The Aam Aadmi Party: A democratic revolt against the old order

For the people thronging the acres of open ground called Ramlila Maidan, nestled in the heart of India’s Capital, the overnight change in weather on December 28 might have seemed as miraculous as the performance of the Aam Aadmi Party – literally, the Common Man’s Party – in the Delhi state election. Days of dreary clouds gave way to a brilliant sun, enhancing the glow of triumph that an estimated 60,000 Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supporters palpably felt watching their leader, Arvind Kejriwal, take oath as chief minister of the city-state and six others as ministers.

Undoubtedly, it was their triumph, for it was because of their endeavour the AAP battered the Congress party and denied a majority to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – India’s two principal national political formations – in Delhi’s directly elected Assembly. Placed second, the AAP formed the government with the outside support of the Congress. It triggered a wave of excitement countrywide, not only for the success the AAP achieved in barely a year after its inception, but also for fanning the hope for alternative politics.

The AAP has kindled hope because its Delhi campaign overturned some egregiously flawed principles of Indian politics. One, it fought the election on funds just a fraction of what political parties spend. It declared the name of all its donors, not hiding behind the law that requires such disclosures only for payments over Rs 20,000. Big business, typically, exploits this legal provision to lavishly fund political parties in a series of instalments of less than Rs 20,000, to conceal their imprint on policies.

Two, the AAP did not deploy hoodlums to intimidate voters in slums. Three, none of its candidates belonged to families which have been in electoral politics for two generations. In fact, only one of its 70 candidates had a prior experience of fighting state or national elections. Four, they were chosen not by a party cabal, but nominated by AAP workers in every constituency. Five, it did not field candidates who had been arraigned in court on heinous criminal charges, a fact non-Indian readers would justifiably think ridiculous to cite as a novelty. But then, read this - 14 per cent of the members of the Lok Sabha, or the directly elected House of People – the lower House of India’s bicameral Parliament – have such criminal past.

Seven, the AAP appealed to the voter as a citizen, and not as a member of a caste or religious or regional or linguistic group. It largely preferred to unite the voters on issues of interests – availability of water, electricity, health, education, employment, and security – rather than seek votes by fanning their fears and aspirations as members of groups built around primordial identities. Yet, the party’s politics of interests did secure it the allegiance of members of marginalized caste groups in Delhi.

Perhaps the AAP’s success testifies to the emergence of the new Indian, not necessarily all over India, but at least in its teeming cities. The new voter is willing to set aside class-caste-religious identities to participate in politics as just a citizen, wants the democratic ideals to be adhered to, and the leaders to subscribe to the norms of propriety and legality.

Indeed, this hope of alternative politics has inspired people to join the AAP in droves, ballooning both its membership and coffers by millions. Galvanizing them is the party’s decision to contest the Lok Sabha elections, due in April-May. Obviously, the AAP can’t touch the majority-mark in the Lok Sabha, of whose 543 members are elected and two are nominated, and form the federal government. But the excitement arises from the knowledge that no party, since 1989, has mustered a majority, leading to formation of coalition governments and once, to a minority dispensation. AAP sympathizers hope the party can win enough seats in a fragmented Lok Sabha to influence the political system.

This hope would have been dismissed outright, but for the stirring speech of AAP Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to the people on December 28. His address, played over and over again on TV channels, was in its impact no less than American President Barrack Obama’s to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in July 2004. A rank outsider like Obama, Kejriwal etched out his dream to fire the popular imagination. He said, “In the Delhi Assembly elections, people have proved that politics can be done with honesty, elections can be fought and won with honesty.” He went on to declare, “We are not here to grab power but to give governance back in the hands of people. Now, 1.5 crore (15 million) people of Delhi will run the government.”

These rhetorical flourishes of his also defined the AAP’s agenda – clean and transparent governance, and introduction of participatory democracy. These ideas were forged in the crucible of a popular movement – called India Against Corruption (IAC) – that raged between 2011 and 2012. It gathered tremendous momentum because of media stories accusing a clutch of federal ministers manipulating the economic liberalisation programme to the benefit of big business.

The IAC’s solution was to revive the forgotten idea of creating the institution of the National Ombudsman, a proposal that had been pending in Parliament for over four decades. The IAC wanted the Ombudsman to be completely independent of the federal government, and also have a complete control over investigating agencies probing allegations of corruption against functionaries, from clerk to minister.

