History and Idealism in the Aam Aadmi Party’s 2014 Victories in Panjab: Puninder Singh
Guest post by PUNINDER SINGH
Bhagwant Singh Mann, now AAP MP from Sangrur, on the campaign trail
The Indian general election of 2014 will firstly be remembered for the signal self-destruction and implosion of independent India’s three-quarters-of-a-century-old ruling dynasty and its political arm, the Congress Party. Whether the unexpected series of victories by the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Panjab will be remembered as an interesting anomaly, or as a galvanizing moment of genuine political change, remains to be seen. But just how a party that only a few months ago was essentially unknown on the national political scene, short on funding, and with virtually no organizational infrastructure, managed to secure 25% of the popular vote and four of thirteen Lok Sabha seats in Panjab (with a narrow miss on a fifth seat) is a tale that needs to be told. Although the newly demarcated role of the AAP as the gadfly and moral conscience of the political scene has been important to its success from a national perspective, it was the intersection of a new political ideology with a particular historical juncture that enabled the AAP to emerge as a giant-killer in Panjab where it met with frustrating disappointment in every other Parliamentary election that it contested elsewhere in India.
The AAP’s success in Panjab comes almost exactly thirty years after the devastating events of 1984, including Operation Bluestar (the Indian army’s full out assault on one of the holiest of Sikh shrines, Harmandir Sahib, and the adjacent Akaal Takht, one of the seats of Sikh temporal power), the subsequent assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and in its aftermath, the Congress Party-orchestrated retaliatory massacres of thousands of Sikhs in New Delhi. The timing of the AAP’s success in Panjab precisely three decades after 1984 is by no means coincidental, but rather is closely tied to the unfolding history of Panjab in the post-1984 period. The momentous events of 1984 were followed by the tumultuous period of 1984-1992 in Panjab. During this period Panjab was under virtual siege, with ordinary citizens literally caught in the crossfire of daily episodes of violence on the parts of both splintered separatist groups and unchecked police/paramilitary forces. This period left untold devastation upon the Panjabi population as a whole, unraveling a tight-knit social fabric, not unlike the upheaval of Partition some forty years before. To date there are still no official figures on the number of innocent persons murdered in Panjab during the post-1984 years in bombings, shootings, kidnappings, torture sessions, false imprisonments, fake police “encounters”, extra-judicial killings, and the like. Unofficial estimates and speculations range widely from the low thousands to hundreds of thousands dead.
What can be said with certainty is that 1984 and its aftermath decimated several generations of Panjab’s best and brightest young men and women along with many of its most promising leaders, a situation that caused immeasurable damage to the psyche of Panjabis. These psychological wounds have remained open and raw due the lack of closure to the incidents in Panjab. While it is readily admitted by all sides that crimes, excesses, and atrocities were committed during this period, to date, virtually no one has been brought to book for any of these crimes, excesses, or atrocities. Investigations and prosecutions by the government have been either insincere, ineffectual, or have simply been derailed by political manipulations. No party has ever admitted responsibility for any incident that occurred, although what actually occurred has rarely been in question.
Fear of reprisal or of raising the specter of violence once again has led to a virtual extinguishing of any kind of dissent, critique, or even discussion of the events of Panjab of the 1980s and 1990s. This kind of “deliberate forgetting” has left Panjab in a state of psychological unease, a kind of vacuum in which normal intercourse is stifled or silenced altogether. This atmosphere of fear and repression rendered the Panjabi public sphere a kind of void that was readily exploited by a series of heavy-handed governments, power see-sawing back and forth between Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). With no one to lift a hand or utter a word of dissent against the ruling classes, corruption, graft, and nepotism were the name of the game, topped off with unresponsiveness and an air of entitlement and even invincibility among the two major political parties. This suffocating situation left the youth of Panjab coming of age during the 1990s/2000s clamoring to escape from the state by any means possible. To this day Panjab retains one of the highest rates of out-migration of any state in India. “Immigration agents” charging exorbitant fees in exchange for the promise of securing foreign visas remain a regular feature of just about every urban marketplace in Panjab. They prey on the desires of a generation born after 1984 but raised in its repressive aftermath, caught between their aspirations to stake their claim within a globalizing world and an ineffectual government, limited opportunities, and a climate of pessimism and resignation.
