FACE TO FACE: Anand Teltumbde

‘It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.’
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi

Eminent scholar, writer, political analyst and civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde is a professor at IIT-Kharagpur. He has authored many analytical books on Leftist and Dalit movements, including the acclaimed Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop. In this interview to Hardnews, Teltumbde analyses the emergence of the AAP from a civil rights movement to a party in power, and claims that its unprecedented style of functioning, not unlike a new-age management firm, will throw open a new chapter in Indian democracy. 

What do you make of the AAP’s meteoric rise from an anti-corruption movement to a full-fledged political party?

One thing should be squarely admitted, it’s hard not to be impressed by Arvind Kejriwal. Unlike numerous youth who knew far better what ailed India and took to radical politics, Arvind started an NGO to fight corruption, which is at best a symptom not the disease. However, it’s so pervasive a phenomenon that it affects every person some way. But two decades ago, around the time Kejriwal formed Parivartan, his first NGO, babus taking bribes from ordinary people to do their job was a petty phenomenon. There was not much class distinction between the taker and the giver. But post economic reforms, the middle class grew in size and strength and the opportunities for big ticket corruption for politicians and top bureaucrats grew alongside. Corruption had increasingly become ‘breaking news’. What Arvind did would not have been possible a few years back. The last five years, there has been a spate of scandals breaking out in public, exposing the collusion of entire political classes across parties. The middle class that was so euphoric to see the GDP growth zooming close to double digit (it never went close in fact, but in public, the propaganda was already there) that it had begun dreaming of India as economic superpower during the UPA I, but became disillusioned when the growth was punctured during UPA II and were feted with a series of corruption scandals. Being the beneficiaries of neoliberal policies, they were inherently incapable of suspecting the latter for this malaise. It was easy to view the political class as the culprits. This is when Kejriwal stepped in, when he raked up the issue of corruption in 2012, by demanding a Jan Lokpal.

As a strategist, he has done commendably. From seeding a movement, to cornering the entire political class, to picking up Anna Hazare to play a Gandhi for mass appeal, cobbling out an amorphous outfit of people of his ilk in the form of ‘India Against Corruption’, sensing the signs of ennui and impending deadlock, deciding to plunge into the ‘gutter of politics’ to cleanse it from within, floating a political party in the name of ‘aam adami’, the identity indicative of the growing alienation of common folk during the neoliberal era, declaring to fight the elections in Delhi, and eventually forming the government with the unsolicited support from his bête noire, the Congress Party, comes out with its strategic brilliance and masterly execution. The entire episode probably does not have a parallel; not even in the pre-Emergency movement of Jay Prakash Narayan. After its dazzling performance in the Delhi assembly, AAP no more remains a maverick player and has become a palpable threat to the political biggies at the national level. If Kejriwal plays his cards well, he could emerge as the contender of power in 2014 elections as many analysts predict.

 

What is your assessment of the Assembly results wherein they managed 28 odd seats? How do you dissect the
election campaign?

Everyone thought without any substantial material resources, the AAP would be incapable of competing with parties like Congress and BJP. Therefore, it strategized to harness human resources in the form of hundreds of students in the capital. Almost 500 students from IIT-Delhi volunteered and worked round the clock for managing social media accounts, creating websites to promote the party and going door-to-door for campaigning. Even students from Delhi University and JNU joined in large numbers, many of them even forsaking their affiliations to BJP or Congress. Besides, thousands of IT professionals, engineers, businessmen, from outside Delhi, volunteered. Some were so inspired by the idea that they left their jobs and worked backstage right since the formation of the party. 

The party had reportedly drawn up a six-step strategy for the campaign. It included booth-level strategy, for which a team of local youth along with a party volunteer as coordinator checked the electoral rolls, reported bogus voters to the authorities and enrolled the missing people. Another feature was creating a network of sthaniya prabhari (local in-charge) who would manage party communication to 15-20 homes in the vicinity, clearing doubts in people’s mind about the party. A team managed a calling campaign, in which people could call back from anywhere, India or abroad, and some way connect with the party. Another team managed ‘Play for Change’ campaign, performing street plays, singing patriotic songs and informing the audience about the party’s objectives. Another team carried out ‘Metro wave’ in which the volunteers created a buzz among the commuters against corruption. In sum, the campaign was creatively strategized and passionately executed like some campus election.

 

Their campaign was largely centered around corruption and still they managed to garner such massive support. What does it signify? 

Had it been any other issue, it would not have been as successful. Of course, corruption did not remain the sole issue. The AAP did weave around it other issues like electricity bills, water bills. They formally had an election manifesto besides creating a vision document, which elaborated on what they stand for and what they intend on doing. But all that was secondary. But their biggest strength also came from uncorrupt people, unlike the established politicians.

 

There are claims that the AAP stopped the BJP, or rather Modi in his tracks. How do you see that assertion? 

It’s well known how the Congress had earlier accused the anti-corruption campaign of carrying out the BJP agenda, and now the BJP is accusing them of a milibhagat with the Congress. Only a fool would believe such things. AAP is the natural outcome of the changes in political economy and alongside the degeneration of politics over the last seven decades, like any other movements in West Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. The politics of AAP, in contrast with the established politics, should be seen in tune with the contemporary economic paradigm: neo-liberalism. When Anna Hazare’s movement was on, I had called it in one of my columns as a neoliberal revolution. Indeed, that is its basic character. 

