Theatre of the AAPsurd

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It looked like a war zone. Yellow metal barricades separated a 5,000-strong army of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supporters from 4,000 policemen in riot gear. News crews beamed images of the scene outside the Rail Bhawan in New Delhi: stone-pelting crowds breaking through the barricades only to be greeted by police lathis, all this less than a kilometre from the iconic India Gate.

The AAP protesters were demanding the removal of the SHO and ACP in-charge of Malviya Nagar Police Station, who had refused to raid an alleged “den of vice” on the orders of Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti, and the PCR van in-charge of Paharganj who had failed to prevent the gangrape of a Danish woman last week, as well as the suspension of the Sagarpur ACP and SHO for not investigating a dowry harassment case. However, the larger demands were for complete statehood and giving the reins of the Delhi Police to the state government.

Having spent 33 cold hours protesting on a pavement, newly elected Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal — wrapped in his now trademark grey muffler — addressed his partymen. Emanating from the 500 AAP supporters standing with him in the inner cordon, like a wave, a cheer spread through the crowd as Kejriwal called off the dharna. The party called it a victory. A few hours ago, Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung had assured that the inquiry against the policemen would be fast-tracked. Picking up the blankets and sheets spread on the ground, party workers shouted victory slogans and called it a triumph of AAP’s principles over an indifferent Centre.

Thirty people injured, four Metro stations shut, a city centre brought to a near standstill, and finally, a CM who proclaimed himself an anarchist was forced to step back and accept a completely watered-down proposal.

Born out of the RTI and India Against Corruption movements, AAP came storming into the political arena at a time when many Indians were utterly disillusioned with their political options. AAP offered the idea of change, a political alternative, not a substitute. However, over the past week, many have started questioning the very idea of AAP. Are they a political movement or a political party? Or the antithesis to the conventional idea of politics? And if they are, can India deal with it?

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Messing Up The Honeymoon

A minister’s politically incorrect faux pas and a botched sit-in have bitterly divided AAP, spawning the fledgling party’s first real crisis

cover_aap_ajitA week, former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, is a long time in politics. For the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), that would be the third week since it sensationally took power in Delhi at the year-end. And it has indeed been painfully long. For the first time since they formed their ingeniously named political outfit in 2012, a difference of opinion is rewriting relationships among its top leaders. On one side is a close confidant of party chief (officially “convener”), Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who took the unusual step this week of calling an impromptu public sit-in barely a hundred metres from Parliament, triggering fears of a violent showdown with the constabulary mandated to clear out the area ahead of the 26 January Republic Day celebrations. On the other side is a clutch of other leaders trying to be a counterweight; who want the high-velocity rollercoaster to stop being an anarchic free-for-all and instead bring order to the ranks.

For the moment, though, Delhi’s Public Works Minister Manish Sisodia, a soft-spoken man considered to be closest to Kejriwal, has the aces. His hold over Kejriwal is a legend within the party. Even Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan and pollster-scholar-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav, both top party leaders themselves, are fighting for space vis-à-vis Sisodia. Inevitably, as is inherent in power politics, the two factions are shadow-boxing with each other, where both Yadav and Bhushan are working hard to retain their prominence in the party even as Sisodia has increased his profile massively, especially since becoming a minister on 28 December.

The differences between the two sides have sharpened following the antics — past and present — of two of the party’s prominent public faces. Delhi’s Law Minister Somnath Bharti’s so-called citizens’ initiative against an alleged drug-and-prostitution racket run by African nationals in south Delhi boomeranged badly after at least one woman ambushed at her home bluntly accused AAP vigilantes of criminal assault. The second incident that has sharpened the fault lines is the emergence of a five-year-old video recording of a stand-up comedy routine by Sisodia’s childhood chum, Kumar Vishwas, who has worked closely with Kejriwal ever since the latter launched his anti-corruption public movement at New Delhi in 2011.

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From the very start, AAP has challenged the conventional notions India held about politics. “They proclaimed that ‘we are not your average political leaders, for whom politics is about being in a position of power. We have excelled in different fields and now we are entering politics to clean the system’,” recalls author and political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay. “They mounted a very negative, anti-political campaign and reaped the benefits primarily because the urban middle class is disillusioned with political leaders and view them as people who are in the business of politics only to profit from it.”

AAP’s mix of Gandhian principles, people-centric decision-making and anti-corruption campaigning struck a chord with the masses. In support, thousands flocked to New Delhi from across the country and the world, many leaving lucrative jobs to sleep on the floors in strangers’ houses and become volunteers who went on door-to-door campaigns, using autowallahs to spread their message.

