AAP has shown a penchant for the spectacular. Why that is not going to be enough.
The Aam Aadmi Party is gone as a party of government, at least for now. It mounted an astonishing electoral insurgency, and swung the doors of power open without having political lineage or the financial backing of business, the two standard features of contemporary political parties in India.
It did not organise a caste-based, religious or regional mobilisation, the other typical characteristics of Indian politics. Demonstrating how new political formations can emerge against all odds when the existing political parties generate citizen apathy or disgust, it also illustrated that democracies can have self-correcting mechanisms.
Nonetheless, a 49-day wonder is over. What does the AAP’s fall show? What does the future hold?
The AAP’s brief governing career illustrates, most of all, a well-known political truth. When those attacking the system come to power, they find it hard to govern. Insurgents tend to be terrible governors. Anti-system parties, a term coined by political scientist Giovanni Sartori, are good at undermining the system, not at running it.
The AAP is, of course, not the kind of anti-system party that totalitarian parties or the communist parties in Europe during the two world wars were. It is committed neither to violence, nor to an overthrow of the Constitution. But it does wish to overturn the way politics is done. It loves India, but dislikes India’s polity.
By definition, an elected government must function within the existing framework of rules and laws. If those rules and laws are disagreeable, the government can change them. But fundamental, as opposed to marginal, change cannot be brought about by decree or in haste. Patient communication, meticulous negotiation and careful alliance building are necessary.
The initial challenge of insurgents in government is always the same: they must first follow the rules in order to change them. A chief minister sleeping on the sidewalk in protest, wrapped in a quilt on a cold winter night, may satisfy the inner moral urge of the insurgent, but governance is not a branch of ethics. Without an ethical core, politics does lose its shine, but with ethics alone, no polity has ever been run.
Consider three other errors of the AAP’s excessive moralism.
First, should a law minister encourage vigilantism, however much he suspects the police of being corrupt? Unauthorised nightly raids can’t reform the police. Police reform is a dull, prosaic business, not a site of dramatic, guerilla-like forays. Similarly, racial remarks don’t accord with modern law, which seeks to establish individual, not collective, guilt. It is not enough to say that vigilantism or racism was not intended.
Hamaari niyat to saaf thi, logon ko gussa aa gayaa (our intentions were pure, the people got angry) — this is an empirically inadmissible theory and a terrible excuse. Crowds gathering around crusading ministers, attacking the police, tend to be nasty, brutish and furious. They can’t easily be controlled. Even Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest mobiliser of the masses in the last century, perhaps longer, found it difficult to discipline the masses entirely. A paradox always marks the transition from insurgency to governance: without mass politics, movements can’t be built, but with a release of mass furies, governments can’t be run.
Second, should a government unilaterally lower electricity tariffs, charging power companies with padding costs, unless a rule-governed audit has established cost inflation beyond doubt? Private companies may well be venal, but how to calculate the costs of production is a complex economic matter. In my first book, I tried to calculate the costs of wheat and rice production, presumably a much simpler matter than the costs of power production. It became a forbidding enterprise. The complexity of the calculation was brought home, deflating earlier, and simplistic, statistical enthusiasm. The implication ought to be obvious. A careful audit should first be ordered and then the price lowered, if costs were indeed inflated, not the other way round.
Third, should a government issue an FIR for corruption in a business dispute, which is already under investigation in a court of law? Doing so is a truly odd governance principle, for it disrespects the judicial process. It demonstrates a penchant for the dramatic and the spectacular, not for the often dull and painstaking art of governance. The AAP’s election manifesto had talked about the necessity of “udyog anukool neetiyaan (business-friendly policies)”. In the 49 days of governance, we saw an incessant lashing out against business, not business-friendly, investment-attracting economic announcements. To be sure, governance requires attacking corruption, but it also calls for sensitivity towards the avenues of economic growth. The AAP in power went for the former with extraordinary fury; the latter did not even get a chance.
Finally, consider the AAP’s critique of representative democracy. That Indian democracy functions well at the time of elections, but between elections governments become insensitive to the people is now a well-known argument. The AAP has rightly tapped into this democracy deficit, promising to bring governance closer to the people. But is it making a necessary distinction between popular will and popular sentiment? The concept of popular will, a sine qua non of democracy, has an irreducible element of deliberation and judgement. It is not equal to the popular sentiment of the day, which can quickly change. If democratic legislation based on popular will is to have any meaning, it must embrace the idea of people’s representatives deliberating, debating and concluding. If representative assemblies are not working well, one has to think about how to reform them. But democratic decision-making simply can’t be handed over to people’s assemblies, hastily put together in parks, maidans and stadiums. Mohalla sabhas are fine as deliberative spaces, but weekly janta darbars, luckily dropped, and state assemblies meeting in stadiums in full public view, luckily not allowed, are not. Popular furies do not amount to well-thought-out judgements. Emotions and biases do not add up to rationality.
Can the AAP make a comeback? Yes, it can. Troubled by its agitational ways, a section of the urban middle class, certainly its upper segment, is likely to leave the AAP. But its dramatic mode of governance is also likely to increase its appeal to the urban poor and lower middle class. These classes harbour similar anger against the existing system. Moreover, since television now reaches over 800 million people in India, the urban-rural voter dichotomy is not likely to hold up as neatly as it did in the past. The AAP’s theatrical style, best symbolised by the chief minister sleeping on the sidewalk and the law minister challenging the police, is almost certain to appeal to the rural electorate close to Delhi.
The gain at the lower end of the social spectrum is likely to be bigger than the loss at the upper end. As a consequence, the AAP’s performance in Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, western Uttar Pradesh and some of the bigger cities of India may well be substantial in the next elections. The AAP is here to stay. Delhi was one part of a long and evolving political story.
But even if the AAP does come to power, let us say in Haryana or in Delhi again, the same cycle of electoral exhilaration and governmental emaciation may haunt the party. How to combine an anti-system impulse with governance will remain the AAP’s fundamental political dilemma. It might want to study how the provincial Congress governments of 1937 functioned in British
India, or how the Left Front governments evolved in Kerala and West Bengal after they first came to power.
The writer, director of the India Initiative, Brown University and author, most recently, of ‘Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy’, is contributing editor of the Indian Express firstname.lastname@example.org