The AAP Phenomenon:

Notes on India’s Changing Political Landscape and Discourse

- Dipankar Bhattacharya

The dramatic rise of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi is the most talked-about political development in India today. Its leaders call it a big bang emergence which has unleashed a great political momentum across the length and breadth of the country, and AAP has now begun to get projected by the mainstream media as an emerging national-level political force. The phenomenon indeed stands out in terms of its scale, visibility, force and speed, and the hope and activism it has generated among sections of the middle class usually given to cynicism and passivity.

Quite understandably we have an animated discussion on AAP in all quarters. How do we understand the phenomenon? Where do we locate it in the ideological-political spectrum? Is there any historical reference or parallel which could help us in understanding and locating AAP? What is the possible trajectory of AAP in today’s India? Political observers and activists are busy discussing and debating many such related questions.

Electorally speaking, we have of course seen several similarly successful electoral debuts in the last three decades. The AGP in Assam, TDP in Andhra Pradesh and BSP in UP, for instance. But then AAP could not be politically more dissimilar. AGP sprang from the Assam movement born out of Assam’s demographic anxieties and a deeply entrenched sense of the neglect of the North-East by the all-India political elite, TDP was powered by a hurt Telugu pride and had the backing of powerful socio-economic interests in Andhra Pradesh, BSP succeeded above all by motivating Dalits in UP to pool and use their votes as an instrument for securing a better deal. AAP clearly has no such regional, linguistic or caste identity or equation to propel it.

There are others who would go back in history and liken AAP to the ‘original’ Congress or the Congress of the freedom struggle era, an analogy which AAP’s own ideologues and leaders have carefully avoided till now, charged perhaps as they are by the BJP of being a proxy for the Congress. Instead, Yogendra Yadav has suggested a parallel with the African National Congress or movements/parties in Latin America. There is nothing in AAP’s evolution till date to even remotely justify such a parallel. ANC was a party of armed struggle at one stage and till date it has an organic and structural relationship with the South African Communist Party and the trade union organisation. The Latin American popular movements and parties too have almost always been powered by strong Left and anti-imperialist impulses.

Instead of looking for parallels in international and Indian history, let us look at AAP as a new political formation in its own right. While the people of Delhi and India will now be able to judge AAP by what it does as the ruling party in Delhi, AAP calls itself the harbinger of nothing short of a political revolution. It is calling upon the people to join this revolution, and change politics to change India. Till yesterday many of AAP leaders were NGO activists or theorists or advocates of social movements. Today from the discourse of single-issue social movements they have moved on to an explicitly political discourse.

But what is the politics of AAP? The best way to get a quick idea perhaps is to read and listen to the speeches and interviews of the party’s three most prominent faces – Arvind Kejriwal who is undoubtedly the party’s original and authentic leader, Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan. While Kejriwal outlines the party’s vision in his speeches, Yogendra Yadav tries to render it profound with his nuanced ‘ideology-free’ articulation and Prashant Bhushan tells us what the AAP is not, by making statements on Kashmir and AFSPA and the like which the party rushes to reject as his personal opinion!

Let us begin with Kejriwal and his definition of an ‘aam aadmi’. In his reply to the confidence vote in the Delhi Assembly, he gave the most inclusive definition of an ‘aam aadmi’ by using honesty as the single common denominator. From the slum-dweller to the residents of Greater Kailash, one of Delhi’s posh, upmarket neighbourhoods, anybody who wants honesty and an honest system is an aam aadmi, said Kejriwal. This most inclusive definition obviously seeks to transcend all socio-economic differences and create a kind of new coalition on an anti-corruption plank.

This wide-ranging constituency of AAP – spread, according to Yogendra Yadav, mainly over 70% of the Delhi populace barring the bottom 20% and top 10% – is also reflected in the party’s declared funding pattern. An analysis of the funds received by the party till December 27 as declared in its website revealed that more than 83,000 people donated Rs 22.3 crore to the party’s coffer. Some 60% of these donations were of a denomination of Rs 1000 or less, and these accounted for only about 5% of the total funds. Some 35% donors donated between 1,001 and 10,000 Rs and it made up for nearly 30% of the total amount. Then there were nearly 4,500 donors who donated between Rs 10,001 and Rs 1 lakh, and they accounted for a third of the total amount. And finally there were less than 0.4% donors in the Rs 1 lakh-plus bracket who contributed another 30%-plus share.

