Aam Aadmi Party and Politics of the Impossible

(Published in Kindle Magazine || December, 2013)

Contrary to the revised emotions from electoral pundits and wild psephologists, Delhi elections have not ushered in any new kind of empowering politics for India. Poll results have merely sided with populism, the central tenet in the politics of hopelessness that pervades the country today. Aam Aadmi Party is the New Right – a nationalist party aimed at dislodging Congress and weakening the Left – using a milder, a more acceptable version of BJP politics, Saswat Pattanayak opines.

The exaggerated climate of pessimism that may follow once Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) resorts to compromise politics with Congress must remain a secondary concern; at the root of crisis lies the ready admittance that the Aam Aadmi even had a stake in those polls results, to begin with. While crediting the commoner with this half-baked victory, power-grabbing exercises are well underway in the country’s capital; the difference this time is merely in the subtlety of it. What remains impressive is the sheer brilliance with which political imagery has been handled by Kejriwal, far surpassing most others in his league.

Arvind Kejriwal’s emergence as a major politician has little to do with his party’s claim as a credible alternative to any alleged duopoly in India. His battles against the “Congress-BJP” front are myth-making endeavors, regardless of his decision to accept support from the Congress Party. Just as mythical remains his fight against corruption.

Only last week, when newly confronted with his options, now that AAP did not win a majority, Kejriwal had said that AAP would under no circumstances enter into an alliance with any other political party. “We are not into the politics of coalitions. We are here to change the nature of politics altogether,” Kejriwal had thundered, adding that his party shall not accept support from either Congress or the BJP and shall govern only when it wins majority of seats. Criticizing AAP on reversing its stance is not really crucial. What is more bizarre is his perception of the core issue upon which the party is founded.

If he were not to form the government since he recognizes a lack of mandate, will a reelection then not amount to wastage of money? To this, Kejriwal retorted back, “So what if another poll were done; it will cost around 50 to 100 crores only…no big deal compared to the 500-crore sums each of those scamsters make.” This is what is so typical about Kejriwal’s responses which should be worrisome. His convenient logic, his personal yardstick around what comprises morality, corruption and necessity – and then his attribution of all that, to a manufactured Aam Aadmi. He can brush aside 50-cr as a petty amount when it conveniences his party’s standing. And the next day he can collude with the 500-cr scamsters to fight corruption. If a few months down the lane, AAP still fails to get a clear majority in a reelection, will he still reject coalition politics – the satta ki rajneeti? What is the tipping point for what comprises a corruption? How many 50-cr adventures need to be conducted before AAP can fight the 500-cr players? Kejriwal has no answers, his Aam Aadmi has – and hence the SMS blitzkrieg that followed – the untold caveat being that one qualifies to be an Aam Aadmi in India only if one votes for his party.

Beyond being just a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, there are far more serious issues of unprincipled politics that need attention in the wake of AAP’s emergence, which remain predictably unquestioned by the awestruck, if not embarrassed poll analysts.

It is simply not a coincidence that while AAP has been described as a media creation, the party in turn has ensured to project Kejriwal as consistently clueless, immature and politically naive. Its public relations campaign has strategically focused on Kejriwal as an Aam Aadmi, not as an astute politician, much to the delight of the politically unconscious. Kejriwal has said time and again that he has no aspiration to become a minister. Following his party’s performance in Delhi, he maintained that it was not AAP which had won; it was instead the victory of the Aam Aadmi. Asked if he would then become the chief minister, his immediate quip has been to herald the Aam Aadmi as the potential leader instead.

But, who will get to choose the Aam Aadmi Chief Minister? And will his party contest in Lok Sabha polls next year? Will these decisions be also left to Aam Aadmi referendums? Turns out, his close coterie of party leaders has already been granted the authority to decide on that. Apparently, it is not just Kejriwal who keeps changing his own stances on political commitments, his Aam Aadmi is equally unsure of his locus standi. Between such flip-flops, however, much to the delight of his Aam Aadmi, Kejriwal has thus far remained vocally, if not adamantly, unambitious.

