers. Yes we know AAP wants government-run schools become good enough to compete well with private schools, but we do not know its views yet on privatisation in higher education or public transport. We do not know yet its views on Panchayeti Raaj or general dissolution of power in direct governance. We know it wants the parallel structure of apolitical mahalla sabhas (area governing/advisory councils ), but alternative models of direct or representative democracy do exist in the country; we still do not know what it thinks about them or what reforms it looks to bring to them.
There is a theory that is currently popular among some of my younger friends on the liberal left. They are saying the welfare intentions will invariably push AAP to the left. But then great welfare policies in combination with trigger-happy security forces in order to appease the mainstream will not get my vote at least. Seeing the state as nothing but a slightly big utility service provider is actually more myopic than an AAP-enthusiast would like to believe.
The current connotation of the phrase ‘aam aadmi’ is actually a derivation; it used to mean distinctly lower classes 20-30 years ago. They were largely the people for whom the slogans of roti-kapra-makaan were framed. In terms of political etymology, the precursor was the political entity of ‘common man’, if my memory serves right, that gained popularity among the English newspaper-subscribing public in Mumbai in the 1970s. The notion of hard-working educated middle class as victim of goings on in daily-life gained popularity at that time. The popular grumble those days was that there is nobody looking after the middle class and this notion gained popularity when trade unionism of workers was seen as a barrier to industry or indeed the government’s functional viability.
As Amartya Sen, with his old-fashioned humour, recently said in a TV appearance that the middle class has reinvented itself as the ‘aam aadmi’. It is probably the most succinct observation about the movement leading to the formation of AAP.
It is the urban middle class with its various sub-classes that will offer the first taste of contradictions within the support base of the Aam Aadmi Party. The section of the population which wants hassle-free trade licenses for small businesses and fair price public distribution shops and well-run government schools is yet to be tested -- whether it will stand firm when barraged with fear of unmanageable increase in public expenditure in way of power tariff rationalisation and free water supply and indeed with the cost of maintaining efficient PDS or efficient local bureaucracy, even if we assume that by then spillage will be plugged?
What will the private sector employees, who support the idea of efficient and professional urban governance today, think about trade union rights of the public sector employee? In the example of Bengal, we know there is a huge apathy towards public sector employees here, consciously worked up by the right wing propaganda machinery; so much so that the shutdown of transport services and non-payment of pension to retired public transport employees, sometimes resulting in tragic suicides, does not attract condemnation. It is an interesting win for the rhetoric of austerity in the so-called land of lal jhanda and naare baazi -- employee welfare in public sector is seen as a flabby excess of unmanageable democracy or probably just bad house-keeping.
The Aam Aadmi Party was formed at a historical juncture. It is clear that even the mainstream population, even within strict frameworks of unquestioned nationalism and fantasies of ‘strong administration’, is sick and tired of lack of simple services from the government, but is indeed mistaken in thinking government is just a service-provider like an insurance company. This perspective is the most serious of its compromises with contemporary capitalism -- as if the government is just a delivery mechanism of limited level of services and there is no requirement of any political ideology.
This either assumes or hoodwinks the public to assume that welfare policies can be universal and nobody has to put up serious economic, political and cultural resistance to current doctrines of governance prevalent in the world. It seems it aims to bring the zeal of rights activism into governance but wants to get away by not spelling out the guiding principles that decide what kind of rights it will back or prioritise or be tolerant about.
But we need not be entirely cynical. If the Aam Aadmi Party remains secular, continues to attract to its rank the likes of renowned commentators, civil rights activists, subject matter experts, young people of all classes and creed, and if it can think wider and frame policies for sustainable development in a federalised state and working towards a tolerant and just society, where equal opportunity and equality is the basis of social relations, the old lefty in me might as well support it. But it is too early to be excited about the party now. For me it is just making promises at the moment. If it does achieve what it is perceived to achieve, and our beneficiaries of economic changes of last 25 years suddenly all become tolerant towards the weaker sections of the society and starts believing in personal austerity, worthy of the much revived Gandhi Cap, then it is a different matter. That will be a dream rainbow nation Tolstoy, Gandhi, Dr. King and Mandela of the later years together had the courage to dream about.
On current evidences, I am sorry, I see no reason to be so hopeful. Moderation in celebration is the key phrase then, much like New Year’s eve advisories.