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Lost without a map

The Left’s criticism of a theoretically unsophisticated AAP says more about its own distance from reality.

The Left’s criticism of a theoretically unsophisticated AAP says more about its own distance from reality. The Left’s criticism of a theoretically unsophisticated AAP says more about its own distance from reality.

By Rahul Jayaram

In his article ‘Rule by messiahs’, (IE, January 8), one of India’s foremost Marxist intellectuals, Prabhat Patnaik, criticises the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for lacking a coherent ideology. Patnaik argues that the AAP’s appeal is to a “moral sense” and not to the “intellect”. He also claims the AAP’s aim is to solely clean up governance systems and rid Delhi and India of corruption — a quick-fix panacea. In his view, the paucity of a theory that frames the party’s actions renders it as “anti-thought”. Plus, the party’s lack of a vision regarding resisting the existing socio-economic architecture that perpetuates inequality and exploitation makes the AAP a set of elected “morally upright” messiahs who will turn up from time to time to clean up the system. Fundamentally, for the AAP to be appealing to Patnaik’s Marxist eyes, it needs to have a “theory” and attack India’s prevailing socio-economic structures.

Patnaik’s article is emblematic of how out of touch the Left is with metropolitan India (perhaps barring Kolkata). In the wake of the AAP’s éclat in the Delhi polls, the national media has noted how it hasn’t only devastated the fortunes of the Congress, stopped Narendra Modi’s charge in its ranks, but more importantly, cobbled the space the Left occupied in the Indian imagination. Patnaik’s adherence to and recalling of theory takes this writer back to an exchange between Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray and veteran communist leader S.A. Dange in Bombay in 1984. By that time, the Shiv Sena had wiped out the Left from Bombay politics, but Thackeray’s affection for Dange remained, and so the latter was invited for a Sena meet. There, Dange was blunt. “The Shiv Sena does not have a theory,” he said, “and it is impossible for an organisation to survive sans a theory.” Thackeray’s retort was biting: “How is it that, despite a theory, your organisation is finished?”

The AAP may be no Sena, Arvind Kejriwal may be no Thackeray, but one can hazard if Patnaik is today’s Dange. Patnaik’s critique ends up revealing more about the Left than it does about the AAP. It begs the questions: What is the role of ideology in contemporary urban politics? Is the idea of theory subject to context and change? And, where and when does a party square ideological imperatives vis-à-vis realpolitik, and is that balancing act tenable?

The answers to these questions lie in Patnaik’s own disquisition. If he has a problem with the AAP not framing its agenda in terms of caste or class but mainly in terms of graft and governance, it’s actually not a sign of a theoretical or ideological problem but an advance. While caste and communalism have been issues in most parts of India, including Delhi, it wasn’t the wedge issue in the city over the last few years. Price rise, inflation, corruption and maladministration were. From a Marxist perspective then, the AAP’s foregrounding of graft over Indian social faultlines like caste, in the context of contemporary Delhi, bespeaks a savvy about the idea of ideology. They could adapt their ideology to tackle the problems of the day. Implicit in Patnaik’s argument is the proposition that ideology is fixed. The truth is, it isn’t.

On another basic level, Patnaik upbraids the AAP for not discussing socio-economics. Contained there is a belief that the existing political system is inherently exploitative. In a democratic set-up, that system requires a thorough clean-up, a redrawing of its checks and balances, and a comprehensive test before changes, minor or radical, are recommended. Simply put, the AAP’s sprint to get the CAG to look into the balance sheets of Delhi’s electricity distribution companies is a simple illustration of a proactive approach towards governance. Previous governments in Delhi have struggled to administer such an inspection on a critical economic issue for Delhi denizens. If this isn’t an attack on a fortress-like and venal socio-economic structure, what else is?

One of the biggest problems the Indian Left has had is finding the middle path between ideological attestation and the practicalities of realpolitik. How do you retain your commitment to a set of causes (like socialism, egalitarianism, caste-less society, etc) while seeking out votes from areas and people who may not share your beliefs in toto?
Ideologically, Hugo Chavez as Venezuelan president was full of bombast against the West’s policies. But who was Venezuela’s greatest trading partner, and still is? Sworn enemy the United States. Similarly, “communist” China is perhaps contemporary capitalism’s biggest success story (with all of a free market society’s problems in place). The Indian Left’s relative ideological stodginess implies that its influence is circumscribed, and it speaks in a language that large parts of metropolitan India don’t understand.

Last, Patnaik’s article uncritically accepted the leftist rulebook of politics as above board. I quote: “I consider this [the lack of a theory in the AAP] not only wrong but also fundamentally anti-democratic (notwithstanding all its celebration of the “aam aadmi”.) What is more, it is the antithesis of the Left position, which apotheosises thought.”

Really, if the Left had such a perfect theory in place, why have they not made any mark in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or Chennai over the last 30 years? It is ideological hubris that places the Left’s theoretical categories over and above the complex realities of the urban Indian electorate. Instead of helping the Left, it has ended up hurting them. Professor Patnaik need only ask his one-time colleague at Jawaharlal Nehru University and veteran CPI leader Kamal Mitra Chenoy, who quit after having worked for the CPI for 40 years to join the AAP earlier this month. “The Left earlier had 50 seats, now we are down to 24. Either we can say that people are stupid or we are behind time,” Chenoy said. One reckons the latter half of Chenoy’s comment is true.

The writer is senior research associate, O.P. Jindal Global University

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