FACE TO FACE: Atishi Marlena, Aam Aadmi Party

‘In Rural India, what is going to make a difference is the coming together of many social movements and political parties’
Souzeina S Mushtaq Delhi

Atishi Marlena, 32, a key intellectual face of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), was also instrumental in drafting the manifestos of the party in the Delhi Assembly elections. Marlena read history in college in Delhi, and went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. She was always interested in policymaking and academia, but it was while working for a non-profit in Himachal Pradesh that she met AAP leader Prashant Bhushan and got involved in one of the party’s 31 committees.

She spoke to Hardnews about AAP’s future, especially regarding the immediate
obstacles to performing in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Excerpts:

It’s said that mature liberal democracies with strong political institutions often spawn self-correcting mechanisms. Is AAP merely doing the job of a strong grassroots organization till the country is back on track?

AAP is doing more than just taking up corruption. Even when we are talking of addressing corruption, in the short term, yes, we are talking about corrective mechanisms and legal mechanisms like the Lokpal, but our long-time perspective is basically a form of participatory decentralized democracy. One of our major agendas is devolving power to Gram Sabhas and Mohalla Sabhas where people themselves get the right to take decisions about things that affect their lives.

Political parties or, for that matter, political movements arise when historic circumstances create the need. We do not exist just to exist; we exist to create a better society, a better country. And if we are successful in creating that, maybe there will be a situation when there is no need for the AAP. But till then, we can create a more just, equitable, and  more participatory democracy. There is space for a political party that can act as a vehicle of change. 

 

Yogendra Yadav recently said that AAP does not believe in any ‘isms’. And according to the party, it seems corruption is the only issue plaguing the country. Do you think you will be able to woo voters with that?

The party has arisen from an anti-corruption movement. Therefore, corruption being the centre of the party’s agenda is but natural. But the party has expanded its mandate, from looking at anti-corruption to the idea of swaraj, and even to looking at what are the basic issues that affect the common man.

Our policies have not come out of any pre-decided ideology. We went amongst the people of the city and found their problems and we tried to look for solutions. This is exactly what we are going to do even at the national level. We are actually slotting large-scale consultations with groups to try and understand what their problems are, and then finding solutions to those problems.

 

Prominent personalities are joining AAP, and the strong expanding support base from the masses reminds one of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement. How is the AAP different from that, if at all it is?

I have actually found a lot of commonality in AAP and the Independence movement. Even then, you had various strands of thought. On the one hand, you had someone like Sardar Patel, who was clearly right; on the other hand, you had Jayaprakash Narayan, who was a socialist. And within that spectrum, you had Nehru, who, while representing a certain kind of developmental modernity, was very much influenced by the socialist movement. And then you had someone like Gandhi, who was representing a completely false stream of development.

AAP has a very clear structure. Along with being a political party, it is actually a political movement. On the one hand, you have people’s movements that are coming in and joining AAP, and on the other hand, you have professionals quitting their jobs to join the party. It is a coming together of these various groups that can also define what shape the party can take.

When people are dissatisfied, they start looking for substitutes, but the kind of support we are getting shows that people of the country are looking for an alternative. They are looking for a politics that can be fought with less and clean money, and with honesty, and that can keep the people’s issue at the centre. That is actually what we represent.

 

But the problem with the JP movement was that it could not sustain itself for more than 18 months, and it fizzled out. Do you think that could be the case with AAP?

It is very difficult to say that right now. Time will tell in terms of how it pans out. The crucial thing that might make a difference in deciding whether the party survives is how effectively it is able to address the concerns of the common people of the country.

The results of the Delhi election have shown us that there existed a vast political vacuum. That is why we have been able to occupy the mindspace of the people. The interesting thing about AAP is that it has shown an ability to evolve. That is the reason I think the party is likely to have a longer life. If you look at the circumstances, it is not just AAP that is driving the change; the entire country is driving the change.

 

AAP, despite its spectacular debut, is called an urban phenomenon. Are you trying to reach out to the rural population as well?

Interestingly, we have been getting good inputs in the past few days. There was a big rally in Amethi and several of our colleagues had gone with Kumar bhai [Vishwas], and they were travelling in the villages. Even amongst the rural areas, people have heard of AAP. The reach of the media, newspapers, satellite television is much deeper than we realized.

In rural India, what is going to make a difference is the coming together of many social movements. The social movements are now joining hands with political parties. For example, we are in discussions with the Bhartiya Kisan Union that works in North India with landless labourers and farmers. Similarly, we are in discussions with the Narmada Bachao Andolan movements in Odisha, etc. Our success in those regions would depend on our ability to take up those issues and mobilize people.

 

How sure is AAP of the outside support from the Congress?

It is very difficult to tell. The honest answer is we don’t know. We don’t know because we never had any discussion with them; we never asked them for support. They directly sent the letter of support to the Lieutenant Governor. The only communication we had with them was that letter Arvind [Kejriwal] had written to Sonia Gandhi. The answer we got was also in the public domain.

We are very clear that till we are in power, we are going to take whatever decisions we can in the interest of the people, and that is precisely what we are going ahead and doing. Some of our decisions have not been popular with the Congress; they oppose FDI in retail. We are going to go ahead with the decision. The day the Congress decides to withdraw its support, we are happy to go for re-elections.

Your policy of free water and lower power tariff is coming under serious attack from the opposition. Is it possible to sustain such populist policies?

For some reason, the word ‘populist’ is considered a bad word because it seems providing things to the people of this country is somehow a bad thing.