This is the Panjab that the AAP walked into in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The AAP’s promises of change and a radical restructuring of political culture meshed well with the aspirational energies of the post-1984 generation for whom the actual events of 1984 are but a series of stories recounted by their elders and in books, films, and songs, yet who have come of age in the oppressive political and cultural atmosphere thoroughly suffused by the aftereffects of those events. That is, they have grown up in an era where outlets for their natural energies have been either distinctly lacking or simply absent altogether.
The AAP platform has been built not upon an economic program or a vote bank agenda, but upon the promise of nothing less than the moral regeneration of Indian society. According to official AAP pronouncements, this moral regeneration begins with the end of corruption in politics, and included within that gambit, the end of patronage and dynastic rule. To this end their chosen symbol of the “jharu” (broom) speaks most potently. In Panjab this platform has been enhanced by including concerns more specific to the local electorate, such as bringing perpetrators of post-1984 violence to justice and tackling the rampant drug problem in the state. Both of these issues have proven to be emotionally resonant with Panjabi voters, both at rallies and in the voting booth. This moral regeneration, a complete renewal of the political culture of Panjab, is just what the younger generations have been thirsting for. The opportunity presented by the emergence of the AAP as a viable political force has energized both the youth base and also older generations who have suffered silently in the wake of the post-1980s stupor that has held Panjab in its grip for two decades. The promise held out by the AAP has been enough to reawaken dormant energies and entertain the real possibility of leaving the status quo behind for good. The translation of rhetoric into real results by the AAP in the 2014 Panjab Lok Sabha elections speaks to the coming together of popular support and political ideas whose time has come.
It is just this idea of moral regeneration that neither the moribund SAD nor the Modi led BJP, with its focus on unbounded neoliberal development and divisive political manipulation, cannot even begin to articulate, much less promise or deliver. The SAD, led by its eighty six year old patriarch and five-time Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, with his son Sukhbir Singh Badal at the helm as President of the party, and daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur Badal serving as Lok Sabha representative from the family seat in Bathinda and her brother Bikram Majithia serving as Panjab’s revenue and rehabilitation minister, is simply a microcosm in Panjab of the dynastic patronage politics that Congress has been propagating at the center for decades. The attempts by the SAD and Congress in Panjab to differentiate themselves are indeed risible, as they have simply served as two sides of the same coin, each one focused solely on jockeying for positions of power in the state hierarchy and displacing the other, albeit only temporarily. This back and forth pendulum-like swing between Congress and the SAD has created a hypnotized political culture in which victory by either one side or the other is a foregone conclusion, there is a complete foreclosure on any space for critique, and the people of Panjab have been left repeatedly with a political choice that is not really a choice at all, but rather just a regular shuffling between one system of patronage and another. That is why the sudden eruption of the AAP into the hermetic space of Panjabi politics has proven to be such a singular and revolutionary event.
The reactions of Chief Minister Badal to the emergence of the AAP in Panjab exemplify the focus on the maintenance of the status quo over and above entertaining any possibility of substantive change. After the initial victories of the AAP in Delhi he likened the party to “leprosy”. In the days just before polling took place in April he said that “You can mark my words, the AAP will not win a single seat in Panjab”. Finally, after polling results were announced this month he remarked that “The AAP came and went in Delhi and they will do the same here”. In all of these reactions, instead of any substantive engagement with issues of concern to the people of Panjab, there is nothing but a dismissive wave of the hand. It is precisely this kind of lack of acknowledgment of political realities on the ground, arrogant aloofness, and tin-eared unresponsiveness that has turned people away from the SAD to the AAP in droves in the recent election. The youth of Panjab are energized; they are ready for serious conversations about issues that matter to them, but until now there has been no one to engage them in those conversations. The people of Panjab want more, they expect more, and now they seem to have found a voice for those aspirations in the AAP. In Badal’s reactions to the emergence of the AAP it is clear that he cannot see the writing on the wall; the days of unbridled and unchecked power without responsibility are numbered, and people are now demanding accountability. He still does not seem to have realized that the continued dismissal of the voices and concerns of one’s constituents is a sure path to irrelevance, if not extinction, along the lines of the Congress in 2014.
