AAP: FROM BOOM TO BUST?

After a phenomenal performance in the Delhi Assembly elections, the tenure of the AAP government has been marked by a series of gaffes, political wrong-turns and, most importantly, a lack of even a tenuous grip on the functioning of the state. How long before they squander away their gains?

Sanjay Kapoor New Delhi

As political honeymoons go, this was probably the most short-lived. Barely a month into being in power, Aam Aadmi Party, and its feisty chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, has started facing backlash from the same quarters that were earlier effusively singing his praise. In some ways, this sudden dip in popularity rivals that of UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s, but even he managed to avoid a trashing by the media or the opposition parties for at least the first three months. So, is AAP’s discomfiture for real or is there still some life left in a party that promised so much?

Before the boorish and ugly conduct by AAP minister Somnath Bharti brought the Delhi CM to sit on a dharna and defy the central government days before Republic Day celebrations, AAP had been getting tremendous support from different parts of the country, even in the subcontinent. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, too, the edit pages were full of opinion on whether they should also hope for an AAP-style revolution. Both countries have been suffering from abject corruption and an absence of accountability from top leadership.

AAP rode to a stunning victory on the plank of fighting corruption and ending the primacy politicians enjoyed in a parliamentary democracy. Although their disdain for elected representatives in the Parliament smacked of unconcealed fascism, there was a mass of support for this point of view. It’s a similar mindset that has been buoying Narendra Modi’s prospects of being in the PM’s chair, propped further by those who staunchly resent the weak-kneed approach of PM Manmohan Singh. The policy paralysis occasioned by a laborious consensus-building effort on contentious issues of environment, land and mining policy did not help matters either. Both Modi and Kejriwal represented two different paradigms of decision-making, but they have not really departed from the core of the neo-liberal economic order, which had been the hallmark of what is frivolously called “Manmohanomics” by the jargon-fetishist pink press.

While support for Modi remained undiminished amongst those clamouring for more muscle and aggression in their leaders, there was great curiosity in the minds of many about what Kejriwal was up to. The very section in Delhi that claimed to be disgusted with corruption in high places — in fact the biggest beneficiary of the economic boom of the past ten years — has been most vocal in their criticism of the Congress government. Incidentally, it’s the same bunch that used to indulge in the everyday corruption, but in AAP they saw an opportunity to devalue the traditional politician and join politics themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, but many of those who backed Kejriwal’s venture were serving and retired bureaucrats who saw greater respect for their ambitions from a fellow bureaucrat-led political party. Any talk of Kejriwal and AAP rouses that familiar gleam in their eyes. Many superannuated bureaucrats are seriously nursing ambitions of becoming full-time politicians, as a recently-retired Secretary to the Government of India recently asked, “What do you think it even takes to join AAP?” Then there are also those who are angry with the arrogance of the ruling elite and want them to be seriously downsized.

Equally interesting is the fact that soon after this incident, the media that built AAP began to desert it

In effect, what Kejriwal did was make politics—a once-derided catch all term for everything wrong in this country—look respectable as a middle-class pursuit. Even NGOs that were wary of politics and who consciously stayed out of it, began to plug into the AAP after seeing Kejriwal’s remarkable rise. They were emboldened by the decision of Medha Patkar’s decision to work with AAP. Similarly, others, who had been involved in various grassroots movements, started rallying around the party. In places like Lucknow, AAP struck an immediate chord, even though there is no political space for new entrants, as it has been carved up between Congress, BJP and the two caste-based parties, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). In Lucknow’s coffee houses, people donning Gandhi caps began to converge when it was made known to them that’s where the aam admi hung out. In other parts of the state, too, many aspiring to join politics, sensing a wave in favour of AAP, began to show up in impressive numbers. After Delhi, Haryana seemed to have managed to attract the most AAP enthusiasts. A bewildered Congress MP found more than 20,000 workers responding to a call by the AAP party for volunteers. Congress is under no delusion that there’s a dark cloud looming over the bastion of its CM, Bhupinder Singh Hooda. In Bengaluru, AAP leader Yogendra Yadav may not have attracted a large an audience as Modi, but the numbers were still considerable, and far less pretentious.