It is the job of the government to ensure that the people of this country, especially the disadvantaged sections, have access to the facilities they need. If someone talks about improving government schools, do we say it is a populist measure? If someone talks about improving government hospitals, is that ‘populist’? Is talking about very fundamental human rights ‘populist’?

On each of these issues, there is a short-term plan, and there is a long-term plan. What we can implement in a week or so, and what comes under the media glare the most, is the short-term plan. But when long-term plans are implemented, no one looks at them.

 

You have worked on the manifestos for the Delhi assembly elections. You are also a part of the manifesto-making team for the Lok Sabha elections. What issues will you be looking at?

Our Delhi manifestos talked about anti-corruption, decentralization, electricity price regulation, water availability, education, and health. These are not any special issues. But what made the manifestos special was that people were talking about the policies. It is a fact that we are coming with the political intent to ensure that policies are implemented in the interest of common people. The issues of common people have somehow never made it to the centre of the national political debates. So we have brought back the aam aadmi and their concerns to the centre-stage of politics. That is an important contribution that the party has made. Whatever its electoral success might be from here on, no longer can our democracy ignore the common man. And all political parties will have to respond to the basic issues the people are facing.

 

Violence against women is rampant in India. Being an educated woman, how do you think this challenge can
be tackled?

There are, again, short-term and long-term measures. In the short term, one will have better security, better policing. We took the issue of women’s security in the manifestos, despite the fact that Delhi Police is not under our control. We talked about having some kind of citizen security force and work on that has already started under the Women and Child Welfare Ministry. The setting up of an all-women security force is on its way; we’re providing training to volunteers in that. These are short-term measures that are being taken even in terms of better lighting on the streets, adequate security, GPS in public transport, etc.

In the long term, one will have to have a serious outreach in changing the mindset of the people, be it even in terms of having gender-sensitive education. But the crucial factor actually is the opportunities that exist for women in public life. Very few women are present in decision groups. The greater the number of women present in decision-making, greater the participation and greater the policies that are likely to emerge. But, yes, this is going to be a significant issue that we want to take up.

 

There is a Modi wave hype all around, and the Congress is also buckling up for the elections after defeat in various states. Being a newcomer party, what challenges do you think are up ahead?

On the Modi hype, I personally feel that a lot of our politics has become individual-centric. What is interesting is that, with the coming of the AAP party, that politics is moving from being individual-centric to being issue-based. It is interesting how even the BJP has started to talk about those issues. So, rather than talking in terms of Modi and Rahul, the discourse is being shifted by us to the issues that we are going to tackle. This is a significant change, and that’s what we want to push into politics.

Although we have overwhelming support from across the country, the challenge for us is in converting that support into electoral gains. I don’t think our challenge is any specific individual.

 

AAP, in a way, swept the Delhi elections, reducing the Congress to eight seats. Where do you think the Congress went wrong?

I think it is quite clear actually. What has decimated them is the fact that they were not able to address the concerns of the common people. If they had been able to address those concerns, this decimation would not have happened. We look at the state of people in the city; 75 per cent of the residents of Delhi live in slums, notified JJ clusters, 10 million people don’t have toilets in their homes; 30 million people don’t have sewage connections. Look at the state of government schools. Look at the fact that a family can fall below the poverty line if one member of the family gets a serious illness. If you have not been able to address these basic questions, then surely it is just a matter of time. Our current political class is caught in its own hubris and this has disdained the common people; you had never bothered to go back to them at any point of time. You think you can just go back after four-and-a-half-years and fool the people. What AAP represents is the fact that people now are looking for answers, they are looking for accountability, and when they saw there was a political party that was making real promises of going to them, they started coming to the party in large numbers.

 

What will be your model of governance, and how different will it be from what the BJP and Congress are pursuing?

It’s not anything different or anything special, but a few key things actually. One is tackling the issue of corruption, which is something we are very serious about. Second, in our model of governance, we have not come to power to govern; we have come to power to bring the common people at the centre of policy discourse. While, theoretically, democracy is supposed to be giving power to the people, what it effectively gives them is an opportunity to vote once in five years. No participation in the governance after that. What we want to do is to ensure that there is a systemic change in how our democracy functions.

 

Recently, Prashant Bhushan made a statement regarding a referendum on the army in Kashmir. What is your stand on AFSPA?

I want to clarify something first. If you listen to that interview, Bhushan never used the word ‘referendum’. When an internal security threat actually exists, often the government has no choice but to deploy the military. Dismantling that is often not a very easy choice because the threat exists.

But, yes, military excesses will have to be looked at. But the decision to remove the army cannot be taken by something like a referendum because the situation is far too sensitive for that. But the failure of our entire democratic system is that we were not able to bring people into the decision-making process. Eventually, the solution will have to be political. But till we can find political solutions, there is often no choice but to involve the military.

 

It has been one year since the Afzal Guru hanging. What would the AAP have done if it was in power, as many people had called it an unfair trial?

One would need to look closely into what actually happened in that particular case. The problem is that particular case was polarized by the question of national interest. When there is an armed attack on the symbol that represents the sovereignty of the country, then for people it becomes a sort of polarized situation.  We would need to look into the specifics of that case in terms of evidential issues, etc.

There are serious concerns about our judiciary. Judicial reforms need to be one important part of our agenda because it is another organ of the government, which has virtually no accountability. There are so many people whose cases go on for 20 years. The judiciary needs to be reformed for all the citizens, and not just in this high-profile case.  

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2014