Saturday, February 11, 2017

The angry young party

Doaba, Punjab: Arvind Kejriwal is diminutive compared to the tall Sikhs standing behind him wearing the basanti (yellow) turbans associated with Bhagat Singh that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has chosen to appropriate. At a rally in a village in the constituency of Shahkot in Jalandhar district, the Delhi Chief Minister uses a few Punjabi phrases but speaks in Hindi. Through the Punjab campaign, he was rarely seen in a muffler. He went everywhere by road and lived in the homes of candidates and volunteers.
Panaji, Goa: Kejriwal is talking to local media at a flat let out by a volunteer. In another flat in the same building, the AAP team from Delhi is staying in what appears to be an overcrowded college dormitory. The leading lights of the party such as former TV anchor Ashutosh and Pankaj Gupta (who set up the financial structure of the party), are living with volunteers for some months, sharing rooms, a common kitchen, and washing and ironing their own clothes, even as they plot political change.
It certainly does things differently. The AAP will be five years old this November. Detached from the noise and bustle around the young party, we must register a few points about this four-year-old toddler in national politics. First, it has already made history in contemporary Indian politics with a spectacular emergence in Delhi that can possibly be equated with the splash made by some region-specific parties, such as the Telugu Desam when it was launched by NT Rama Rao in 1982.
Two years ago, AAP won 67 of the 70 seats in Delhi’s assembly — a verdict that has been arithmetically matched only in the tiny hill-state of Sikkim, that too in entirely different circumstances. No “wave elections” of the past — whether won by Congress, BJP or regional parties — had such finality in the verdict. It was the grandest of sweeps.
But AAP, as it strains to come to power in Punjab and make an entry into Goa politics, does not see itself as a party circumscribed by any region. It sees itself as a national alternative and, towards that end, has run extraordinarily gritty campaigns in Punjab and Goa. In both states it was off the mark before the traditional players. If AAP succeeds in Punjab, make no mistake, it will be fighting in Gujarat’s assembly elections in December (besides, volunteers have already made assessments of other territories such as Chhattisgarh). An editor of a newspaper in Punjab rightly summed up what sets this party apart: “The AAP cadre and leaders have the energy while the other parties appear tired in comparison... going through the ritual of politics.”
The governance question
We know AAP can manage electoral politics, but they are usually presented in the mainstream media as anarchists incapable of governance. On February 14, the Kejriwal-led Delhi government will complete two years in office. It’s been a roller-coaster ride in the national capital, with ugly jolts from a nasty battle with the Centre and Delhi’s former Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung. There can be no doubt that AAP has been specially targeted, as 14 of its Delhi MLAs were arrested on various charges, most of which were later dismissed by the courts.
Frankly, for all its imperfections, AAP is an anti-system force whose leader Kejriwal is quite determined to challenge the neo-liberal model of growth. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the system strikes back. Soon after winning Delhi, Kejriwal had told this correspondent, “I know all sections of society voted for us but I also know that it is the poor who will stick with us.” Two years ago if AAP saw itself as the party of the urban poor, now in Punjab it has worked mostly with the rural folk, who would be relatively poor in that region’s landscape.
We know the party can crack the electoral method. But to understand the governance initiatives in Delhi (many blocked by the turf wars with Jung) we should possibly examine Kejriwal’s history as an activist. In 2001, after the Right to Information Act was enacted in Delhi, courtesy the Congress regime, Kejriwal’s NGO Parivartan used it to unearth how money allocated to various schemes was being squandered. It conducted audits of public departments and helped people get what was due to them.
It also held protests outside the electricity department; and when, in 2006, Kejriwal got the Ramon Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership, the citation noted that Parivartan had settled 2,500 grievances with the electricity department on behalf of individuals. It was also back then that Kejriwal accessed documents that revealed that a proposed tie-up with the World Bank would raise the price of water in Delhi.
The point is that Kejriwal, the income-tax official-turned-activist-turned-politician, has a clear idea about how the system works and how he would like it to change. Some of his initiatives about lowering electricity tariffs, taking on the power companies, providing free water, the mohalla (locality-specific) clinics, the attempt to curb the power of private schools and build a public alternative, come from that background. The way AAP does things is to try and turf out entrenched interests, who then hurt and try to hit back. It has had its hands tied in Delhi, leaving it unable to tackle the issues of garbage, disease and pollution as it has no control over the civic bodies, which also have jurisdiction in the national capital.