In disavowing political ambitions, he is neither being spiritual nor naive. Whereas his answers may not be conventionally predictable, they are remarkably appealing in a country sick and tired of its seasoned politicians. Kejriwal has thus figured out the tricks of political manipulations far better than some of his contemporaries. Whereas claiming that politics is not a dirty word – in order to use that argument as a justification for his split with Anna – he is ever so deliberate in attacking the prevailing politics across the spectrum. Not a single political party is worthy of ethical reconsideration, except his own. Even while asserting a need to change the “system from within”, he refuses to identify the inherently corrupt nature of this system that awaits his arrival. While denouncing all and sundry for betraying the legacies of Nehru, Shastri and Patel, he awards himself alone the certificate of authentic heritage. And yet, when he is asked about the responsibilities that lie ahead for him as a possible leader of the nation, he suddenly transforms himself into a nothingness, and shifts the burdens of expectations unto the Aam Aadmi. He carefully omits to invoke Gandhi as a point of reference, perhaps because in an eerie manner, Gandhi would have refused to be part of the AAP, much as the same way Anna Hazare would have refused to be part of the INC. This could be a sheer coincidence in political ironies, or may well be a careful political orchestration. Either way, the genius of Kejriwal in projecting himself as a politician without being a politician is undeniable.

Alas, genius may not always be virtuous. Genius is necessarily a feature of the meritocracy, however. And it is precisely here that Kejriwal is representative of the hypocrisy that engulfs the educated middle class. Indian politics is mired in corruption, communalism and criminalization, as Kejriwal rightly points out, and accuses both Congress and BJP of being their direct champions. But he relies on anecdotal evidences, and probes into their mutual interdependences way too little. After all, corruption is not simply the case of someone hoarding money in the foreign banks, communalism is not simply about identity politics, and criminalization is not just a visible scenario of manpower politics.

Refusal to interrogate further on how the roots of such crisis intersect with, and foster each other is precisely what leads Kejriwal to claim that he will not engage in vote bank rajneeti and will just put everyone in Tihar Jail. This is just as populist a wish as the demands are for the rapists to be sent to the gallows. There is a reason why the death penalty solution is a conservative approach, not a progressive one – and Kejriwal would do well to remember this if he were to sincerely combat the upholders of status quo. Sincere demand for a radical shift in status quo does not aim at overcrowding prisons by empowering a political party with the provisions to emerge as accusers, judges and juries. Instead, it requires that those three Cs be treated as structural issues in India that highlight existing feudal relationships, unjust social hierarchies, hereditary elitisms, discriminatory policies, among many other factors.

By portraying anti-corruption as a neutral agenda that is somehow bereft of hegemonic tendencies in social groups, AAP has catered to the fancies of the rabidly elitist aspirations of the middle class. By harping on the evils of identity politics as an anathema to democracy – a corporate media reasoning that thrives on putting market demand over everything else, AAP has become a darling for the “equality” youth brigade. Indeed, as a way to explain away his indifference towards reservation policies, Kejriwal has said that his party will stress on education and will end reservations. His argument is that if a family has received reservation benefit in the past, even for once, no member of that family can avail reservation again. He follows that argument by not claiming that there are no discriminatory practices, but rather, because they remain. Since untouchability is still prevalent in the hinterlands and since people there do not even know “reservation kis chidiya ki naam hai”, he will do away with reservations and instead focus on education. He furthers that argument with yet another twisted logic: there is a dearth of time on hand to make reservation policies accessible for those suffering from discriminations. Therefore, AAP has education as its top priority to replace reservation or any such minority appeasement policies. How does AAP do that? “By making public schools as efficient as private schools.” And this brings cheers from the apparently caste-less crowd, except that he gets away without explaining how long that process might take, by comparison. If only he knew what it takes to be a Dalit in India, he would know it takes more than one generation of reservation policies as rights, and not as privileges. And it takes more than just rhetoric to survive the onslaughts from upper-caste old boys meritocratic networks. He cannot simply run out of patience to implement policies that most visibly benefit a section of people, while having all the time in the world to hypothetically make education not only accessible to all, but also make it so equitable that private education in India becomes redundant.