AAP challenged the notion that one needs personal wealth or family backing to fight and win elections, by fielding economically weak candidates — 10 of whom were featured in these pages as the poorest MLAs in Delhi with assets ranging from Rs 20,000 to Rs 14 lakh. Instead of bribing voters, as they claimed their opponents did, AAP collected funds from them. Funds that were meticulously accounted for and displayed on its website.

“They are carrying out a sort of guerrilla politics, using hit-and-run tactics,” says noted academic Pushpesh Pant. “Their opponents don’t know how to deal with them because they have changed the rules of the game.”

Slated to get a maximum of 10 seats, the upstart party left political pundits bewildered by winning 28 out of 70 seats in last December’s Delhi Assembly election.

AAP has cut into the support base of mainstream parties. The party’s stand jeopardises Narendra Modi’s appeal as it has every element that the ‘Gujarat model’ stands for, it is more with the aam aadmi than the Congress, and it has filled the space left vacant by the Left parties.

In an attempt to remain an aam aadmi and end the “VIP culture of Delhi”, Kejriwal refused Z-category security, ordered red beacons to be removed from all VIP cars and refused to stay in the CM’s bungalow, making him a hero of the masses and sending party membership skyrocketing to 50 lakh members from all over India.

Everything was going smoothly until 15 January, when Law Minister Somnath Bharti donned a new role. Apparently, residents of Khirki village in south Delhi had made repeated complaints to the local police about a drugs-and-prostitution racket run by African nationals. As the police had allegedly ignored the complaints, Bharti took matters into his own hands. He reached the spot close to midnight, called the police and ordered them to carry out a raid. The SHO refused to do so without a warrant. Bharti and AAP volunteers allegedly surrounded a car carrying Ugandan and Nigerian women. After accusing them of being sex workers and high on illegal substances, the Africans were forcibly taken to AIIMS for medical tests.

Bharti came under severe criticism for his actions, which may have blurred the lines between activism and vigilantism, but definitely crossed the line of racism. But Kejriwal begged to differ. He demanded that the SHO should be suspended and that the Delhi Police should be brought under the state government’s direct control. When the Centre refused to blink, he went on a dharna.

This incident raises many questions as did the 33-hour-long dharna that followed. It is true that the residents of Khriki had filed multiple complaints with the police, none of which had been addressed. So is it fair to blame Bharti and Kejriwal for taking such an adamant stand?

“I know from experience that the police don’t want to arrest brothel owners,” says Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap, a grassroots movement against human trafficking. “I think Somnath Bharti’s focus on the women rather than the pimps or the brothel managers was not correct. By subjecting the women to harassment, he is not likely to be busting any trafficking ring. There is racism and misogyny behind this incident. While he was trying to expose the collusion between the police and the traffickers, he could have done it differently.”

Suhas Chakma of the Asian Centre of Human Rights feels that if there were complaints that haven’t been acted upon by the police, “Somnath Bharti should have asked the authorities to conduct an inquiry and seek culpability of the officials who refused to lodge an FIR”.

Had the law minister given the police a four-day timeframe to act and on the fifth day called a press conference presenting all the evidence, the media would have been on his side. He probably would have managed to create enough pressure to get the cops suspended and, most importantly, he would not have been accused of breaking any laws. Instead, today, Bharti is facing summons from the National Commission for Women and his action and statements that “they are different from us” has come across as racist and reflects the prejudice that exists in Delhi.

“There is a certain role expected of the leadership,” suggests Aditya Nigam of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “The AAP leadership cannot simply go along with the mass sentiment. If they do, then all these prejudices of race, caste, gender will creep in. Somewhere, you have to expect the leadership to step back and think about the way forward. I think that these AAP people are somewhat in a bit of a hurry.”

Bharti’s actions attracted criticism from all quarters. Both the BJP and the Congress lashed out saying AAP was practising populist vigilantism. But sociologist Dipankar Gupta feels that they should take a step back before casting judgement. “Those who talk about vigilantism should remember that they too have done horrible things in the past,” he says. “For example, the BJP did not criticise the actions of the Shiv Sena and the Sri Ram Sene. This is a case of vigilantism against the police. In the past, groups like the Shiv Sena had the support of the police and acted against civilians.”

Even many within AAP criticised the language used by Bharti, who went on to say that he would like to spit on the faces of senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley and Supreme Court lawyer Harish Salve.

AAP leaders such as Yogendra Yadav and Kamal Mitra Chenoy did not agree with the language used by the law minister.

But what sent shockwaves around the country was Kejriwal’s dharna to wrangle control of the Delhi Police from the hands of the Centre. People watched in horror as the elected chief minister of a state, who is sworn to protect the Constitution, challenged the law and the Union home minister.