Also, with Kejriwal spread thin campaigning outside Delhi, his longtime friend and deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia does a lot of the heavy-lifting when it comes to governing Delhi. The party will contest elections to the Delhi Municipal Corporation in April-end, and a good performance or outright victory would certainly help ensure that their future initiatives actually work on the ground in the national capital. AAP still has to prove that it can innovate in governance like it has done in politics, although initiatives such as the mohalla clinics hold out promise of the desire to break the mould.
The AAP still has a lot of time in Delhi, where the next elections are due in 2020 after the national polls of 2019.
The political model
In modern times, AAP is the most successful instance of activists breaking into the political realm. So far, most of its successes can be attributed to a group of leaders and volunteers fiercely loyal to Kejriwal who execute the political plans. How the AAP went about entering the electoral arena in Delhi and attempted to do so in Punjab and Goa, is a blueprint for activists and citizens who wish to enter politics. There are a few essential ingredients in the formula. The leader has to be charismatic, as Kejriwal is, and this leader has to drive volunteers to work for what they see as alternative politics. Then a structure has to be built seat by seat, finding local people to raise funds, manage booths, run door-to-door campaigns and so on.
The obvious limitation here is that Kejriwal cannot be everywhere all the time, as he has tried to be. The results of the just-concluded assembly polls will be known on March 11 and will determine the future direction of AAP. If they succeed in this round, they will have to learn to build autonomous local leadership, as they have done in Goa with the projection of former civil servant Elvis Gomes as the chief ministerial candidate.
In Punjab, AAP MP and comedian Bhagwant Mann has run an extraordinary campaign, making people laugh their sides out, but there is no chief ministerial face, although the party has promised that a Dalit would be the deputy.
In both states AAP has shown an ability to understand the local idiom and build lively campaigns involving music and, in Punjab, loads of comedy. The yellow turbans, the social media videos of jokes, dances et al that suggest a moment of spontaneity and hope, are all part of the AAP arsenal. At a rally in Goa I noted the use of local pop groups, a young girl and a young man dancing and singing on stage, belting out popular Hindi and Konkani songs. That rally in Vasco town had the atmosphere of a party on a balmy evening.
The ideology
But what is the ideology of AAP? On one hand they are called RSS agents. On the other, they are described as anarchists and naxalites. AAP certainly does not fit any ideological straitjacket, born as it was from the Anna Hazare movement of 2011, conceived by Kejriwal but executed in its early days with the help of Baba Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Hazare. Certainly the RSS cadres were a part of the agitation back then, which principally served to damage the ruling UPA in ways that the Congress could not recover from. To date, the idiom and language used by the leader and cadre tap the emotion of national service and Kejriwal begins many rallies with full-throated cries of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Inquilab Zindabad’.
But once the party was formed in November 2012, a more radical direction was taken, which essentially meant acting against entrenched interests, loudly calling out corporate influence-peddling and understanding that the vote bank would essentially consist of the poor. Hence measures that are described as populist would be the path taken from then on. Deshbhakti (patriotism) combined with radical solutions can sum up what could be called the ideology of AAP. But it is essentially a party of doers and not ideologues. It is possible to imagine that academic Yogendra Yadav and lawyer Prashant Bhushan could have been ideologues, but their bitter parting from AAP ended that journey.
AAP, however, takes care not to over-intellectualise its positions, with the result that there are many issues on which it has not taken positions. This is one reason why some activists who joined AAP later drifted away (the anti-nuclear activists, for instance), but there are many others who remain.
Hence Soni Sori, the adivasi activist from Bastar, continues to stay with AAP, waging her battle against State oppression, as do the more traditional nationalists who sing paeans to images of Bharat Mata.
AAP is also interestingly a party managed by middle-class leaders who have attracted subaltern populations without throwing up a subaltern leadership. Hence in Delhi, it cut into the BSP’s Dalit vote without positing a high-profile Dalit leadership. An analysis would have to be made of the Punjab result to see if AAP has made similar strides among the State’s huge Dalit population (both Sikh and Hindu).