Kejriwal’s right hand man Kumar Vishwas refrains from identity politics just as much. So, he picks the Vijay Divas in Delhi to glorify India’s Kargil victory and to promote an ex-serviceman as an AAP candidate (who eventually wins). Vishwas uses the opportunity to rouse the nationalist emotions of the patriotic gathering by asking if the crowd knew Anna Hazare was indeed named after Lord Krishna. He denounces BJP for not having built the temple, while instead initiating the bus diplomacy and hosting Pakistani officials cordially in India. The crowd cheers for Vishwas who emerges as more supremacist than Advani in his fascist hatred towards Pakistan (and, China), while claiming to be no part of the dirty identity politics. Indeed, while Modi has a tough time justifying Patel to the educated Indians, AAP stalwarts effortlessly put Patel and Nehru together as belonging to a single political tradition (of “sacrifice”) – thus himself catering to the Hindu audience and the secular at the same time. In fact, whereas another political party could have been accused of being a fascist outfit for making controversial slogans, Vishwas makes it a point to elicit “Bharat Mata ki Jai” screams off his audience numerous times (so virulent that it would put ABVP to shame) during his speeches reeking of racism, sexism and blatantly reactionary nationalism.

Despite all these elitisms, hypocrisies and rabble-rousing, AAP is today demanding undivided attention. And rightfully so. There may not be much of a lesson for BJP or Congress in all of this, except to better strategize their election plans. But for those political formations that have long strived to represent the interests of the “aam insaan” (not just aadmi, especially in a patriarchy), the lessons are monumental. Communists, for instance, have long campaigned against price rises and for nationalization of essential commodities such as water and electricity; but they have clearly overlooked the need to communicate the same effectively with the masses. Same can be said of many other regional parties as well. But it would be a travesty to credit AAP with just an effective communication plan. It would serve better to remember that Kejriwal and Co. have made an impact purely by consistently opposing the status quo, and by employing the lens of referendum as a way to appeal to the masses. This may or may not be ideal a tactic for the kind of politics one espouses, but for a country that is witnessing a rising middle class and educated youth interacting with social media across classes, the medium itself may be emerging as the message, in the McLuhanisque way. The issues discussed on Twitter are qualitatively different and they demand more attention in the India that is rising and shining. A brief look at agenda-setting in case of Devyani Khobragade is sufficient a hint at the changing nature of political podium. It would not be an overkill to say that AAP has taken this hint, while most other parties have been failing to.

The hint is to radically oppose state of affairs, and then to get an endorsement from the public to acknowledge what have gone abysmally wrong. Whether justice gets secured or not, the clue is in an ability to call out the perpetrators to relieve the victims of suffocation. Time will tell if anything constructive happens beyond the rhetoric, but for the voters at the time being, expression of their rejection is yielding a sense of unprecedented satisfaction. The dialectic that is at play here points to how pessimism towards politics itself has a political potential.

What the AAP as the new Right successfully managed to do, which the Communists as the old Left failed to, is that they capitalized on the growing dissent of the citizenry. Indian Left yet again missed the revolutionary spark provided by the anti corruption moment, just as it was provided by the anti-rape movement. Certainly there was an element of middle-class opportunism in the visible struggles, but as Delhi has demonstrated, it would be increasingly difficult in future to ignore mass protests, whether or not they have petty bourgeois orientations.

In the wave of nationalist hypes associated with this newfound India, the need for social justice sadly may keep getting superseded by demands for resetting majoritarian agendas. Unable to reflect upon the inherent contradictions in a faulty social system and in overzealous ambitions to emerge as a global superpower, we may in fact be making one step forward, three steps backwards.

Just around the time when political radicalism was gaining grounds in the forms of progressive activisms by the women to fight patriarchy, by the Dalits to challenge Hindu terrorism, by the Kashmiris to combat the nationalist narratives or by the uncompromising leftists to support workers in urban sites and oppressed in inaccessible villages, it should come as no surprise that the AAP has received a clean chit from the status quoist media.

The future, in the wake of the Aam Aadmi Party, may indeed therefore emerge bleaker, than before. And its victories may well be tragedies in the making, if we fail to contain our untimely celebrations, and as the aam insaan taken for a ride once more, if we allow their political agendas to be carried out, in our name.

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Post-Miley Feminism

 

 

(Written for Kindle Magazine, December 2013)

 

By Saswat Pattanayak

A wealthy white woman used specific “ghetto” elements from the black culture to materially profit from those insincere projections. And much of the world media ignored this aspect entirely, while castigating her instead for wearing indecent attires. And finally, when this attracted the attention of white feminists, they rallied behind her to protest slut-shaming.