But the political class rejected the IAC’s demand for insulating the Ombudsman from the government’s influence, insisting on Parliament’s right to frame the provisions of law. A section of IAC leaders felt their only hope of introducing systemic change was to capture power through elections. It was this section which formed the AAP.

From this debate over the Ombudsman Law was born the idea of redefining of the concept of citizenry and introducing participatory democracy. The AAP says the citizen’s role doesn’t end with casting his or her vote every five years, but must be continuous. For this, he and she must have a mechanism to demand enactment of legislations, determine the nature of their provisions, express their opinion on government policies, and seek the recall of representatives whose performance they deem inadequate. In addition, they want the power to be decentralized, empowering people at the grassroots to decide on development projects that should be undertaken, and also have an oversight on their implementation.

Pithily, the AAP gives primacy not to the national but to the local, which is where India lives and government services – water, electricity, health, education, et al – are received. It is here that the last link in the long chain of corruption cuts the common man, defined as anyone who can’t influence the system to deliver what is rightfully theirs. It is AAP’s agenda of participatory democracy – called swaraj, or self-rule – which distinguishes it from the Congress and BJP, whose campaigns are built around ideas of economic growth.

The AAP has yet to spell out its grand economic vision. But a clue to its thinking can be gleaned from what the party ideologue Yogendra Yadav told me in an interview in November: “In the economic debate of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a big confusion about means and ends. The end was and must continue to be the last person. But whether the last person is served better by the government taking charge of certain goods and services or by asking someone else to take charge of those things, it is best left to contingent judgement, is best left to evidence, is best left to experience.”

Yadav’s response suggests that the AAP is a social democrat variant, which is willing to work within the socialist-fast-turning-into-capitalist economy. Yet, this hasn’t allayed the fears of the corporate sector and rightwing economists because of their suspicions about many of AAP leaders who acquired fame for advocating issues such as land rights, human rights, right to information, environment protection, et al.

This fear of ersatz socialism partly explains the furious debate on the AAP government’s decision to subsidize power and water supply, which Kejriwal announced within days of taking the reins of power. Power tariff for households consuming up to 400 units a month has been halved, but old rates would apply in case the consumption exceeds this limit by even a unit. This tariff will apply for three months during which the power distributing companies (Discoms) would be audited.

There is a back-story to this measure. In early 2013, Kejriwal sat on a hunger strike demanding the auditing of Discoms, accusing them of dubiously inflating costs to charge high rates from consumers. The previous government expressed helplessness arguing the Discoms weren’t willing to have their books scrutinized. Cancel their licence, retorted Kejriwal, whose order for the audit the court has refused to stay on a petition filed by Discoms. The government believes the audit should automatically reduce the subsidy which, for three months, works out to Rs 610 million (or Rs 2400 million annually).

Water supply to households consuming up to 20 kiloliters a month will be free, but charged in case the limit is exceeded. This will cost the government Rs 1650 million a year. This measure is expected to benefit 800,000 out of 1.9 million households that have metered connections. Free water supply, it is argued, is expected to prompt people to install meters, particularly as utility officials, fearing crackdown on corruption, would check people from consuming water without paying for it.

It is a scathing commentary on the Indian elite’s superpower pretensions that five million people in Delhi, mostly living in slums, don’t have access to piped water supply, and depend on water-tankers for their needs. A water mafia has taken control over the supply chain and extracts money for a service supposed to be free. The AAP’s manifesto promises to build pipelines to these slums, but it would take months to create the infrastructure. Till then, the plan is afoot to streamline the supply, but it is too early to judge its efficacy.

The debate over subsidized water and power focussed on the strain the decision imposes on Delhi’s economy. It was forgotten the subsidy was linked to consumption, not income, thus unlikely to benefit Delhi’s notoriously profligate middle class, which would have to sharply cut down consumption to avail of the subsidized rates. Perhaps the in-built incentive to conserve water and power might prompt the lower classes to reduce wastage and save money. But conservation wasn’t really the focus of the debate, which petered out as soon as it was pointed out that annual subsidies together amount to a total of Rs 4050 million, a fraction of the Delhi government’s Rs 400,000-million budget. It speaks of the hypocrisy of the opponents of subsidy that they have remained largely silent on billions of rupees the corporate sector owe to government-owned banks, and have rarely given salience to the environment aspect of the debate, which might have greater resonance among people.

