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AAP’s Rise and Congress Rout – Some Obvious but Unconventional Questions: Sanjay Kumar

December 15, 2013

Guest post by SANJAY KUMAR

A Congress rout and the AAP success are the most obvious results of recent polls. Both are spectacular, in their own ways. Even BJP’s landslide victory in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh pales in comparison, for these two open up new possibilities.

Why a party whose legacy of anti-colonial struggle had lost sheen generations ago, whose top leadership is in the grip of a seemingly disinterested and incompetent dynasty, that lacks any organised cadre, coherent ideology, social base, and whose average leader appears more of a wheeler-dealer, and scamster, should continue to get close to thirty percent of votes from Indians even in worst of times, is a genuine mystery. That the Indian social analyses, barring a few exceptions, have tried little to unravel this mystery, is not only an indication of their intellectual limitations, but also of their ideological biases. The enduring success of Congress indicates seamier side of liberal democracy in general, which bourgeois social sciences try more to paper over than explore.

From voters’ perspective elections under liberal democracy are an exercise in choice, but not in freedom. When people vote, they are not acting as citizens shaping their social world, but as little men and women facing pre-existing structures of social power. The magic of elections under liberal democracy is precisely this. They offer a choice, the choice is not fake, its collective outcome is uncertain, yet the choice is already pre-determined in ways that by and large reproduce pre-existing power structures. That is why, exercising franchise is not necessarily a marker of democratic exercise, and leaders of fascist persuasion are often the loudest votaries of compulsory voting.  But that is not all. If elections were mere gears in a machine that simply revolved on and on, they would be quickly become a ritual, like those under state socialism in which the Party and leaders always got more than 95% approvals. Elections under liberal democracy in contrast provide flexible adjustment of state political functionaries to changing social conditions. They allow reflection of changes in public opinion, demography, gender politics, caste equations and balance of class forces, whose origins lie somewhere else, onto state politics. Punctuated adjustment with a time lag produces a sense of drama. Personae on stage appear as victors and losers, for voters there is enough stage space to allow their hope, vengeance or gratitude to play their part. For a time, and only for a time, the impersonal structure of state power becomes humanly palpable.

However, it does not take long for the alienation to set in; which pollsters tick as the ‘anti-incumbency’ factor in their calculations. It is indeed an irony that while the regimes espousing ‘historical material forces’ made their leaders and Parties permanent fixtures post revolution, the dialectic of electoral politics in liberal regimes, with its rich play of human emotions and drama, is inherently impersonal. Leaders and parties fail and succeed by vote swings of low single digits involving fence sitters. Pundits routinely declare these as ‘harbinger of fundamental change’, emergence of a  ‘new voter’, etc. But the fact remains a certain class of issues rarely enter electoral arena. For instance, why do numerically minuscule rich have such an overwhelming influence over state policies? Why are persons of questionable morality voted in by so many ordinary folks? Why do people at large know so little about the business of running government? How come state in India has become so business friendly in the past decade, without voters actually being asked to vote on the issue? Answers to these questions point towards those enduring structures of power, which the system of elections does little to reveal. This is also why the drama of elections is mostly so shallow, and momentous victories like that of Janata Party in 1977, and of Congress after Indira Gandhi’s murder are quickly forgotten.

All of the above appears to be contradicted by the rise of AAP. Here is a party that has characterised the entire political class as corrupt, which has made its funding transparent, whose election cadre by and large are not careerists hoping for returns for their labour, but genuine volunteers, archetypal aam aadmis, and aurats, they really went to the people, for instance while formulating constituency wise manifestos during mohalla meetings. In most aspects AAP’s electoral practice was opposite of established politics. Does not its success mean a fundamental shift, emergence of a new culture of politics with great possibilities?