Following her memorable performance at VMA in August, Miley Cyrus helped generate what Mikki Kendall had earlier hashtagged as, “Solidarity Is For White Women” (in lambasting the ways white feminists had been protecting the disgraced Hugo Schwyzer).

In conveniently overlooking the serious nature of cultural appropriations, what suddenly reemerged within the feminist discourse is how race intersects with feminism itself. It became quite apparent that feminism – or for that matter, any radical politics – was not going to make any headway, if it was not explicitly going to embrace intersectionality. In other words, was Cyrus going to find support from only a section of feminists, on issues that had direct implications for them? Does feminism often work this way? If yes, should it?

The images of Cyrus that night were compelling for various reasons. Her sexy outfits were the least of them all, in an era of a virtually saturated landscape so far as sexualized visual images go. What stood apart was how she used black women as props on the stage that night, reminiscent of the days of slavery when white masters used slaves as stand-alone objects/accessories for amusement of their guests. What stood apart was how she created an atmosphere of a circus, with herself as the ringleader motorboating black women as the dancing bears.

That she wanted to live out her fantasies and feel sexually empowered were all defensible propositions, but the fact that she had to degrade black women as objects in order to play those out, while in real life she does not have to experience the racist society as a black woman does, was what made it all so irrefutably disgusting. Likewise, while the white feminists upholding her right to rub herself on Robin Thicke was an acceptable defense, what became a profound contradiction was their remaining silent over her own treatment of backup dancers. Indeed, when black women pointed this out, they faced the charges of misconstruing feminism – thus, it remained no longer a Cyrus moment. It demanded critical reflections on part of all those who identify with feminist, progressive and revolutionary politics.

Batty Mamzelle wrote, “Historically, black women have had very little agency over their bodies. From being raped by white slave masters to the ever-enduring stereotype that black women can’t be raped, black women have been told over and over and over again, that their bodies are not their own. By bringing these ‘homegirls with the big butts’ out onto the stage with her and engaging in a one-sided interaction with her ass, (not even her actual person!) Miley has contributed to that rhetoric. She made that woman’s body a literal spectacle to be enjoyed by her legions of loyal fans.”

What the Cyrus episode brought to the fore was not just the need to apply intersectional analysis to feminism in the US, but by its very extension and logic, to have it applied everywhere. In much similar vein, argument can be made about the selective solidarities displayed among Savarna feminists in India, who remained eerily silent throughout the protest marches against rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Jind district of Haryana. The level of indifference was so staggering that the mainstream media which had gone agog to report extensively on rape culture since Nirbhaya, entirely ignored a three-day conference organized by Dalit women to question the casteist nature of Indian justice system. In a bold move to oppose what I would term, after Kendall, as “Solidarity Is for Savarna Women”, the organizers (AIDMAM) exclaimed: “The silence from all corners is deafening and this particular case of alleged rape and murder of a 20 year old Dalit girl in Jind is only another one in a long list of cases of sexual violence on Dalit women. Today, we do not even know what to ask for! Should we make a claim for a separate State for Dalit women? A State that will give us a life of security? A separate State that will allow us to live our lives peacefully? A State that will permit us to go to schools? A State that will allow us to go to the toilet without fear? A State that will give us the basic right to life? Dalit women have lost all hope in the Government, in the police, the judiciary, the elected representatives and with civil society. We do not want to just trigger the conscience of the system and the people, but seek all voices for justice for Dalit women in India.”

While the defense of “sluttiness” remains the primary – and, valid – agenda for white feminists in the US, the demand for police protection of nightlife in Delhi remains a legitimate concern of savarna feminists in India. At the same time, what the racial implications of the powerful images of Cyrus that night suggests, the peripheral realities can no longer be kept under wraps. While defending Slutwalk, it is necessary that white folks do not appropriate slavery, just as while deploying additional police force to ensure “Bekhauf Azadi” for urban women, it is necessary to make the legal system work efficiently to render justice for Dalit women whose priorities may vary qualitatively.

