History has lessons for Kejriwal and AAP

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On lower ground AAP has risen on the wings of replacing rather than strengthening institutions, Photo: AFP
     On lower ground AAP has risen on the wings of replacing rather than strengthening institutions.       Photo: AFP

Samuel Huffington had said that the key to a successful revolution is the broadness of the coalition that its revolutionaries can strike. He had also added that after revolutionists come to power it is this very coalition that could become their nemesis.

Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Admi Party (AAP) call themselves revolutionaries and to an extent, followed the trajectory of most revolutions we have seen in the past two centuries. They managed to rally diverse sections of society — from autrorickshaw drivers to students — against a regime, which had become emblematic of repression, corruption and illegitimacy.

Having successfully replaced the very regime they fought against, their ‘revolution’ has now entered a tipping point. This week, AAP completes its first month in office. under normal circumstances, the first few months of a post-victory euphoria of a popularly elected government is called a “honeymoon period”, during which dissatisfaction levels are normally at a bare minimum. For the AAP government, this was clearly not the case. It is ironic for a party whose edifice stood on mass public support that its first month in power should be its most challenging.

Instant gratification

Most revolutions in the past few decades have been led by the youth. By nature, those youth who endorse a revolution are the ones willing to take the risk for quicker and better returns. Hence, a large restive youth population that has access to modern communication is a fertile ground for any agitation, which explains why revolutions of the 21st century are being staged increasingly in cities and not villages.

In an era where allegiance is instantly defined by pressing a “like” or “follow” button, gratification is also expected with equal alacrity. This is becoming a major challenge for post-revolutionary governments or even those governments, which win with a landslide victory by defeating an incumbent. This is why the moment such governments come to power they make certain symbolic but landmark decisions in the first few months.

Lech Walesa, leader of Poland’s Solidarity Movement and the country’s first democratically elected president — also one of the few examples of a successful activist-turned-administrator — was quick to bring in radical and sweeping economic reforms to revive the economy. In a plot that seems very similar to the one being played out in Delhi’s politics, Walesa, in a span of few months, went from being an engineer at Gdansk’s ship-building yard to one of the most famous icons of global revolutionary politics. His obdurate style of functioning and his thrust to bring in a structural change by rapid privatisation failed to impress the same citizens he had previously managed to galvanise and unite against the Soviet-backed government (though it did pay off many years later). Towards the end of this tenure, his unpopularity had soared to such heights that it wasn’t a surprise he failed to get a second term in office.

Like Walesa, AAP too is trying to bring in structural reforms in Delhi’s administration, which would yield benefits only in the long run. Also, given its fragile coalition, the success of such reforms remains a big question. On the other hand, its short-term gratification measures like free water and reduced power tariffs are simply not enough to live up to the huge expectation wave the party rode on to win the Assembly election.

Easier to oppose than to propose

In the past decade, two landmark revolutions have ended up doing more harm than good. Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring were intended to bring down authoritarian regimes, but both these countries are now in the grip of the very people the protesters were opposed to. This has been a predominant phenomenon in most revolutions right from the 1789 French Revolution.

It has been argued that since pessimism tends to prevail over optimism in modern society, it has always been easier to unite people ‘against something’ rather than ‘for something’. And when revolutionary activists achieve their primary goal of removing an existing government, they might not necessarily agree on an appropriate substitute.

Political revolutions in India have not been immune to this trend. In 1977, a rainbow coalition of anti-Congress parties registered a historic victory after Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency. But once in power, they realised they had very little in common. Within three years, the Morarji Desai-led Janata government collapsed only to be replaced by an even more powerful Indira Gandhi. AAP members’ recent squabbling over revoking FDI in retail could begin the unravelling of this body of socially conscious citizens whose primary objective of gathering was to fight corruption rather than govern.

‘Hand over’ the revolution

It was not without merit that Mahatma Gandhi, the key architect of the Indian freedom struggle, advocated that the Congress party must be disbanded once it achieved its goal of swaraj or complete Independence. Gandhi was of the opinion that at some point, activists must make way for specialists, experts and other citizens to take ownership of a revolution or else the success of a revolution tends be hijacked by its progenitors. Trappings of power finally caused Gandhi’s own Congress party to split in 1969.

Ironically Anna Hazare, who is Gandhi personified in AAP’s universe, did issue similar warnings to his protégé, ArvindKejriwal, before the latter took a plunge into politics. Though Kejriwal might remain personally incorruptible, the fact is that political activism is a blend of aspirational utopia and idealism. These are powerful tools to unite a population for a cause. However, governance is an eclectic mix of pragmatism and realism and when highly spirited activists make the transition from protesters to administrators, they are likely to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the system.

AAP has already realised that if it is to revolutionise the national capital, it would need to set its eyes on the national government. Only time will tell if the party will be drawn into the vortex of India’s politics, but the nearly month-old government’s recent face-off with the judiciary and the police are hardly encouraging signs.

Change, if not incremental, is not sustainable

AAP’s biggest threat is not coercive politics by the BJP or the Congress, or the fancies of Vinod Kumar Binny, but its attempt to usher in radical and sweeping changes. One of the primary reasons why the American Revolution has been called a far greater success than the French Revolution is because the Americans demanded an incremental change compared to the French, who wanted to overthrow the entire system.

AAP’s proposal of replacing, rather than strengthening, existing grassroots level institutions with its Jan Mohallahas signify one of the many radical ideas that the party showcases in its effort to distinguish itself from the existing polity. Should it fail to implement them — which will most likely be the case with demands that do not conform to the Constitution — AAP will end up being no different than the parties it currently stands against.

Rome was not built in a day and neither can India change itself as fast. Independent India’s political history is replete with activists who tried to be instant harbingers of change, but all they managed to change was themselves. Former prime minster VP Singh, Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar and Prafulla Kumar Mahanta in Assam experienced a dramatic rise to power through their radical promise of social justice and fresh politics.

Not all revolutions are failures, but a majority of them are not successes either. Unfortunately, the failure is well understood and not the success. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Napoleon was the ‘aam animal’ who outsmarts his partner Snowball to become the tyrant ruler of all other farm animals he was fighting for. Kejriwal has likely read Animal Farm.

(Siddharth Mazumdar and Sasha Mathew are members of Citizens for Accountable Governance, Mumbai)

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1 COMMENT

  1. I’ve heard of Samuel Huntington and Arianna Huffington, but this is the first time I’ve heard of Samuel Huffington. (ref. to the first name in the first line of this piece.)

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