National Interest: AAP ki adalat
At the heady peak of the Anna Hazare movement in 2011, the question we were often asked was, so why are you so against this anti-corruption movement that will send thieving netas to jail? In condemnatory Twitter precis, it was usually worded more pithily: You are pro-corruption.
This is a useful time to list our arguments against the Anna movement. First, that while corruption was a terrible problem, its solution was not the creation of an omnipotent Lokpal answerable to none and a police state. Also that the Jan Lokpal Bill, in that form, was unconstitutional and undemocratic and would never pass. The larger solution to corruption was governance reform and reducing areas of friction between the ordinary citizen and the sarkar. Second, that the movement was so apolitical, so bereft of political energy, that it was bound to lose momentum as ideology (not just idealism) is the fuel of popular movements in democracy. Third, that its "mera neta chor hai" approach to India's problems, thereby condemning Indian politics, was flawed. That while there was a lot that was rotten with the system, you couldn't cleanse it from the outside. You had to come inside the larger democratic and political tent and force the traditional politician to compete with you on ideas and ideologies. And fourth, that politics is never simply black or white. It is even more complex than mere shades of grey. It is inclusive, accommodative, negotiatory, unforgiving and merciless. So don't just condemn your politics. Join the fray and rout the "bad guys".
Two years hence, we can report with journalistic satisfaction that each one of these arguments is won. The Jan Lokpal Bill is now history. Anna's movement is finished and those that glowed in his giant halo are now fighting with him like schoolchildren, with Anna pretty much accusing them of stealing his trademarks. Anna's children, led by the most favourite and impressive of them all, Arvind Kejriwal, have now become a regular political party with caps, slogans and an election symbol. And finally, though some could still argue that the jury is out on this one, they are realising the complexities of our politics and governance.
The political picture of the year is one this paper has published on page one today. It shows Aam Aadmi Party leader Yogendra Yadav(originally one of our most respected political science intellectuals) flanked by his colleagues and besieged by reporters and microphones. So what's so unusual about it? Aren't politicians supposed to be speaking to the media during elections? And when did you see the leaders of the AAP not mobbed by doting media? The difference this time is that journalists are raising uncomfortable questions, which Yadav is having to answer. This you had never seen before. In their activist phase, these TV studio superstars only gave homilies to wide-eyed journalists and asked the rest of the country, particularly the political class, questions. For the first time now, they are having to "explain" charges against them. So welcome to politics. And Anna's legatees have even demonstrated that they have been quick to learn the craft. They are answering charges with charges, and threatening the messenger (in this case, a web portal that's "stung" them), though defamation cases haven't exactly been a popular device in our political practice.
But much ground remains to be covered. You need to underline much that is still touchingly juvenile or arrogantly simplistic, depending on how you look at their politics. They have learnt populism from old-style politicians: so free water, power at half price and so on. But mohalla sabhas (basically an extension of the current Resident Welfare Associations, RWAs?) and citizens' security forces? It is one thing to confuse a Sunday crowd of a few tens of thousands at Ramlila Maidan with a wide popular mandate. But to crowdsource governance? If every decision is taken on the street, where is the need to elect assemblies and parliaments? Just collect a mob, deliver instant decisions and justice. It's been done before. By the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution and currently by their offspring, the Maoists in east-central tribal India.
The manifesto doesn't tell us who or what a mohalla sabha will be but if it's the mother of all RWAs, we know what it could be. For, the RWA is one of the most elitist, undemocratic, unequal and apolitical entities in an Indian city. Frankly, the person who can explain this to you much better than me is Yogendra Yadav. An RWA, by definition, consists of a colony's residents, in fact even more precisely, its house-owners. All others, from tenants to security guards, domestic help to drivers, streetside vendors, cleaners, the corner presswallah, the gardeners, all the people we can't survive without, are excluded. This answers the original Anna movement appeal to the elites who so greatly resent the fact that in this society of such horrible inequalities, the only thing of equal value in your hands and your maidservant's is the vote. It follows that people like your maidservant are much more numerous than you. No wonder then that they elect such lousy governments. So change the system one way and/or the other. Bring apolitical politicians to power, and then hand over all decision-making to mobs of sensible, mature PLU.
The essence of democratic governance is the opposite. A majority of voters elect a government, which then decides on the issues of the day, conscious that the same voters will reward or punish it for this after five years. An elected government must have the ability and nerve to take decisions in the larger public interest, even though they may be contrary to the popular mood at that instant. Take two simple examples. If you had crowdsourced the decision on whether or not to go to war with Pakistan in the week after the Parliament attack (December 2001) and during 26/11 in 2008, the overwhelming "vote" would have been to go in all guns blazing, nukes and all. That Atal Bihari Vajpayee and later Manmohan Singh resisted public anger underlines the strength of our democracy, not some weakness.
That such intellectually gifted leaders of India's youngest and in a long time, most exciting political party have got this basic politics of governance so wrong is a surprise. But then, everybody falters somewhere on the learning curve. For a debutante, the AAP has made quite an impact in Delhi. To begin with, it is such a pleasure to see some new faces in our very predictable politics and its cast of characters. Second, it has made a brilliantly disruptive electoral impact by building an impressive support base in the capital's poorer slum and resettlement colonies which the Congress, in its fossilised thinking, had taken for granted since 1952. A party led, supported and funded by the elites but voted for by the poor is an incredibly interesting idea. But it goes wrong the moment it suspends its judgement on what politics is all about.
Politics needs years, if not decades, of hard work. You can't keep setting deadlines for yourself and everybody else. (We will pass the Jan Lokpal Bill on December 29, EC needs to probe our complaint within 48 hours). And if you get carried away by your first sighting of a crowd and allow anybody who supports you and is familiar enough on your stage, you are headed for trouble. Kejriwal & Co should have learnt this lesson the moment a drunken Om Puri appeared at Ramlila Maidan. You cannot build a new politics by dragging dimwit semi-celebrities and busybodies on your bandwagon. That is why the great embarrassment again of that MTV Roadies dude using a description for Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde so horrible, that even if I repeated it as an accurate quote, I could go to jail for insulting a Dalit and deservedly so under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Shinde just had to complain and that despicable Mr Dude Roady would be in Tihar. But how did Shinde respond to that insult delivered while the AAP's most prominent candidate was giggling in delight? He said he has ignored it. Now, you may have a million good questions on Shinde's performance as home minister. But one thing you can learn from an old-fashioned Indian politician is politics.