Solidarity across race and caste is a possibility only when the histories of unique struggles by the historically oppressed are duly recognized, and sufficient consciousness-raising efforts are undertaken by the historically privileged.

Calico: The Cat that may Never come out of the Bag

(Written for Kindle Magazine, December 2013)

 

By Saswat Pattanayak

As privatized healthcare gets to be seen more as a consensus than a contested issue, Google is investing in the sector that promises to fetch maximum return in coming decades. And unlike the inevitable controversies associated with privacy searches, there are least amount of resistance to its foray into such a noble domain. Just around the time when capitalisms reputation has reached the lowest ebb, Calico Project aims to put the kindest human face yet on this vicious system.

 

Perhaps no other futuristic idea has generated as much enthusiasm as Calico. And why not? A promise at least to cure illnesses, if not to enhance longevity while at that, is just as good as it gets. Being part of the Google X Lab, this project is deliberately mysterious, and very little, if not nothing is really known about it. But it is abuzz with excitements. And Time Magazines speculation regarding its death-defying capabilities has lent the kind of credibilities to Calico that were once reserved for pathbreaking inventions such as telephone, airplane or computer.

 

This growing fascination with Calico probably should leave us with far profounder questions – of both idealist and materialist nature. Should Google solve death? Does longer life equal to greater joy? Need we strive for quantity over quality? Are we not to set healthcare priorities in a world steeped in inaccessibilities for the disabled, malnourished and the poor? How much more can we trust private pharmaceuticals to take care of public health? Can making healthcare free and accessible for everyone in the planet, a goal the Calico Project can dare to set?

 

At the same time, unfortunately what makes these especially redundant questions is the ways capitalism functions, so as to enable the monopolists to dictate the ruling questions of the times, howsoever utopian they appear to be. In fact, only by pretending to solve attractive questions, does capitalism become acceptable, at the first place. As one of its foremost champions today, Google has proposed to save humanity from death and illness, at the very time when its own health was dwindling to a trickle.

 

Mired with numerous scandals involving illegal activities pertaining to violations of privacy rights, to profiting from installing unauthorized cookies in users browsers, to using information of its users for commercial gains without consent, Google is an empire founded on deceit and manipulations. Indeed, Google has always preferred to settle cases related to its ad spying behaviors (this year by paying $17 million fine and last year $22 million for the same crime). This is precisely because by paying such meagre penalties, it stands to gain more – profit wise – than it would if it stopped illegal spying. So whereas Google will make $47 billion dollars this year from advertising through spying (which is now an integrated feature of Google Plus), it will pay a tiny fine that equals to only three-hour worth of its revenues.

 

It should appear as highly suspect that a parasitical corporation that feeds off innocent data sharing of its users can be entrusted with, literally, the well-being of humanity. And yet, instead of getting shocked at such a scenario, the world media is full of adulations for Google, because while corporations act as individuals when it comes to paying taxes, they get mystified while committing crimes. When in 2011, FTC (Federal Trade Commission) had fined Google over Google Buzz privacy concerns, as the outcome, it conveniently shut down the project. In real life, an individual may have to face lifetime imprisonment for a fraction of the crimes committed by Google.  

 

Instead of jail terms, the innovators were found dining with the American president – who to his credit has been using NSA for the very purposes anyway. Instead of penalizing the companies that acquire bright initiatives only to shut them down once it makes little commercial sense, capitalism rewards big monopolists by entrusting with them the credibility to continue with similar onslaughts.

 

Google has often thrived on hypes – be it the invitation codes to open email accounts or the mystery labs that not even its own employees have seen, there is a pattern to its attracting initial investments with scant regard to their long-term viabilities. Whether Calico survives to serve long-term or temporarily profit the bosses at Google depends on the wisdom of its head, Arthur Levinson who chairs Genentech and is a director of its owner Roche, which has numerous dubious distinctions of breaking antitrust laws and engaging in price fixing to eventually emerge as one of the largest entities worldwide, in the privatized healthcare industry.

 

It remains to be seen if Google, Apple, Genentech and Roche shall use this hype as an opportunity to invest in researches that address roots of healthcare issues, or use it as a humanizing veil to cover-up the crimes of capitalism while collaborating with nefarious motives that inform the pervasiveness of greedy pharmaceutical corporations and privacy encroachment giants.