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Aam Aadmi: an uncommon
party for the common man

Populist sit-ins on the streets of New Delhi, rambunctious midnight ‘vice’ raids, and support for conservative khap panchayats, is an odd formula. Yet, it had a certain logic - before the government fell after failing to secure an anti-corruption bill.

New Delhi, February 2014

Former Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in conversation with journalist Barkha Dutt

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in conversation with journalist Barkha Dutt at the Delhi Literature Festival, 9 February, 2014. His government later resigned after failing to push through an anti-corruption bill. Photo: Vipin Kumar, Hindustan Times/ Getty Images

ONE reason why the Aam Aadmi Party is of such consuming interest to politically engaged desis is that it seems committed to pluralism without making caste and community identities central to its politics. The ‘Mandalisation’ of Indian politics is a familiar theme and an important stage in the evolution of the republic, but the AAP seems to mark something of a departure from the politics of identity; it doesn’t set out, ideologically, to perform India’s social diversity. [The 1979 Mandal Commission set up reservations for ‘backward classes’.]

Instead, its politics has been centred on the rooting out of corruption and the transformation of an episodically democratic country into a republic that is continuously, even hyper-actively involved with its citizens.

Some AAP mantras have been hardy staples of Indian political discourse: the de-centralisation of power, the de-politicisation of key institutions and the creation of ombudsmen to make the ‘system’ virtuous. Instead of the tedium that these worthy themes generally inspire, in the hands of the AAP they have generated enormous public excitement.

Mukul Kesavan

Mukul Kesavan

Seventy manifestos for 70 constituencies in the run-up to the Delhi elections might have seemed excessive, but in a political world where party manifestos are cursory formalities, it came across as a sign that the AAP was listening

The party’s ability to invest the supply of scarce utilities like water and electricity with theatrical urgency, its studied insolence when it attacks what it regards as Old Corruption, its genius for singling out symbols of privilege such as beacon lights and police escorts, has seen its populism, in this age of 24/7 television and online social networks, go viral.

In a city like Delhi, divided into multiple jurisdictions, governance has been so fragmentary and opaque that the very notion of responsive government or an active citizenry has often seemed absurd. So when the AAP declared that it wanted to consolidate Delhi and its governance into a single virtuous jurisdiction run by a state government responsible to the citizens that elected it, it made perfect populist sense. Seventy manifestos for 70 constituencies in the run-up to the Delhi elections might have seemed excessive, but in a political world where party manifestos are cursory formalities, it came across as a sign that the AAP was listening.

For liberals, the reassuring thing about the AAP was that its indifference to ascriptive identity wasn’t a mask for savarna self-congratulation; it wasn’t, in short, the anti-Mandal social coalition under a different name. Its success in reserved constituencies in the Delhi elections where it won the Valmiki vote and its willingness to purge itself of godmen and other majoritarian baggage, were signs of its growing inclusiveness.

It is in this context that the Khirki village controversy and Yogendra Yadav’s comments about khap panchayats came as such a shock. The AAP’s decision to double down on these positions in spite of widespread criticism made its bien pensant supporters wonder whether they had misread the nature of the beast.

I suspect the reason that the AAP gave the aggrieved Resident Welfare Associations of Khirki village and the clan elders of khap panchayats the benefit of the doubt was that ideologically the party’s leaders are legatees of an indigenous populism pioneered by Ram Manohar Lohia. Lohiaite politics was characterised by a suspicion of anglophone elites and foreign ideologies and a commitment to a desi (or Indian) socialism aimed at empowering a People whose disaggregated avatars were vernacular communities.

For Kejriwal, Yadav and Co, the only way of overcoming the sclerosis that makes Indian democracy rigid and unresponsive is to a) empower mohalla sabhas and neighbourhood communities and b) take their aspirations, needs and grievances seriously. It is their way of making the aam aadmi or the ordinary citizen continuously central to Indian politics, instead of being confined to the walk-on, non-speaking part he plays every five years at election time.

Somnath Bharti, therefore, is almost comically baffled by his critics. Coming to the aid of his constituents — in this case the local community represented by Khirki’s RWAs — at the unearthly hour of midnight, is, for him, an act of exemplary responsiveness. It is precisely the sort of thing elected representatives are meant to do but don’t because they are, according to AAP, complacent about the status quo and indifferent to the neighbourhood communities that make up the People.

Bharti’s critics accuse him of vigilantism, misogyny and racism, of rabble-rousing, of grandstanding, of dressing up a mob as the People. His defenders accuse his critics of political correctness which, they claim, obscures the real and long-standing problems of drug-peddling and prostitution that plague Khirki’s neighbourhoods. They cite the three Ugandan women from Khirki who, earlier this week, approached the AAP for succour. The women complained that they had been coerced into prostitution by a mafia who had illegally confiscated their passports. For Bharti this was proof both of human trafficking in Khirki and the fact that he had acted in good faith.

This episode has been so polarising that neither side is likely to be persuaded by the other’s arguments. However, the Khirki incident and the AAP’s willingness to engage with khap panchayats so long as they stay on the right side of the law, are pointers to a political dilemma that the AAP and its liberal critics have in common. And the dilemma is this: how do you do radical democratic politics (which includes winning elections) without mobilising local communities? How do you mobilise them if you don’t demonstrate that you trust them enough to respond to their needs? But how do you trust them if they are merely microcosms of the divisions and prejudices that riddle Indian society?