Kejriwal had his justification: “Why was this needed? Because, whenever such incidents happened, the previous government used to say that the police was not under them. This Delhi government is not a ‘helpless’ one like the previous regimes.” According to the party, 70 percent of the complaints that they had received on their anti-corruption helpline were to do with the police.

But Mukhopadhyay believes that Kejriwal cannot continue in the agitation mode after forming the government. “You have to resolve these issues through a constitutional framework because these kinds of agitations led by the CM are not good for India’s democracy,” he says. “Tomorrow, anyone who can muster 30,000 people can hold the country to ransom. I don’t approve of this kind of political anarchism. This is a new form of political nihilism, a complete rejection of everything without building alternative power structures.”

Given that all the political parties in the state were in favour of the Delhi Police coming under the state government’s control, Mukhopadhyay feels that AAP could have passed a resolution in the Assembly, because the only way for this power to be transferred is through a resolution in Parliament. “It cannot happen overnight,” he says. “Giving or taking away power can only happen through an act of Parliament, because to the best of my knowledge, I don’t think an executive order can provide for the Delhi Police to be placed under the CM of Delhi.”

However, many observers feel that the dharna was just another act of political opportunism, a stunt to remain in the media glare and distract people’s attention from the issues at hand.

“This is part of their strategy for the Lok Sabha polls,” says senior journalist Vinod Sharma. “There is a rage among the people, a rage against institutions. AAP is taking advantage of that. They are trying to deflect from their promises of regularising jobs, reducing power tariffs and are trying to become the faces and symbols of this rage. If you look at this latest dharna, they may have alienated the upper middle class, but they have appealed to the economically weaker sections of society.”

And that is a fact. While Facebook, Twitter and newsroom debates cracked the whip on AAP’s lack of political correctness, and former comrade Kiran Bedi went as far as to say that the government should be dismissed, the aam aadmi is still steadfast in Kejriwal’s corner.

Pant feels that the debate around these events is lopsided. He feels that the bulk of the blame lies with Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde as he could have taken the eventual decision when the crisis began.

“It is absurd that the Delhi CM can be embarrassed by an SHO,” he says. “What is the concept of dignity? Kejriwal’s whole point is that dignity of a colonial character is something that he doesn’t subscribe to. Is the behaviour of Lalu dignified? Is the behaviour of Mulayam Singh Yadav dignified? Is Mamata slapping a cop dignified? Is this the only way to run a government? The way Lalu ran Bihar or how Mulayam is running UP, or how Mamata is running West Bengal, is that the way to run a government? I find it extremely interesting when people say this is or is not the way to run a government. Is this dignified? Dignified according to who? People who are Anglicised, English-educated, middle class? We are trying to put a gloss on all of it and make sense of it. If he says that he is following a different method to clean the stables, why shouldn’t he? He has taken an oath to follow the Constitution but wants to change it. What is the contradiction? Hasn’t the Constitution been amended? Changing the Constitution doesn’t mean rubbishing it. I have no problem with this ‘disturb’ mode.”

Echoing his views, Nigam feels that in India, it has become impossible for things to move, as a sort of comfortable compact has been created between different groups and parties and nobody wants to disturb the peace.

“Whatever party comes to power, it maintains the status quo. This is the first time it has been seriously challenged,” he says. “The usual routes will not work, they have not worked in the past — you raise it here, you put it up in Parliament, all the stuff that the BJP and the Congress have been going on about, that is because they have become used to this happy comfortable way of periodically making noises when something happens and asking for a token resignation. Resignations aren’t going to make a difference. The old parties are uncomfortable with a fundamental restructuring of the power structures.”

Meanwhile, AAP is facing another problem: the internal tussle coupled with dirty linen being washed in public. Disgruntled MLA Vinod Kumar Binny held a press conference to warn the party leadership to stick to their promises.

“As I mentioned already, the promises of free water, power tariff cuts, formation of Mahila Suraksha Bal haven’t been kept in their entirety,” he says. “They have no clear-cut policy on any issue. They are in a hurry to announce populist measures in half-baked form so that they could reap benefits in the Lok Sabha election.

“AAP is not Arvind Kejriwal’s private limited firm. I will continue to be in the party as I have worked hard for it. But if expelled, I will not mind giving issue-based support to any other alternative.”

Nigam feels that the party has fallen into the trap of trying to move too fast. That AAP is guilty of setting itself impossible targets and unrealistic timeframes.

