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AAP’s identity crisis

The anti-politics of the original movement haunts the party and government.

A clean and accountable government is not and cannot be an end in itself. Transparency and integrity cannot substitute for programme. These are great virtues in the conduct of government, but they say nothing about its purposes. What and who is governance for? A clean and accountable government is not and cannot be an end in itself. Transparency and integrity cannot substitute for programme. These are great virtues in the conduct of government, but they say nothing about its purposes. What and who is governance for?

Niraja Gopal Jayal

The anti-politics of the original movement haunts the party and government.

Today, it is exactly one month since the Aam Aadmi Party leadership was sworn in as the party of government in Delhi. It has been a month in which the party has been under intense scrutiny by its admirers and detractors alike. It has also been a month in which the AAP has, frequently tripping over its shoelaces, tried to grapple with its new role as a party of government.

A month may be a short span of time in which to assess the performance of a new government, but then everything about the AAP has been astonishingly precocious. Indeed, its own chief minister has boasted that more has been achieved in the first 20 days of this government than in a similar time frame by any government in India since Independence.

The AAP’s journey from movement to party to government has been swift, beginning as a movement in January 2011, becoming a party in a year and a half, and a government a year later. In the matter of a mere three years, Arvind Kejriwal has gone from being the chief lieutenant of Anna Hazare in the India Against Corruption campaign to chief minister of Delhi.

The transition from movement to party is still unfinished, because the AAP has not yet become a political party in the fuller sense of the term. Its official objectives remain closely tied to those of the movement in which its origins lie: “Our aim in entering politics is not to come to power; we have entered politics to change the current corrupt and self-serving system of politics forever”. Its programmatic vision has yet to be unveiled; as of now there is little, beyond this critique of corruption and the idea of decentralised democracy, that can be definitively associated with it.

To some people, the arrival of the AAP signals that we are in a post-ideological phase, but this is a debatable virtue. In the absence of a clear programme, the AAP has been invested with the hopes and aspirations of very diverse social constituencies. Each of its myriad supporters has imagined the AAP in their own way, imbuing it with their personal political wishlist. When spelt out, these wishlists may, and very likely will, pull the party in different and even conflicting directions.

In principle, to have a broad coalition of social classes supporting a party is an advantage. The national movement was just such a coalition, which could draw in peasants and workers alongside G.D. Birla and Jamnalal Bajaj. The common enemy then was British imperialism; today it is the corruption of established political parties. Cross-class unity is easier to forge against a common enemy but much harder when it comes to defining a coherent blueprint for the future.

The AAP’s ideological ambivalence has further facilitated such a coalition. But it has also dented this coalition in the very first month of its tenure in government. Leave aside the vexed questions of vigilantism and procedural impropriety, leave aside also the perception of the uncommitted voter, and mark only three issues that have provoked disenchantment among the AAP’s members and sympathisers. The party’s decision on FDI drew a sharp response from among the corporates in its own ranks. Its response to the Khirki extension incident has alienated its progressive middle class supporters who oppose sexism and racism. Its Rail Bhavan dharna has unsettled those admirers who cut the party a lot of slack, tending to view its ministers as inexperienced but willing learners of the art of government.

Already, the enthusiasm to claim the AAP as the poster boy of post-identity politics has run aground with statements about domiciliary reservations in Delhi University and the need to engage with khap panchayats on regressive definitions of gotra. To defer to the popular will, as it did in the SMS referendum to decide whether or not it should form the government, is an article of faith with the AAP. It seems not to recognise the deep ambiguity that attends the definition of “the people” or the fact that members of “the people” can plausibly hold conflicting views that are not always in consonance with principles of justice and equality. In such situations, can the party afford to adopt a position of ad hocism in policy, with no guiding principles of its own to temper, moderate and arbitrate these contending views?

A clean and accountable government is certainly important, but stings and raids are surely not the most sustainable way to accomplish this. Moreover, a clean and accountable government is not and cannot be an end in itself. Transparency and integrity cannot substitute for programme. These are great virtues in the conduct of government, but they say nothing about its purposes. What and who is governance for? The AAP needs to interpret its mandate as to the content and substance of governance, and also re-examine its approach to transparency and integrity through mass sting operations and raids of dubious legality.

Having chosen to participate in representative democracy, the party is obliged, morally and constitutionally, to heed and respect the will of the people as expressed in the electoral process. To privilege other forms of the expression of popular will over this reeks of bad faith. Now that the AAP has claimed that electoral mandate to govern, it must abide by the rules of this game. There is an inconsistency in opting to take office by the route of representative democracy, and then trashing representative democracy itself by switching to movement mode.

The central problem is twofold. First, movement activism remains the DNA of the AAP. Its preferred mode of doing politics is protest rather than participation in the deliberative space of the legislative chamber. The spectacular performativity of the swearing in may have been appropriate to that moment; a state government taking to the streets in protest against the Central government is quite another matter.

Second, the most stubborn gene in this DNA is the anti-politics approach that characterised the movement, and this has smuggled itself into the party and the government. Anna Hazare’s campaign constructed Parliament as the object of protest, and its members as lacking legitimacy. It was “politics” so defined that was countered by the anti-politics of the movement. At some level, the AAP is unable to completely shrug off this legacy of anti-politics. There is an obvious contradiction between adopting an anti-politics stance and being part of a politico-administrative structure and process. You can either beat them or join them; it is difficult to do both at the same time.

The writer is professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University
express@expressindia.com

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