We will address the above question momentarily. But first, certain other facts about the electoral strategy of AAP, which despite their significance are getting little credence in media driven political discourses; such is their poverty. AAP’s audacity in fielding candidates in all constituencies, and Arvind Kejriwal himself standing against the sitting Chief Minister, immediately catches the eye. However, perhaps the more long lasting legacy for electoral  politics would be the sheer intelligence of AAP’s campaign. It would have been clear to AAP strategists that while they can rely on support of sections of middle class and young voters, their success crucially depended upon getting votes from the vast under class of the capital, living in bustees and unregularised colonies. Punjabi Hindu and Bania middle classes of Delhi are core voters of BJP. They are its sustained vote bank, having voted for different avtars of the right wing party over generations. It is indeed surprising that while decrying the politics of vote banks, analysts rarely mention this vote bank of the BJP, such is the hegemony of upper caste prejudices in the country. It goes to the credit of AAP leadership that it harboured no such prejudices while planning its campaign, and focused clearly on the goal. It needs emphasis that Arvind Kejriwal had run his NGO in a bustee of Delhi and unlike some other activists, who are more of media commentators anyway, he must have had a good sense of politics there. Even picking broom (jhhadoo) as the election symbol was a masterstroke. The lowly household object of great utility, but considered impure in the hierarchy of caste symbols, at once conveyed an unambiguous symbolic message to dalit castes (AAP won 9 of the 12 SC reserved seats in the assembly). The candidates appeared to be selected after careful analysis of every constituency, its demography, and localised strengths and weaknesses of other party candidates. It was easier for AAP to do so, as it had a clean slate while selecting candidates. Candidates for most of the constituencies were chosen to be closer in social profile to the majority of voters, that is of the under-class, than any other political party. On average candidates of AAP had less assets and had lower educational qualifications than candidates of the other two major parties. AAP propaganda presented itself as a result of the self-mobilisation of the people at large. That is how it mobilised funds, and its election cadre largely came and campaigned on their own. Its election strategy however was not the result of widespread consultations among mobilised cadre. It can not be said to be a consequence of the autonomous organisation of either the cadre, or under class voters, who voted for it in large numbers.  The strategy was formulated within a closely  guarded top leadership. Nor can the AAP success be attributed to sustained work of self-governance  among the deprived, as for instance has been the case in some Latin American cities. Rather than focusing on concrete issues of governance, AAP’s campaign took a morally attractive stance (anti-corruption, transparency, probity in public life etc.) which worked well to milk the widespread anger against the Congress government.

There is little doubt that transparency and probity are much missed virtues in India’s political life. But they determine little of the political agenda, they can go as well with communal fascist, populist or a socialist programme. Without clarity on its actual programme of governance, it is not clear how AAP plans to deal with contradictions among the social bases of its successful election strategy. And such contradictions do exist, notwithstanding commentators who are already pronouncing recent elections as proving the end of ‘the politics of cleavage’ (Dipankar Gupta, TOI, 6.12.13). It is essential to address this argument, because in a way it also informs AAP’s political programme. In the current Indian context the new politics is believed to be of aspirations,  development, good governance, transparency and probity, against the old one of identity. Pray, when did the majority of voters in India, who are mainly poor, did not want good roads and hospitals? Were they really so stupid to continue voting for corrupt and incompetent brethren from their caste and religion, even while the latter were only interested in their family fortunes? Perhaps they were, and failed to appreciate the virtues of their vote. But then, how they have now begun to see virtues of good governance? An enduring artifact of liberal imagination is that of a public sphere in which all, rich and poor, dalits and swarns, men and women, can participate equally to deliberate and direct society on issues of common concern.  It fails to ask that if society is actually cleaved along class, caste and gender planes, then why would they not show up in public? Or, if they do not seem to be showing in public, then what else is there to make this happen?  Time and again, from fascist propagandists to liberal ideologues, public arguments and political programmes are presented to create a mood (again the good human touch amidst the world of impersonal social structures) that we are all in it together (except for a tiny minority), and if the ‘it’ is good we can all celebrate together, if it is bad, the  solution is at hand.