AAP’s passion for anti-corruption/governance has led its government to install a helpline number, to which people can call for guidance on carrying out sting operation against officials demanding bribe. Ten officials have been nabbed thus. Heavy traffic to the helpline has led the government to open multiple lines, indicating both to its popularity and the scale of venality.

Yet, such interventions are bound to unsettle the configuration of power arrangement at the grassroots and provoke a backlash. It could also spawn a menacing culture of vigilantism. These twin themes – backlash and vigilantism – underpins an ongoing controversy which threatens to alienate a section of the AAP’s middle class supporters.

This controversy was kicked off because AAP law minister Somnath Bharti heeded to the request of residents of a colony, located in his constituency, to organise a midnight police raid on a house in the neighbourhood allegedly running a sex-and-drug racket. Bharti called the local police station in-charge to come to the site, but he delayed his arrival. Bharti and the residents then summoned a mobile police patrol. A decoy struck a deal for paid sex, but the station in-charge who had belatedly arrived refused to raid the house saying he didn’t have a warrant. In the ensuing argument, a car with four Ugandan women arrived and was surrounded by the residents. The police subsequently took the women to a hospital for undergoing tests to verify whether or not they were guilty of substance abuse. The report was negative.

The media headlined the midnight raid, describing it as an act of vigilantism, of which there is an undeniable element, racial profiling, and sexist remarks that Bharti allegedly made. But the story acquired a counter-spin as the residents accused the police of providing patronage to criminal activities in the colony, despite persistent complaints against it. Women activist groups too jumped in, condemning the stifling patriarchy of colony residents, and their intolerance to lifestyles different from theirs. The activists said the residents had imagined the bohemian Ugandans as sex-workers, and demanded the self-avowed practitioners of alternative politics to drop Bharti from the ministry.

Kejriwal did just the opposite: not only did he defend Bharti, he led a sit-in demanding the suspension of five police  personnel present at the site pending inquiry and for transferring the control over the city police from the federal to the state government. As the federal government refused to relent and the liberal intelligentsia and media threw barbs at the AAP for defending the indefensible, Kejriwal staged a climb-down. He accepted the federal government’s offer of asking the police officers to proceed on leave, and called off the stir. But the debate has continued to rage – demands for Bharti’s resignation has the AAP countering that the footage of the night raid shows he did not make any racial or sexist remarks, or took the law in his hand.

Five broad trends can be discerned in the controversy. One, Kejriwal’s protest has likely won him greater support among the lower classes, which perceive the police as exploitative and brutal. Two, there is a schism in the middle class – the conservatives, arguably an overwhelming majority, support the AAP, and the liberals, condescendingly described as westernized in their sensibilities, feel the political fledgling has belied the hope of alternative politics. Three, the controversy foretells more controversies as the AAP’s intervention to provide governance will invite backlash from officials whose illegitimate powers are curbed. Four, empowering of people at the local level must involve imbibing a democratic spirit in them, otherwise it could lead to the imposition of a majoritarian view on a given area.

Nevertheless, controversies and policy decisions have helped the AAP to create a buzz about itself, not only in Delhi, but also around the country. Though this is of immense significance for the nation going to polls in two months, yet the AAP’s very nature exposes it to stiff challenges. For one, the electorate of cities is different from that of predominantly rural India, more attuned to the politics of identity than to the AAP’s politics of interests. Then, to contest 300 seats in the national election means it needs funds many times over the Rs 200 million it collected for the Delhi campaign. Will it look for other avenues to bankroll its ambition, at the cost of sullying its image? Can it run a check on the credentials of over 300 candidates, many of them perhaps unknown to the party leaders?

These imponderables apart, the AAP will certainly be a factor in the metros and cities, which together send nearly 100 members to the Lok Sabha. It is only by winning 30-40 seats the AAP can hope to influence national politics. To reach this mark, the AAP’s best hope is to trigger an electoral wave powerful enough to shatter party loyalties to build its support base. As of now, there is just a ripple.