The critique
AAP is as raw as they come and its imperfections are often magnified in the glare of an incessant hunt for negative stories. Combine this with the fact that some of its more articulate members have fallen out and are bitter about the past in which they too had invested great hopes. As it heads towards the future, AAP could possibly gain from allowing other power centres to grow in the party. The tendency in Indian politics, however, is to create a party around a leader and this has certainly happened in AAP, which has an extraordinary figure in Kejriwal. Yet, it was born out of a democratic movement and holds the brief to be different.
AAP has been both systematic and ruthless in the pursuit of power and, in that process, some individuals without the cleanest of images have gained entry. It would be a pity if the process of self-reflection and re-evaluation were not constant and ongoing. The entry of some unsavoury characters may be excused as a necessity born out of the need to strengthen its political hand, but it cannot be the direction of a party that fundamentally works on the idealism of young volunteers.
AAP’s angry stance is understandable in an anti-system force that appears to be fighting fit. But it also alienates individuals and sections of society who would otherwise be inclined to support a young, dynamic outfit. The party therefore needs to tone down its angry image. There have also been recent reports from groups such as the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) suggesting that all the political funding is not being adequately accounted for. That’s one of the core issues on which the party was built and it cannot so quickly lose sight of its origins. It must also be noted, however, that each donation and transaction given to AAP has faced scrutiny bordering on harassment. Ever since it trounced both the Congress and BJP in Delhi two years ago, AAP has fought with its back to the wall. From the Left to the Right, traditional parties do not like this interloper. Whatever emerges from the ballot boxes on March 11, AAP now needs to breathe more easily as it chalks out the next chapter of its journey.
Aam aurat
There is a woman who stands out in what is otherwise a party packed with men and not adequately representative of women. Swati Maliwal Jaihind, just 32 and the chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), is a committed activist unafraid of the rough and tumble, and determined to fight impossible battles. She was one of the youngest members of the core team of the Anna Hazare movement. She is technically not a member of AAP, although her husband, Naveen Jaihind, is its Haryana convenor.
Till Maliwal Jaihind took over, the DCW was the sort of body where the ruling party appointed a woman head as an act of patronage or a bureaucratic dole. But Maliwal Jaihind’s a firebrand, ready to brave police canes, as she did during the Delhi gang rape agitation in 2012, and fight her way through the system. Walk into her office any time and she would be patiently listening to a complainant. That’s when she’s not out in the field, determined to make sure that the police informs the DCW about each rape complaint and a member accompanies the police team.
The data speaks for itself. In the last year of the former chairperson, the DCW handled 3,000 complaints while under Maliwal Jaihind it quadrupled to 12,000. There’s more: 3.16 lakh calls on the helpline, 7,500 visits, 5,500 victims assisted in court cases, 1,800 counselling sessions provided and 55 recommendations made. There’s another revealing statistic unearthed through RTI. The former chairperson handled just one case personally during her eight-year tenure. Maliwal Jaihind has taken up 500 of them.
She says there are atleast six reported cases of rape daily in Delhi and it’s been a struggle to get the police to work with her as they should be doing. The DCW has therefore sent 3,500 notices to the Delhi police. On top of that, it has taken up the issue of sexual trafficking in GB Road, trying to track the real owners of the brothels and give ownership to the women.
The system has typically struck back and she now faces criminal charges for making 85 appointments in the DCW, 79 of which were paid under ₹25,000. Maliwal Jaihind says that with the huge problem of sexual violence in Delhi, she is making the commission work and needs staff for all the activity that’s been initiated. All the new hires were on three-month contracts and not permanent government employees.
She now has to fight it out in court. She has this to say: “They have charged me under the anti-corruption laws. I earn ₹30,000 a month and have ₹20,000 in my bank account. I own no property and my husband has been in Punjab for the past two months. I am an activist and will keep fighting. I am in the public space to make a difference and help people, and not to occupy any office.”
Saba Naqvi is the author of Capital Conquesta book that documents AAP’s journey in Delhi
(This article was published on February 10, 2017)

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