The main contradiction AAP faces is between its middle class core, whose political vision it espouses in many ways, and city’s under-class, whose votes it consciously wooed. Here is an account of an election meeting of AAP which the writer of this note attended. The meeting took place in a cooperative group housing society in South West Delhi. Audience was belonged to middle to upper middle class, both retired and employed. The constituency is mixed, besides apartment blocks, it has neighbourhoods of migrant workers, as well as traditional inhabitants of rural Delhi, dominated by the Jat caste. AAP candidate was a currently unemployed young man from a nearby bustee who had given up his tea stall near Maruti car plant in Gurgaon to join Anna’s Jan Lokpal movement. He was introduced belonging to a family of soldiers, both his father and grand father having retired from the Indian Army. He had failed to complete his school education due to family circumstances. He belonged to the Yadav caste, lower in caste hierarchy to the dominant Jat caste. Despite the evident lack of cultural capital, he presented himself with considerable self confidence, and addressed pointed questions about his qualifications with remarkable dignity. The main speaker was a sociology professor, and this was the gist of his argument: Electoral politics in country has become a den of corrupt, mainly because the educated do not vote, and those who vote do so for money and liquor. To save the country from corrupt politicians and the morass of vote bank politics, it is high time that the educated take this opportunity to assert themselves, particularly now when a party as transparent as the AAP is in the fray. The good professor knew the psychology of his audience well. As everybody knows, there is a subtext to such arguments, which feeds into the self perception of middle classes as the sole holders of social virtue. The ‘vote banks’ for upper caste Hindus are spectre of Muslims,  Dalits and OBCs voting en mass for particular parties and candidates. It is clear that the message of AAP campaign in bastees would have been different to ensure the success it got. The very housing society in which this speech was given employs security guards and maids from nearby neighbourhoods, to which in fact its candidate belonged. It is well known that security guards are not given statutory minimum wages, they are made to work for twelve hours for a wage of eight. AAP’s campaign pitched shrill against corruption at high places, which should be there, but what about this everyday form of corruption?  It is doubtful if AAP raised this corruption issue during its campaign in bastees.

For the under-class of the city the main source of anger against existing government was the price rise. Within the ambit of its anti-corruption discourse, AAP addressed price rise only through the promise of reduction in the regulated price of electricity tariff. It is a mark of the success of the ideological hegemony of bourgeois property that while the price rise is attacked by all, rarely a word is heard against hoarders and traders. The neo-liberal political economy judges hoarding perfectly legitimate, and market price the ultimate gospel. The richest capitalist of the country is widely believed to be hoarding natural gas, which otherwise has been declared a national asset, till he gets the price he wants. Neither the current government, nor any future government is likely to take any action. AAP campaign did not break the ranks on this score. By all accounts, AAP got a significant proportion of Muslim votes, but its campaign did not address the communal fascism of Mr Modi’s party in any way.

Going forward, the main trouble for AAP would be that while the votes of the under-class have made it successful this time, its one point anti-corruption agenda is too focused to include other demands of this group of voters. The BJP is sitting smug with the current situation in Delhi in which no party can form government. It knows well that if assembly elections are held along with national elections, its Modi onslaught will get it back a significant segment of middle class and young voters who voted for AAP this time. Other parties would try to re-energise their patronage networks in bastees of the city to get back their share of votes from there. If AAP intends to remain ahead of its competitors, it will need to plan for something else, besides what it did right this time. A state which appears merely corrupt to propertied and privileged, is actually a very brutal and authoritarian in its every day interactions with the under class. Within its current anti-corruption orientation, AAP can try to take up this issue of great concern to the poor. This will deepen its asset of socially committed youth from neighbourhoods, like its candidate referred to earlier, and might help it to build a permanent base among the the city bastees.  But it is a hard, long drawn out task whose outcomes are only incremental. If it succeeds in ensuring the democratic rights of the poor, that would be its more long lasting contribution to Indian society than its victory in this round of elections. In fact while doing that AAP will be confronting those enduring structures of power that elections in liberal democratic regimes hardly touch, and its work would have already gone beyond the drama of elections. Would its army of volunteers, many of them from comfortable backgrounds, have stomach for rocking the boat that hard?

Sanjay Kumar is associated with New Socialist Initiative, and teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2013 3:42 PM

    These questions are far from unconventional and much required. It reflects the mix of optimism and skepticism that surrounds the emergence of AAP. I hope a more accessible version would be made and circulated among AAP members and their endorsers.

  2. Ankit permalink
    December 19, 2013 1:16 AM

    Two quick points:1. I hope that AAP members/volunteers etc should read the points mentioned and benefit from the perspective offered. 2. I hope they will still continue to be guided in their agenda/ manifesto creation from the actual member of the polling constituencies and not articles like these.

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