The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is riding a wave. Ever since it hurled the Congress out of power in Delhi and chipped away a sizeable chunk of the BJP’s vote, it has been making the headlines every single day. To its leaders, nothing seems impossible — they are confident of enrolling 1 crore members across the country and talk openly of replacing the Congress as the second tent-pole of Indian politics. To the millions of ordinary people, living harsh lives in our congested cities, who are queuing up to join the party, it has become a beacon promising to guide them to a better future.
But the wave they are riding is a wave of anger. It has been generated by the growing injustice of a political system that is dominated by a corrupt, criminal and predatory class that has somehow seized democracy by the neck and turned it into an instrument of disempowerment, when it should have been doing the exact opposite. The anger has been visible and growing for the better part of four decades. Exceptionally high growth between 2003 and 2010 held it in check for a while. But the collapse of growth, the disappearance of jobs and the return of acute insecurity in the past four years have made it erupt again. When he decided to form a political party and fight the Delhi election, Arvind Kejriwal opened a new channel for the dispossessed to express this anger through. The Delhi vote shows how strong it was. Its electrifying aftermath shows that this anger is turning into a virtual tsunami. If it is not controlled; if it is continuously stoked, it will not reform Indian democracy but destroy it.
Unfortunately, despite its good intentions, this is exactly what AAP is leading the masses into doing. To say that victory has caught the party unprepared would be an understatement, for apart from announcing populist cuts in electricity tariffs and water rates, all it has done in the past four weeks is to feed the self-righteousness of the underprivileged masses and lead, or encourage, them to take shortcuts in their search for redress.
One episode that occurred within hours of its accepting power reflects just how unfit the party is — at least at this moment — to govern a city, let alone a country. Late in the night of 21 January, AAP’s new Law Minister Somnath Bharti led a mob that stopped a cab in which some Ugandan women were returning to their home in a south Delhi colony, accused them of running a drugs-and-prostitution racket, forced them to provide urine samples, and demanded that the police arrest them without a warrant.
Had Kejriwal allowed the law to take its course, Bharti’s attack could have been dismissed as an aberration, but instead he summoned a ‘khap panchayat’ of his own senior partymen, who decided that Bharti had done nothing wrong and, instead, put the blame on the Central government for insisting upon retaining control of the Delhi Police. As if that was not enough, Kejriwal personally led a dharna, demanding that the Central government hand over control of the Delhi Police to his government forthwith. And in a supreme act of contempt for the Indian State and Republic, he chose to hold his dharna in a manner calculated to disrupt the Republic Day parade on 26 January. When asked why he was bent upon doing so, one of his lieutenants retorted “parade ko goli maro. (Forget the parade)”. He withdrew his remark only when he remembered that TV anchors and audiences do not have a sense of humour.
The single common strand in this chain of actions was an utter contempt for the Indian nation. Its institutions and legal processes can be brushed aside because they have all been perverted into instruments for protecting the power of a predatory class. It showed that while Kejriwal talks of reform, his purpose is to destroy the present edifice of the State and replace it with an ad hoc peoples’ rule masquerading as democracy.
One swallow, his defenders may argue, does not a summer make. But when many swallows take to the air at the same time, a change is definitely in the air. On 3 February, the AAP Cabinet took two decisions: the first was to prosecute former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit on the grounds that she had hurriedly regularised 1,200 unauthorised colonies in order to curry favour with the electorate and to favour slum landlords and corrupt builders. The second was to pass a Jan Lokpal Bill for Delhi state that would pointedly include the sitting chief minister within the ambit of this seven-member body’s investigative and prosecutorial powers. What is more, knowing that the Bill is unlikely to receive the President’s assent because it goes against the recently enacted Central Lokpal Act, which explicitly keeps the prime minister and the judiciary out of its purview, Kejriwal announced that he would not ask for the President’s assent to the Bill, but would call a special session of the Delhi Assembly to turn it into law.
The Jan Lokpal Bill is clearly intended to show up the cronyism of the Centre. Sheila Dikshit’s prosecution will, Kejriwal hopes, force the Congress to choose between backing her and leaving her to her fate. The former option will brand Dikshit as corrupt in the popular mind; the latter will brand the entire Congress.
