The AAP’s claims of issue-based and action-oriented governance are unique, though not unprecedented. But incidents such as the harassment of the Africans by a mob led by an AAP leader point to the Achilles’ heel in a post-ideological party

Rahul Govind Delhi

The aam aadmi party reveals the germ of horrific possibilities within the larder of ebullient hope. The Somnath Bharti incident and its construction and reconstruction in the AAP’s discourse (as relayed in the media) and actions (specifically the two-day dharna around Rail Bhawan) threaten all that has been so patiently and heroically built up by the party. It reveals not only the uglier side of the leader, Arvind Kejriwal, but also signals the inherent dangers to a party that may well find itself indistinguishable from a cult. So what luxuriant potential might well be snuffed out before its time?

Everyone who has been out in Delhi late at night would not have helped notice the numbers of our kind that sleep on the dividers. And those of us who spare a thought for what our eyes see with indubitable certainty may well have wondered how they survive the damp and merciless winters. Kejriwal spoke about them, just as he did about the bullied street vendors, the exploitative contractualisation, extortion-afflicted rickshaw pullers, public school going children who might have neither blackboard nor toilet, with a level of determination and concern not seen in the present media. Brought out of statistical abstraction of numbers and the sentimental vacuity of empty sloganeering, they singed into shape in an otherwise REM media culture. In listing what he has done — and the plans he has for them — on the same plane as auditing the all powerful corporate, poverty was given form and the sort of distillation that spoke of his party’s work among the poor and their aspirations. One might well contrast this to Sheila Dikshit’s irritation-laced surprise at her party’s debacle in spite of building 86 flyovers (or was this her idea of shelters for the homeless?)

Poverty as evisceration and deprivation thus made a surreptitious entry into our consciousness. Integrated in a gradual and graded manner with the much more greatly publicized big institutional changes promised in the manifesto, i.e. auditing the corporate and investing in public education and health. Though a dirty word now, one cannot but characterize the latter as socialist. Just as the media would speak of a thankfully long-gone past of the license raj in an age of corporate-political rule. Kejriwal’s main argument about water, that the state must ensure a minimum amount of water to every citizen, should surely be extended to other “rights.” Rights such as the right to shelter and livelihood, echoes seemingly dead values by pointing out the obvious: state accountability to its citizens towards guaranteeing the dignity of minimum material conditions. It is in such a context that one could understand the detailed attention to the ‘illegal’ colonies and the rights of street vendors. A discourse that reflects our own sensory experience aches, in this language of the AAP, to ‘find utterance’. And one applauds.

With Kejriwal holding so many portfolios and appearing to take most decisions on his own, the nature of decision-making processes of the party must be brought to light

Such attention and attentiveness has moved a long way from the so called Anna movement with its overly precise focus on the Janlokpal Bill, its insufferably vague ranting about corruption, and the horrific imagery of its founder whipping those wedded to the bottle. While numbers on the streets are scarce index of anything — whether political intention or prudence — by contrast the resounding success of AAP in the electorate without (corporate) money or muscle lend substance to the democratic promise that we are indeed equals. However, ghosts are difficult to keep at bay and certain unresolved issues in the Anna Movement have undoubtedly carried over and found distillation in the Somnath Bharti incident. If the Janlokpal Bill did not address the fundamental issue of whether simply instituting a new cadre or chain of command will successfully combat corruption, Somnath Bharti is an unpleasant symptom of the same issue. That government servants should not be protected by any immunity — vestiges from a imperial order of things — cannot and will not be disputed. But whether simply having a new institution (Lokpal) without a clear elaboration on the manner of its selection or its modus operandi will deter future acts of corruption, is, well, questionable. Remember Delhi government’s unique solution to the large number of accidents caused by rash driving — itself traced to the privatization of public transport in the 1990s? With great alacrity, the government responded to the scourge of the “Red Devils” (the new private buses) as they were called by painting them blue. If policemen are indeed corrupt, is the solution to get Janlokpal men?