We can see how it is natural evolution. The established format of politics had evolved in line with the Keynesian model of mixed economy wherein the state had donned the welfarist robe and presented itself as committed to populist ideologies as socialism, secularism, democracy, etc. as for instance, found enshrined in our Constitution. Over the years, there have been momentous changes in the economy, ending in the current neoliberal economic paradigm, which is directly opposed to the Keynesian welfarist state. The form of politics could not keep pace with these changes and persisted with its pretention of adhering to the same set of ideologies as before. The resultant discordance increasingly showed up as the hypocrisy of the political class, gradually giving rise to spaces for new political movements. Such movements are showing up all over the world in various forms. In the absence of any revolutionary discourse, this space is producing politics that well accords with the contemporary neoliberalism. It is typically post-ideological, post-modernist, discrete, focused on issues, and professing managerial orientation to social problems. The emergence of AAP in a way exemplifies this process. They are not only in tune with contemporary neoliberal ethos, but can also pose as an alternative to the prevailing degenerate politics, thus creating a powerful appeal to both the burgeoning middle classes as well as the underprivileged masses.

As for the AAP lowering the BJP’s chances and stopping Modi from becoming the prime minister, I am not quite sure. It will surely create an impact in metro constituencies. But to what extent it would influence the outcome in favour of either Congress or BJP is too uncertain to even guess. The Congress appears so dilapidated and still out of tune that it is very likely to face a virtual rout. The BJP will be impacted by the AAP, but not enough to stop it from coming to power.     

 

Many from the backward classes and the SCs, also deserted Congress and the BSP, voting for AAP instead. What do you think were the reasons? 

There is a way of understanding the allegiance of the SCs and/or BCs to BSP or Congress. SCs/BCs are not a static mass and they are also undergoing transformation. Let us take only the BSP, which is expected to be backed by the SCs. Firstly, I do not think that the SCs in Delhi together voted for the BSP as they do in UP. Why they continue voting for the BSP in UP elections after elections, without realizing any material improvement in their lives has a reason. The foremost being the intoxication with identity that is nourished extremely well by the BSP. But beyond such psychological (emotional) explanation, there are existential reasons too. There is no party that can really bring material betterment to their lives and hence to expect some such thing from BSP is unwarranted. They also cannot afford to leave the BSP because it provided them a notional protective cover, against the likely onslaught of the BCs in villages. But there is no such compulsion for the SCs in Delhi. If AAP has created general appeal relating with people’s problems, how could the SCs escape from it? Delhi NCR is a centre of the Dalit middle class and the latter reflects a bigger identity obsession.

 

Many have begun to call AAP as a post ideological and post caste party. Or is it just another attempt to preserve the Brahmanical hegemony? 

Yes, one may call them post-caste too, inasmuch as they tend to gloss over castes. This is construed by their imprecise stand on castes. Of course, not that I would personally expect clarity from them in such short a time. Caste a very complex issue that has been used as a milch cow by most political parties. The clarity on caste could only stem from systemic and ideological clarity of the Indian situation. The AAP admittedly shuns both ideology as well as a systemic approach and proudly proclaims to be issue-focused. One gets easy confirmation of this characterization from AAP’s own website. It proclaims that they (AAP) are very much solution-focused rather than ideology driven. Kejriwal’s answer to the question of ideology echoes Deng Xioping’s famous dictum “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” Kejriwal says, “Our goal is to remain solution focused. If the solution to a problem lies on the Left we are happy to consider it. Likewise if it is on the right (or in the center) we are equally happy to consider it. Ideology is for pundits and the media to pontificate about.” Such things appeal not only to the new generation, which grew hearing ‘the death of ideology’ and ‘the end of history’ but also to the people who have only experienced deception in the name of ideology.

I will not go so far as to accuse them of preserving the Brahmanical hegemony. But as a neoliberal party, they surely are influenced by the tenets of open competition. That’s probably why they sound nebulous while speaking about castes. Neoliberalism would not go into the iniquitous backgrounds of the players, but just expects them to wrestle out. It does not have to speak about Brahmanism but in effect, by advantaging the socially privileged person in an open competition, it would unconsciously end up preserving it. AAP, one hopes, understands it and betters its clarity on India’s social situation. Many people who are identity-focused already tend to identify many of its members as part of the ‘youth for equality’ of yesteryears, which had spearheaded the anti-reservation agitation. They should get over this image trap, howsoever motivated it may be.

 

Do you think AAP is offering anything revolutionary in the kind of politics that they are doing, protesting against the central government, wanting Delhi police under their control etc? 

The issue-based politics can never be revolutionary. If you are referring to the AAP’s recent sit-in protest against the Centre, I think it was a strategic exercise in communicating what extent the AAP can go taking up cudgels for the people. As they declared, the protest was to demand suspension of four policemen. In the context of the controversial incident involving Somnath Bharti, it was perhaps not a very appropriate demand. However, the strategy might have foreseen that the demand would not be conceded easily, and that Kejriwal would get to pass a night under the glare of the cameras. The resultant spectacle of Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi sleeping on the road, braving the winter cold of Delhi, worsened by occasional drizzles, has surely accomplished the AAP objective of strategic communication, irrespective of the media crying hoarse about ‘anarchism’.

As for Delhi Police being under the Centre’s control, I feel it is an anomaly that needs to be fixed. There is an obvious problem as Delhi is also the seat of the Centre.

 

Do you think in this environment there is still space for a traditional, orthodox party like the Congress? 

No, they have outlived their utility. They have also changed but the change is not proactive and commensurate with the changes in the environment. The least they can do is to discard the dynasty and democratize itself.  

 

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