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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Author: Saswat Pattanayak

Journalist, Generalist, Atheist, Poet, Lover, Photographer, Communist, Third wave Feminist, LGBT ally, Black power comrade, Peacenik, Anti-capitalist, Critical media theorist, Radical film critic, Academic non-elite…

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