Kejriwal is, therefore, clearly spoiling for a fight. His goal is to force the Congress to withdraw support from his infant government in Delhi and further tarnish its own image, while sparing AAP from having to fulfil its populist promises. Had he stopped there, he might have got away with it, for it is possible to conceive of an Indian Union in which state governments pass more stringent laws than the Centre advocates. But Kejriwal wants to bring the Delhi Lokpal Act into being without any reference to the Central government. And that is not an attack on corruption, or even on the Congress: it is a direct attack on the Indian State. For, if one state succeeds in dispensing with Presidential assent for its enactments, the rest will follow suit. That will be the end of the Indian Union.
What Kejriwal has no inkling of, is the power of the wave he is riding and the near certainty that if he loses control, he will become its first victim. For this wave has built up at a time when India is at the dangerous point in the transformation from a traditional to a capitalist market economy at which it can either build the political and economic institutions that are necessary to make the transition acceptable to the common people, or fail to do so and regress into violence, anarchy and disintegration.
Other countries have come to the same critical point and not all have been able to negotiate it successfully. In Europe, the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands did so with relative ease. Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary and Romania did not. Germany succeeded initially, but regressed into failure in the 1930s under the combined onslaught of defeat in war, hyperinflation and the Great Depression of 1929.
The challenge that all of the above countries faced was the same as the one India is facing today. The most salient feature the early and middle stages of the capitalist transformation is that it creates a profound sense of insecurity. This arises from a growing desire to accumulate wealth — the key to prosperity in the market economy, rapid urbanisation and the consequent dissolution of the social bonds and relationships of traditional society. In India, this change is visible in the inexorable dissolution of the joint family system and the network of caste and community obligations that provided the social safety net to people in the past. In absolute terms, while this change has physically impoverished only the bottom 10 percent of Indian society, the insecurity it has created now permeates its entire spectrum.
The acceleration of growth in the 1990s and 2000s increased the pace of dissolution, thereby heightening the insecurity of the masses, but in the rapidly growing urban areas, the resulting feeling of helplessness was held in check by the plenitude of jobs and market opportunities that the growth created.
However, when growth stalled in 2008 and Manmohan Singh and his advisers deliberately sacrificed growth for the next six years, as they chased the will-o-the-wisp of inflation, this urban, very recently empowered population saw its businesses failing and jobs disappearing and realised that it had been robbed of its future. This is why the corruption, cronyism and lack of accountability that people had lived with for decades, suddenly became unbearable and unacceptable.
AAP has been able to tap into this vein of anger. But if Indian democracy is to survive, it has to be assuaged, and the feeling of helplessness it breeds has to be removed. If AAP does not pull itself together and offer a well-thought-out and ‘doable’ programme of political and economic reform that both restores their future and makes it more secure, the disillusionment that will follow will make large sections of the people lose faith in democracy altogether. History is full of examples of rebellions arising from economic distress — the most recent being the chaos unleashed by the so-called Arab Spring. But the precedent that Indians should consider most closely is the death of the Weimar Republic in Germany.
World War I destroyed most of German industry and the German hyperinflation of 1923-24 destroyed the purchasing power of the old German middle class. By 1928, however, Germany had begun to struggle back on its feet with the help of a new class of small entrepreneurs — the Mittelstand — when it was struck like a bolt from the blue by the Great Depression. In less than three years, industrial production fell by 42 percent and unemployment rose from 8.5 to 30 percent. This second collapse destroyed the Mittelstand and caused armies of small bourgeoisie and workers to flock to the standard of the Nazi party. Between May 1928 and March 1933, its share of the vote rose from 2.6 percent to 43.9 percent and Adolf Hitler came to power.
AAP is bent upon inflaming the expectations of the people. But the more it does so, the more surely will disillusionment follow. Should that happen, voters will have only one place left to go. And Narendra Modi, who is promising an industrial renaissance and a culturally homogeneous Hindu India, will be waiting to receive them.