This broad appeal of AAP is also borne out by the kind of vote it got in Delhi, and by the kind of diverse backgrounds from which people are joining AAP. The party got 29% vote in Delhi, 17% at the cost of the Congress, 2% at the cost of the BJP and 10% from others. The party’s votes clearly reflected a grand mix comprising the downtrodden toiling masses, unorganised workers, salaried employees and high-end professionals. And now the members joining AAP also reflect a similar profile – from well-known journalists, academics and activists to professionals and entrepreneurs, all are showing a remarkable readiness to plunge into politics through AAP.

Kejriwal says what unites this broad ‘aam aadmi’ spectrum is a shared resolve to eliminate corruption. But what will it take to end corruption? Will it require any reorientation of policies? Will it call for any effective regulation of corporate capital? Kejriwal does not seem to think so. For him corruption does not flourish around the increasingly intimate nexus between big business and political power and the unabashedly pro-corporate economic policies which have been showering big corporates with huge exemptions and concessions. 99% of the business class according to him would like to do business with honesty and it is politics which lures or compels it to indulge in corruption. So the AAP agenda is to cleanse politics and control bureaucracy while leaving business out of the ambit of anti-corruption legislation. The Jan Lokpal mooted by the AAP and the Lokpal passed by Parliament have both been based on this premise.

What about the other problems that the ‘aam aadmi’ faces in life? What about the unemployment, low wages and rising prices? What about the exploitation by capital, repression by the state and oppression by the socially powerful? What about the burden of communal prejudice and violence that minority communities continue to have to bear? What about the endless atrocities on dalits and adivasis, and the deeply entrenched misogyny and patriarchal oppression and violence that most women have to face in life almost as a daily routine? What about the ‘collateral damage’ that is inflicted on the environment by corporate aggression masquerading as ‘development’ and which has now started exacting a massive human cost?

Yogendra Yadav would not deny these questions. But the answer he says lies in mediation and negotiation, dialogue and reconciliation. To him politics is all about of settling of conflicting claims and management of contradictions. This is not the first time someone has put forward this definition of politics. In fact, this is what the Indian state claims to have been practising with its growing repertoire of constitutional amendments and legislative measures. In which way exactly then does AAP call its politics revolutionary? According to AAP, it is the doctrine of Swaraj which would distinguish it from the political establishment. Swaraj or self-rule would entail radical decentralisation of power and empowerment of citizens, something which Kejriwal describes as the transfer of power to the people.

Does the economy and society too undergo any radical transformation under swaraj? Gandhi’s swaraj imagined a society free from the complexities and pressure of industrial capitalism and the modern state. AAP’s vision of swaraj has no such compatibility issue with the rule of capital enforced by the might of an armed state even as it envisages greater participation of citizens in matters of routine administration. In a way, the AAP phenomenon is a political reflection or assertion of the ongoing process of delegation of vital social services to NGOs in the era of neo-liberalism, completing the trajectory from NGOisation of governance to party-isation of NGOs. It serves as a socio-political complement to the all-round reign of corporatisation unleashed by neo-liberalism.

We can already see a certain pattern in the AAP approach to ‘participation’. For example, AAP did conduct a referendum of sorts before agreeing to form government in Delhi with Congress support and it was certainly novel. Arvind Kejriwal and his cabinet colleagues held a roadside Janata Darbar outside the Delhi Secretariat, but when contract workers and many other aggrieved citizens turned up in their thousands, the new government put an end to the very idea of having direct interaction with the people, asking the people to lodge their complaints by means of letters, telephone calls or emails.
When Prashant Bhushan talked about holding a referendum in Kashmir to listen to the Kashmiri people regarding the need for AFSPA in Kashmir, AAP quickly rejected this idea and said the people had no rolein deciding about deployment of the Army, which is to be determined on the basis of threat perception and national security requirements. This is exactly how the Congress or BJP would argue. So the participatory method is meant to monitor and complement governance only up to a certain point while policy matters and strategic questions will continue to be decided by the powers that be without any reference to the affected people on the ground. The AAP’s approach is in fact strikingly consistent with the ‘good governance’ agenda promoted by the World Bank in which the neoliberal economic and military-strategic framework is left untouched and all its destructive impacts are blamed on corruption, understood as located exclusively within the Third World state.
What then is the ideological framework of AAP? This question invites routine ridicule from most AAP spokespersons. They say AAP does not believe in ideological divides, its approach is solution-oriented. Yogendra Yadav tells us that Left and Right are 20th Century binaries that do not have much meaning in today’s world. In fact he argues that the Left-Right divide was never really relevant in India for the Right did not have viable politics while the Left lacked intelligent economics. This presumably implies that the Right has its economics right. How come the global economy where rightwing free-market policies rule the roost is passing through such a protracted recession then which has rekindled memories of the Great Depression right in the US and Europe, the biggest powers of global capitalism? How come India is facing an acute economic crisis and the common people are reeling under soaring prices and massive scams after two decades of ‘intelligent economics’ of deregulation and privatisation?