This is where the age old problem of laws and men creeps in. Aristotle, in response to Plato, had said that as long as the difference between men did not exceed that of a difference between mankind and another (animal) species, men should indeed be ruled by laws and not men. (Of course one is simplifying here, for Aristotle had some nice things to say about Absolute monarchy too). New men will not solve the problem as long as laws are not understood and respected. If Somnath Bharti insisted that the SHO enter the house, he was either simply unaware of the laws or thought that the authority bestowed upon him by his office – as an elected representative of the people – allowed him to suspend laws that hold for ordinary citizens. That he is a lawyer inclines one to believe that the sheer arrogance of the latter was the case. It is true that any citizen has the right to ask a policeman to enter another person’s house, but there is nothing in the law that insists that the particular policeman must comply. There are rules, processes and laws in place by which the latter have to be judged; and in this particular case there appeared to be every good reason as to why the SHO refrained. The later incidents about stopping the car and the other egregious violations (much written about) that have been charged by three Ugandan women simply cannot be dismissed; as was done by AAP spokesmen. Now much that had appeared in the newspapers appears to have been formally placed on record by the concerned women. On the other hand, what is the nature of the charge against the SHO? That he did not listen to a minister leading a mob because he felt he could not violate strictly laid-down processes? An SHO, whose record, various womens’ groups and a local NGO activist, Aastha Chauhan, have defended in public. Even if later indeed a criminal nexus is found, and even if police complicity is established, the whole meaning of “due process” lies in its necessity beyond particular cases and particular individuals, howsoever empowered. A philosophical debate on the nature of due process cannot deflect from Bharti’s actions, the possibilities they engender and the ‘ideology’ they reflect.

Much has been said and written about the Somnath Bharti case. And it is perfectly reasonable to have him resign insofar as he has been charged, and insofar as the SHO concerned has been sent on paid leave. That the Law minister — the very law minister who appeared threateningly to the local SHO, acting beyond all recognized norms and laws — will be unable to influence proceedings in the way the SHO would, as AAP argues, cannot be taken seriously. Here the discourse of the AAP which tried to deflect attention from the law minister by pointing to the seriousness of the alleged “drug and sex racket” is misplaced. It betrays a lack of understanding of or respect for the most elementary lessons on law and politics. The issue is precisely not only about the concerned actions of Somnath Bharti, but about the fact that this allows for the possibility of men, and not laws, to govern. There is short step between this and the worst political excesses of the last century.

It’s not only about the actions of Bharti, but that this allows for the possibility for men, and not laws, to govern

However, and unfortunately, the most disturbing thing about this case has been the behaviour of the leader of the party, Arvind Kejriwal, and the response of his partymen to his actions. Kejriwal announced on Saturday that he would hold a dharna to insist that 5 SHOs, for different cases, be suspended. This specific demand was many a time deliberately conflated with the “larger” issue of the need to place the Delhi police under the Delhi government. When first announced, Kejriwal merely said that he and his government would protest and the general populace should not be involved. Early the next day he asked the people in general to join the protests. One would like to know how these decisions were taken. Was there any consultation with the party and its committees? Or Kejriwal style SMS referendums? With Kejriwal holding so many portfolios with himself, and appearing to take most decisions on his own, the nature of the decision-making processes of the party must be brought to light. While Bharti only continued to show his ugly side – from threatening to spit on some politicians, and promising a public bashing of these “men” till they are unrecognizable – there was little reflection let alone condemnation. There was only a polite disengagement with the “language” used by spokespersons. These articulate spokespersons of the party cut such sorry figures in television newsroom debates that one felt they did not really believe in what they were saying or who they were defending. Were these indeed their views and was there any intra-party discussion? Did the rapid unfolding of events – from the announcement to the act of the dharna – merely emerge from the righteous indignation of Kejriwal with everyone else being left to defend a fait accompli?

The list of things that the AAP has done – from public education to the water mafia – as claimed by the AAP is admirable. That it is unprecedented in its implications and ambition – as Kejriwal claims – is plain wrong. Is our memory so short-lived as to forget the land reform ordinance put forward by the CPI of Kerala in 1957 or the land distribution in the Communist states? What became of the Communist parties in general does not erase all that they did, and more importantly, what one can reasonably expect to happen. And so a little bit of history – and humility – would do the AAP and its acolytes some good. And to think that social transformation can be achieved “commonsensically” would ineluctably lead to Bharti-type incidents. A precise formulation of their policies, from ‘anti-terror’ and ‘exceptional’ laws to ‘economic reform’ is awaited. Post-ideological is but the waiting room of confusion awaiting clarity, leaving intact those who benefit most from the absence of concerted and purposive action: capitalist society was born with the claim of being post-ideological, and hence the Marxist critique of ideology. On a similar and dissimilar register, must we remind ourselves that socialist, can always be prefixed by and subsumed under the ‘national’?

Finally, any comparison with Gandhi is unfortunate. Beyond contradiction and critique, Gandhi understood protest as a way of implicating himself in the guilt that he felt around him. Rather than blackmail or hubris – “I will flood rajpath with lakhs of people” – protest was a form of clearly reasoned penance.

Gandhi held his ‘opponents’ with utmost respect, always giving them time to respond and a hearing to their responses. Nothing of this could be noted in Kejriwal who exuded the arrogance of his office. And so there might well be some truth in the explanation that it boils down to the inability of a minister to suspend SHOs.  


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