On the other hand, the national platform initiatives of the BJP have also proven to have limited appeal in Panjab. The BJP’s brand of dog-whistle, right-leaning, muscular Hindutva politics has never played well in the land of five rivers. Panjab has been and still is at heart a land of religious pluralism, where many different groups, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians, have interacted and continue to live side by side. Panjab’s own recent history of communal violence is now openly acknowledged to have been fomented almost entirely by the political machinations of a small group of venal politicians from the center with an interest only in short term election gains. The price that Panjab has had to pay over the last three decades for those ephemeral political maneuvering has been a dear one. Panjab has thus seen the effect of political manipulations from the center before, and no one in Panjab now wants to see a return to the kind of divisive vote bank chicanery that the BJP is currently peddling.
Similarly, Modi’s dreams of unbounded neoliberal development have little appeal to the vast majority of ordinary Panjabis. The effects of economic development without regulation are already being witnessed in Panjab, whether in in the form of the sudden emergence of a giant, unsustainable, air-conditioned mega-mall in an otherwise bleak landscape in Mohali, the numerous “societies”, or private, secure, gated communities springing up on every piece of available land in the suburbs of Amritsar, or the endless proliferation of desolate, unoccupied “private universities” that have mushroomed all along GT Road. The increasing drive of the moneyed classes towards the construction of exclusive and segregated institutions and communities is having a fragmenting effect, in Panjab as in elsewhere in India, and this kind of neoliberal-inspired skewing of economic benefits has essentially zero appeal for most of the voting public. While Modi may have purchased himself an election by pandering to the interests of India’s ultra-elite business class, the AAP in Panjab in 2014 managed to garner election success without reliance on corporate funding or the media-saturation mode of electioneering, instead focusing on grass-roots efforts, including face-to-face contact, word of mouth, and social networking (not to mention a down-to-earth, common sense approach and humor) to take their message directly to their like-minded electorate. This bodes well for their ability to bypass both corporate interests and entrenched systems of patronage, appealing directly to the sentiments of ordinary voters.
The honeymoon period for the AAP will end shortly and then the more long-term project of uprooting and transforming an entrenched system of politics-as-usual will begin. It remains to be seen how effective the AAP will be in transferring its rhetorical power and popular will into meaningful and effective policy. For instance, senior AAP leaders meeting in New Delhi earlier this week called the drug trade and drug abuse in Panjab the most pressing issues in need of immediate attention. However, how the AAP will differentiate its own approach from the ineffectual approaches of its predecessors is still an open question. Will the AAP treat the drug issue symptomatically, that is, focusing on production and distribution, or will seek to remedy the actual underlying malaise and despondence that has driven Panjabi youth to seek refuge in drugs in the first place? The AAP’s rhetoric so far seems aimed at the former, focused mostly on closing the supply lines from Pakistan, but emphasizing drug trafficking alone, without addressing the sociocultural factors that have created a widespread demand for drugs, though politically expedient, has proven spectacularly ineffective everywhere else it has been implemented (cf. the U.S.’ ongoing and seemingly endless “war on drugs”). Hopefully the AAP will allow the kind of innovative thinking that has infused its approach to changing India’s political culture to also infuse its approaches to the other social issues on its agenda.
The Panjab Lok Sabha elections proved to be fertile meeting ground between the prodigious energies of a long-repressed Panjabi population at an important historical crossroads and the ideals of an innovative, young political party focused on changing political and moral culture in India. The next major test of the AAP’s mettle in Panjab will be in the Assembly elections in 2017, so there will ample opportunity to consolidate their gains and establish a solid organizational infrastructure before then in the coming few years. Until then the 2014 AAP victories in Panjab will serve as a beacon to the rest of India that the door to common sense is not as tightly shut as it might seem to be at the moment.
Puninder Singh is a doctoral student in Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He can be reached at email@example.com