It seems clear to me that the AAP’s invocation of local community needs to be tempered by scrupulousness about due process. It is one thing for Bharti to consult mohalla sabhas about the provision and delivery of civic services, quite another for him to take sides when people in a mohalla accuse their neighbours of criminality.

Bharti’s deafness to the racial implications of the raid he sponsored, his all-round oafishness, and Yogendra Yadav’s willingness to ‘engage’ with khap panchayats in the run-up to the Haryana elections, seem to suggest an absence of argument and disagreement about race and gender in the AAP’s highest councils

Secondly, the fact that the AAP’s core leaders are a bunch of Hindi-speaking north Indian men isn’t necessarily disabling, but their lack of self-consciousness about this monoculture makes you wonder how broad their range of sympathies actually are.

Certainly Bharti’s deafness to the racial implications of the raid he sponsored, his all-round oafishness, and Yogendra Yadav’s willingness to ‘engage’ with khap panchayats in the run-up to the Haryana elections, seem to suggest an absence of argument and disagreement about race and gender in the AAP’s highest councils.

But if there are lessons to be learnt by Kejriwal and Co, there are, equally, lessons for their liberal critics. From what point of vantage do we criticise their valorisation of community? The short answer might be: as feminists, as socialists, as liberals. But if, from these positions, we find their invocation of the People naïve or undiscriminating or reactionary, who are we offering as the alternative agents of a properly progressive democratic politics? Women? The working class? The middle-peasant? Right-thinking people? The secular individual? All of the above?

A liberal who distrusts the invocation and mobilisation of local communities in a political system such as ours, is either choosing a technocratic top-down politics where a right-thinking elite knows best, or embracing political marginality by addressing only those sections of society that she thinks are politically kosher. In a political context where the Bharatiya Janata Party and its promise of a managerial majoritarianism threatens to carry the day, is intellectual fastidiousness about clubbing unlike social groups together into mohalla communities going to stop liberals and people on the Left from supporting a countervailing vision of a desi people?

Liberal voices ought to continue to criticise the Aam Aadmi Party as it fast-forwards itself into political adulthood, a process accelerated by the imminent [April 2014] election. There’s some evidence to show that such criticism helped the AAP evolve away from its anti-political, godman-ridden India Against Corruption avatar into an inclusive social democratic political party, happy to steal the dynastic Congress’s political turf.

Most recently, after responding with remarkable tepidness to the beating to death in Delhi of Nido Tania, a student from Arunachal Pradesh, Kejriwal bestirred himself and joined the Jantar Mantar protest against the racism and police indifference that led to this tragedy. It was clear that he had been goosed into action by public criticism. The contrast between the party’s all-out agitation of the Khirki grievance and its pro forma response to Nido’s death had been noticed and excoriated. Kejriwal offered his solidarity and an apology for its belatedness.

At a political moment where that erstwhile vanguard of progressive politics, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has just entered into alliance with J Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, where Mulayam Singh Yadav (after Muzaffarnagar), is offering himself as the leader of a ‘secular’ Third Front, it seems a little precious to chant khap and Khirki and declare yourself disillusioned with AAP. Most people in India have, in one election or another, held their noses and voted for parties that have literally gotten away with murder. No one has accused the Aam Aadmi Party of that yet. Should we, having swallowed whole camels, now strain, unavailing, at gnats?

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is Homeless on Google Earth.

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Vinod (18 February, 2014) – India
The term 'populist' is incorrect and it is unfair to term AAP's perfectly rational acts thus, even though the dictionary defines populist as supporting the people as opposed to the elite.

Bharti's action was completely rational and legal-despite media attempts at disinformation. He didn't take sides, he called upon the police to take action but they didn't. Presuming bigotry and bias amongst the citizens of Khirki shows bias in the writer. Which he follows up with the term 'oafishness' while gratuitously passing judgement about Khap Panchayats. And then comes 'bunch of Hindi-speaking north Indian men' and their 'monoculture'. Huh?

Other than that, I agree that the alternative to AAP in the form of CPI + AIADMK + SP et al is enough to scare the sh*t out of me. – This comment has been edited
Ranjan Pal (18 February, 2014) – India
I think the point about the AAP’s core leadership being a bunch of Hindi-speaking north Indian men is a very valid one. It colours their perceptions of what is relevant and important in Delhi's political reality and desensitises them to issues of gender, race and class. They need more diversity in their ranks if they are to develop a more tempered and nuanced world view.
Myra (17 February, 2014) – USA
I have lived in Delhi for a while and watched with great interest the arrival of Mr Kejriwal. There was a lot of hype and hope. I was disappointed to say the least. Governments need to govern, not agitate in the streets. What happens now to the free water?
P Narayan (17 February, 2014) – India
This is a well reasoned article that looks beyond the street antics of Aam Aadmi. People voted it in for a reason. They are fed up with corruption and want someone to fight for them. I do not share the view that street protest is the way for governments to behave, but I wish them well. Kejriwal's resignation is surprise and a disappointment.

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