If AAP’s success in Delhi was due to the middle classes, minorities and poor sections of society deserting Congress, and if they can repeat this success in other big cities, Congress could be looking at a low-double-digit performance in the Lok Sabha elections. Some are even comparing the onslaught on Congress from BJP and AAP to the one subjected by emperor Babur against Ibrahim Lodhi. Called ‘Tulugma’, the strategy attempts to chase the enemy in such a manner that it faces a bigger danger than there actually is. When Congress shapes up to face the BJP, it is compelled to brace up to the challenge of AAP.

The fear of its traditional bases eroding has forced Congress leadership to find ways to protect its turf in places like Amethi — where AAP’s Kumar Vishwas is contesting from. It also explains Sanjay Singh’s nomination to the Rajya Sabha from the Congress, after the Amethi-native threatened to cross over to BJP. This deft move by the Congress is in stark contrast to their blunder before the Khirki fiasco, after which the party was dismissed as ‘anarchic’ and incapable of providing good governance.

However, equally interesting is the fact that soon after this incident, the media that built AAP began to desert it. If the media’s initial endorsement of AAP was intriguing, the speed at which it began to abandon the party was equally bewildering. As an informed political observer stated: “The RSS has made it clear that it would not support Kejriwal after the manner in which he got support from different parts of the country as that could hurt the chances of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.” Further, the manner in which Left-leaning elements had infiltrated AAP hasn’t gone down well with the RSS, as they feared the organisation could be ‘Shanghaied’ by such cells. Kejriwal’s obsession with corruption and improving issues of governance was not good enough to address issues of communalism and casteism, which were bound to cause tensions in the fledgling party.

After the frontal attack on the AAP, the inexperienced government is beginning to flounder. The movement, too, seems to have got a beating. The number of people excitedly lining up to join the organisation for the 2014 elections has come down dramatically. Though Kejriwal might be aware of this and would like to recapture the earlier excitement, the moot question is: will he disengage with the Congress and leave the government? Or will he do both simultaneously? Sources in the Congress think their relationship with AAP could go bust in February. It’s yet to be seen whether Kejriwal has a plan to marshal support beyond those who lifted him to dizzy heights, and now seem to be abandoning him like the aam aadmi

Perhaps the unwinding began on a cold, damp January day, when Kejriwal decided to set the record of being the first Chief Minister to sleep on the streets, protesting the actions of a few policemen. By spending the day and night in dharna, on the hard road leading to North Block, he was also violating prohibitory orders that were enforced as part of the Republic Day protocol. A protester as CM, or a CM as protester? And what all will he protest for? Will he sleep on the road again, or in the slums, to get his laundry list of demands to be accepted by the central government? Or was this a tailor-made spectacle pandering to the television channels that were responsible for his phenomenal rise? Or, indeed, is there more to Arvind Kejriwal’s ajeeb dastaan?

Kejriwal was braving the elements for a decidedly just cause, demanding control over the Delhi Police, which reports to the Union Home Ministry. But his provocation stemmed from an egregious incident involving his law minister leading a vigilante mob to get a few Ugandan women arrested on mere suspicion of ‘drugs and sex’ racket. The Delhi Police, by refusing to listen to the entreaties of a hysterical Somnath Bharti to arrest them without warrant, actually appeared pious in comparison. Delhi Police, like police in the rest of the country, have a terrible reputation, but this time around they seemed to be in the right. Although Bharti prevailed eventually and hustled the traumatized women to the hospital for an involuntary narco test and cavity search, his vigilantism angered many in the Ministry of External Affairs. The fear was that a lawless Law Minister’s act could attract reprisal against Indian nationals in African countries. But Bharti was unrepentant, partly because his hate-laden racist initiative had the full backing of likeminded people living in Khirki extension, where the Ugandan women had been residing.