Evidently, the new party would like to rope in people from all quarters and from diverse ideological trends. This is clear from Kejriwal’s deliberate use of three chants or slogans associated with three different trends – ‘Vande Mataram’ used mostly by the Congress but also by the BJP, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ used by the RSS/BJP and ‘inquilab zindabad’ which since the days of Bhagat Singh remains the most popular battle-cry of the Left – to end his speeches. We can also see some people from the Left joining AAP with the argument that AAP is an open platform compatible with and conducive to the priorities and principles of the Left

We will soon see how AAP evolves and what role the Leftwingers within AAP get to play. If the AAP response to Prashant Bhushan’s utterances is anything to go by, there is little tolerance or elbow-room for inconvenient radical democratic ideas within AAP.
Yogendra Yadav tells us that socialism is a failed 20th century ideology. He is deliberately reducing socialism to the Soviet model and elevating the question of means and methods to the ideological plane. If the Soviet model eventually failed in its contention with the power of global capitalism and collapsed under the pressure of its own stagnation, does that make capitalism a superior system? As a former ideologue of the ‘Samajwadi Jan Parishad’ he should clarify whether he has given up on his socialist ideal and decided to accept capitalism as the ultimate system.
It is well-known that far from being a ‘pre-fabricated’ ideology, communism remains the most futuristic vision and has shown tremendous adaptability and resilience in its history of more than 160 years (counting from 1848, the year of publication of the Communist Manifesto). It has succeeded in transforming societies in a whole range of social contexts and historical conjunctures –whether it is overcoming feudal backwardness or overthrowing colonial rule, abolishing monarchy or defeating fascism. If the Soviet Union collapsed in the face of bureaucratic stagnation and China is faltering in its experiments with finding a balance between the role of the state and a regulated market or in evolving a mode of democracy upholding the rights and aspirations of the broadest majority of the people while respecting dissent, that does not make the communist ideology redundant or validate bourgeois ideologies that justify the capitalist order. In fact the 21st century has already seen a powerful resurgence of the Left in Latin America, with particular attention being paid to questions of democracy and deepening and extending people’s participation.
We certainly don’t hold it against AAP that it doesn’t advocate Left ideas or subscribe to the communist ideology. If AAP were to genuinely uphold liberal democratic values and was prepared to try and replace corporate-driven crony capitalism with welfare capitalism, that would of course mark a salutary improvement over the power-drunk corrupt politics of the ruling elite. But why is AAP, which talks about transparency in every sphere, resorting to ideological obfuscation? Is it the compulsion of holding together the likes of sexist and jingoist Kumar Vishwas and racist Somnath Bharti with progressives like Kamal Mitra Chenoy, Mallika Sarabhai and Prashant Bhushan?

The mohalla sabhas may be a great experiment in decentralisation but devoid of the larger perspective of transformative politics, decentralisation can easily become a vehicle for all kinds of majoritarian/elitist prejudices against minorities and weaker sections. The Khirki episode already gives us a glimpse of AAP behaving like an urban Khap panchayat in the name of controlling drug and prostitution rackets. It is only a small step from such lynch mob mentality and vigilante activism, in which innocent people are accused of sundry ‘crimes’ and ‘deviations’, to the types of riots, atrocities and witch hunts in which the major mainstream political parties have been implicated.

The best way to judge AAP is to see it in action in Delhi, especially in its role as the party in power. It is still early days, but the signals are mixed. AAP has moved in the direction of implementing three of its promises – halving electricity rates, offering 700 litres water free of cost and stopping FDI in multi-brand retail. While sizable sections of the poor without piped water connection will get no benefit, sections of middle classes will benefit at the cost of the public exchequer. Likewise, the halving of electricity bills for households consuming up to 400 units of electricity will cost the Delhi government Rs 20 crore by way of subsidy every month and the benefit will accrue once again more to the middle class than to the urban poor. It remains to be seen if the government takes any action against distribution companies following audit into their finances. The key question of reversing power privatisation is yet to be addressed.