“They keep saying, ‘We will do x in 10 days, bring the Jan Lokpal Bill in 15 days.’ Instead, they could say x number of months, but this method has hyped expectations in such a way that they are unable to meet them,” he says. “They should get back to their basic agenda. There are two or three things that they need to do and they should stay away from the whole idea of moral policing. Their agenda was anti-corruption. So, get on with that. They weren’t elected to become the moral police of the city. They fought the election on the single issue of corruption, but there are going to be other questions — energy, public health, education, etc. The one magic word of ‘anti-corruption’ will not help. These are things that require thought and time.”

Though some observers feel that a possible split is on the cards, Mukhopadhyay believes otherwise. “This is a typical NGO type of thing. There are people like Prashant Bhushan who have consistently had an anti-government stand on issues like Kashmir and human rights. They will not be looking at things from a mainstream point of view,” he says. “Kejriwal, on the other hand, will be looking to become more mainstream. This tussle will continue but I don’t think that they will leave each other because they need each other. I don’t think that there will be any split within the party. There would be a lot of contradiction and conflicts, which will emerge because they are amateurs in the business of politics. Because as you hype yourself up, you have to be ready for greater scrutiny.”

Nothing could highlight this more than two videos that have cropped up, showcasing the antics of AAP leader Kumar Vishwas, who is itching to take on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at Amethi. The first video shows Vishwas mocking the Shia festival of Muharram and the second shows him mocking nurses from Kerala. He has apologised for the videos, which were shot years ago. However, Bharti’s actions and Vishwas’ videos reflect their mindsets and that should be a cause for concern if they are to hold positions of power.

Chenoy, who left the CPI after 30 years to join AAP, feels that there is need for training as well as a system to cope with the rigours of governance. “If you have a large crowd and they are not trained, unfortunate things can and do happen,” he says. “That is what happened in 1922 at Chauri Chaura, forcing Mahatma Gandhi to call off the Non-Cooperation Movement. When it comes to training, there will be extended briefings for the MLAs.”

“We will have to learn from other organisations. This is a learning experience. We have a long way to go, but the distance we have gone is pretty far compared to others. But that is not good enough, we didn’t promise a polity like the others, we promised more and we will have to deliver, not only to keep power but to help break down the cynicism with which people look at politicians. Because if the political credibility erodes, then problems like anarchy will become a real thing.”

There is genuine anger in the country because very often due process does not get you justice; rather it works in favour of those who have more power. On the flipside, however genuine the anger may be, should you be allowed to violate laws? Should MLAs conduct raids? If our elected representatives become midnight vigilantes, upholding a popular moral code, what separates them from khap panchayats in Haryana?

AAP is an unpolished entity, a new breed of politics and it makes us uncomfortable. We like TV debates, we have grown accustomed to hearing apologies but the boiling anger of the masses scares us. AAP has successfully tapped into the angry young Indian and has already changed the political discourse, but it will have to deliver on two fronts. It will have to show that it can bring about real governance, not just subsidies, and the party will have to prove that it can control its support base. Otherwise, the democratic potential it showcased will turn into anarchy.

With inputs from Nupur Sonar and Mark Kinra

avalok@tehelka.com

deevakar@tehelka.com

2 COMMENTS

  1. In a UPAsurd country maybe we need the AAPsurd to radically alter the status quo. Some chaos is sometimes essential to change.

  2. Unfortunately, the sceptical headline of the article was its main undoing. Had the team devoted so much of its analytical genius to real issues (the malaise affecting the Delhi Police or the Khirki Extension, for example) the space between the magazine covers would have been better served.

    The analysis seems to have got coloured given the overt use of the age-old viewing glasses and clichés of the Congress / BJP era. Perhaps the AAP phenomenon needs to be viewed from a plain-set of viewing glass, much like the way the common man or woman of the country, far removed from the corridors of power, wishes to see things as they stand. After a good 66 years and counting, the Congress and the BJP, and the rest of their ilk, have not made much of a headway in bringing about real change in the lives of the ordinary Indians, their constitutional and ‘extra-constitutional’ means notwithstanding.

    Clearly AAP is the lone voice that has squarely raised the key pain point of the Indian political system- the utter and complete corruption of the political masters, the entire administrative system and almost the entire bureaucracy and babudom. Given the extent to which the rules, regulations, policies, procedures and the whole polity of this country has been distorted, twisted, trampled upon and then sold to the highest bidders for their narrow corrupt means, none of the current policies and procedures can be expected to allow the voice of reason to take roots. Very craftily, they made sure the Constitution was never allowed to be implemented in its true spirit, and where needed, they even amended the Constitution to suit their political means and ends. Rest assured, the only way forward for any real chance of cleaning out the system will involve questioning and overturning a whole lot of everyday practices and procedures which were put in place just to make sure corruption ruled untouched and unhindered. People who talk of doing things ‘within the framework of the rules set up by these previous corrupt regimes’ simply reveal their true allegiances and intent.

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