Kejriwal, instead of condemning the racially bigoted actions of his law minister, drove to the North Block in his blue Wagon-R, and sat on an ‘indefinite’ dharna asking for the transfer of control of the Delhi Police to the state government. Even sections of the media that blindly supported him were now increasingly embarrassed by his actions. The CM then went on to make a series of flip-flop remarks, initially stating he would bring only his Cabinet members to the sit-in, but on seeing that the Centre wouldn’t cave in, threatened to unleash his sea of crazed supporters all over Rajpath.

Not long ago, when he was not in power, Kejriwal had questioned the police on their routine imposition of Section 144 when there was no threat. A valid point then, but this time the area around North Block was being readied for the Republic Day parade.
By now, the fickle-minded CM, on finding himself cornered by law and protocol, started spewing venom against the Republic Day parade itself, calling it a pandering to the elite. But that’s a false dichotomy and entirely besides the point; one might as well suggest pulling down Lutyen’s Delhi to redistribute the land to the landless.

When Kejriwal threatened to fill up Rajpath with his supporters if the government of India did not listen, he was essentially cementing his reputation as a rebel without a clue. His angry declamations and threats had blackmail written
all over, as the protests could have derailed the visit of Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who was expected to unveil the architecture of the future relationship between the two countries.

Discussions soon sprang up in TV studios and on the streets debating how soon the Congress would withdraw support from AAP. Suddenly the tide was taking a different turn. Quite apparently, the AAP’s patrons amongst corporate houses, NRIs and consultants began to froth with anger over Kejriwal’s radicalism. Obviously, they did not want to articulate the cause of the unwashed and deprived who are routinely kicked around by a rapacious police. Lying under a cloudy sky, Kejriwal may not have been following the TV channels, but he could sense the cold logic of winter and the growing frostiness of his well-heeled supporters.

Finally, the dealmaker appeared in the form of hot paranthas from Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung, who rushed to mollify the tempers of the inveterate protester. As the mercury dipped further, an agreement was hastily brokered in the Press Club, paving way for the recalcitrant cops to go on paid leave. Kejriwal drove away from his slot near the Rail Bhavan, a bit unwell, but surely a lot wiser.

The success of AAP in the assembly elections had upset established paradigms and challenged political orthodoxies of Indian politics. Its extraordinary performance, which saw his party winning 28 per cent votes and as many seats, virtually hollowed out the Congress. It accessed the traditional vote bases that had stayed with the ruling party through thick and thin. Even the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) lost ignominiously, shedding about 10 percent votes from the previous elections. Interestingly, the AAP did not hurt the BJP so much in vote percentage, but common sense would suggest that the former’s absence would have given all these seats to the latter.
But this is a flawed understanding as these groups would not have voted for the BJP, but for a party that occupied the middle ground.

Kejriwal’s credit, he leveraged this political and social space remarkably. He used social media to galvanise the masses against the UPA government’s corruption scandals first, as part of India Against Corruption, and later for AAP. His choice of symbol and the rubric of his party, aam admi, meant that he could reach out to those at the margins. His flared trousers and humble neck muffler stand quite in contrast to the carefully cultivated persona of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who sports Gucci shoes, gold-rimmed glasses and a Mont Blanc pen. Sartorially, Kejriwal comes closest to the character of R K Laxman’s common man, except that unlike Laxman’s character, who is a silent spectator, Kejriwal represents the angry ordinary man asking for his rights and greater accountability from those in power.

At the face of it, he is one of the thousands of protestors who have converged in public squares in the last few years to demand better governance. His protest movement, spurred by the economic slowdown, was targeted against the UPA government. As explained by Anand Teltumbde in an interview in this issue, Kejriwal cleverly deflected attention from the slowdown due to neo-liberal economic policies to tell the people that their misery was due to corruption in high places.

At a time when the UPA government was mired in corruption scandals, the AAP campaign drew support from different sections in Delhi. On the day of the polls, December  4, 2013, so overwhelming was the enthusiasm among voters that the polling booths had to be opened till 9.30 pm. The results confirmed the rise of a new party that married greater civic consciousness with politics. It also brought to the fore a democratic cosmopolitanism that is straining to emerge out of these protests. But the question remains,
how much difference can the AAP make in the 2014 parliamentary elections?

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