On the main promise made to the working class – regularisation of contract workers – the government is yet to announce any positive step; in fact the government went back on its idea of holding Janata Darbar after contract workers turned up in their thousands to demand immediate regularisation. Faced with widespread public criticism over the irresponsible act of law minister Somnath Bharti, AAP government turned the issue into a confrontation with the Centre demanding action against a few police officials but then climbed down after two days when the Centre offered the face-saving formula of sending two SHOs on leave. But in the meantime, contract teachers asking for fulfilment of the AAP’s promise of regularisation had been beaten up at the AAP dharna site. Coming in the wake of the law minister’s controversial midnight raid and AAP leaders’ remarks justifying the racist comments of the minister and ridiculing anti-racist protesters as defenders of ‘drug and sex rackets’, these are worrying signals for a party which calls itself the torchbearer of a political revolution.
The way AAP is trying to expand and emerge as an all-India party by roping in people from all quarters and asking various movement organisations to merge into AAP is also not a very healthy sign of democratic politics. Perhaps AAP leaders see the present juncture as replicating 1977 when the Congress got wiped out in the North and the Janata Party rose magically to form India’s first non-Congress government. But the Janata Party government collapsed in a very short time and the Jan Sangh, drawing strength and legitimacy from the Janata experiment, reinvented itself as the BJP. How long the AAP can retain its ‘rainbow coalition’ image in terms of classes as well as ideological trends and political shades is anybody’s guess.

How should the Left respond to the AAP phenomenon? We have recently had a few specific instances of Left activists joining AAP with the fond hope of giving it a Left turn from within. But no serious organisation or movement of the Left will really see AAP as a reincarnation of the Congress under Gandhi during the freedom struggle days. Even in the original Congreess, it is worth remembering, communists and socialists including even a hugely popular elected Leftwing Congress President like Subhas Bose had eventually been forced to quit the Congress and form their own organisations.

If we have to locate the AAP phenomenon in the historical context of post-colonial political evolution in India, a parallel can be drawn with the rise of the socialist stream. The socialists had their strongest base in the post-zamindari peasantry which benefited most from zamindari abolition and the first phase of land reforms. The socialist movement did not however carry forward the battle for land reforms or for eliminating feudal survivals, remaining content with consolidating the power of the rural middle class in contention with the old feudal power. Worse still, the consolidated power of rich peasantry often militated against the communist-led awakening of the landless labour and poor peasantry for their rights, dignity and progressive land and agrarian reforms. The AAP phenomenon is powered likewise primarily by the growing urban middle class which initially benefited from the ongoing economic reforms but now finds its aspirations and opportunities stifled by the corrupt corporate-dominated ways of crony capitalism. It now seeks the cooperation of the working people to cleanse the system without really taking up the working class agenda of reversing the pro-corporate policies, let alone uphold the transformative vision of developing the potential of socio-economic progress beyond the limits of decadent capitalism.

While keeping an eye on how the AAP evolves on specific policy questions and in terms of its overall orientation, the Left movement must independently address the ongoing churning in the Indian society and politics of which AAP is but one expression. features that have initially generated goodwill for AAP – its unconventional and down-to-earth approach, willingness to take on the political and bureaucratic establishment, identification with the issues and concerns of the common people, rejection of VIP culture, transparency, people’s participation and so on – are all traits that have been traditionally associated with the communist/socialist movement in the country. Where AAP has probably stolen a march over the Left movement is in its efficacy in using new weapons of struggle like the RTI to expose corruption, in connecting to the middle-class youth and in linking up its contingent of middle-class activists/volunteers with the task of urban mobilisation at the grassroots. The Left must pay special attention to these areas and strengthen its urban work, consolidating the links with its rural struggles.

The rise of the AAP phenomenon has signalled the potential of a welcome shift in mainstream political discourse – away from the obsessive focus on corporate-driven accumulation of wealth in few hands masquerading as ‘development’ and growing militarisation of the state and its increasingly invasive intrusion in civil life in the name of ‘security’ to questions of people’s welfare and citizens’ rights and participation. AAP’s own agenda may only be limited to some sort of modernisation of governance and the legal superstructure without addressing the challenging task of bringing about a basic socio-economic transformation, and it is for the communist movement to encourage and strengthen the changing political discourse and climate and carry it forward in the direction of thorough-going, comprehensive and consistent democratisation in every sphere of life. Instead of speculating on the possible trajectory that AAP may traverse and harbouring any illusion of using AAP as an anti-fascist shield, the Left movement must intervene vigorously in the unfolding situation with its own progressive agenda and identity.