Something borrowed

A little Gandhian, a little socialist — can AAP be both, without conflict?

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot | Published:March 14, 2015 12:00 am

The current tensions in the AAP, particularly those which have led to Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav being voted out of its political affairs committee, may be better understood if one realises that the party lies at the intersection of traditions that have their own potential and contradictions. The AAP has inherited the legacy of two major political traditions in India, Gandhian and socialist. This is not the first time that a political movement has combined both. In the 1970s, Jayaprakash Narayan had tried to do the same. But the challenges that Arvind Kejriwal faces are of a different magnitude.

The first challenge has to do with the Gandhian dimension of his ideology, clearly spelled out in Swaraj, the book he published in 2012. In it, he targets corruption as well as the influence of the corporate sector over government. “Some ministers and officers have become puppets in the hands of powerful industrial houses,” he says (and one can probably retain the present tense of this citation). But Swaraj is more interesting for the way it deals with the institutional power structure of India. The gram sabha, the village assembly, is the cornerstone of Kejriwal’s project, if one goes by this book. This ideal harks back to the Gandhian vision of the independent village. “The gram sabha should have the authority and right to decide about issues related to the village,” according to Kejriwal. To those who may object that this is pure romanticism, he replies that there are already “examples of direct democracy in our country at present”. To make this point, he cites the way Anna Hazare (who wrote the preface) changed the face of Ralegan Siddhi. Kejriwal’s view of the village has resonances of the conflict-free approach to society that the Mahatma cultivated. For both, the village is virtually harmonious. Caste- or class-based divisions are simply not mentioned.

But to go by the Gandhian ideal of the village is also challenging because India is not as rural a country as it used to be. But that is the whole idea of Swaraj — while most of the book is devoted to an India of villages, the really interesting part comes in last, when Kejriwal argues that in the urban context, mohalla sabhas or community meetings, officially recognised by the Nagar Raj Bill, should be developed as urban equivalents to gram sabhas. For him, mohalla sabhas should be created “by putting together 3,000 people of a particular area” and then follow the same modus operandi as the gram sabhas. All decisions of the mohalla sabha should be made collectively in the community meetings.

His critics will claim that such plans are not realistic. But Gandhi’s worldview was also utopian and though it has never been fulfilled, India has achieved marvels in its name. JP’s “total revolution” was also not intended to be translated into reality, but his project met the expectations of millions of Indians whom the ruling Congress had alienated. Similarly, the AAP strikes a chord among those who cannot stand corruption, crony capitalism and urban life any more. There is indeed a striking over-representation of the AAP among voters in the cities — and not only in Delhi. The CSDS-Lokniti National Election Survey shows that during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the party won many more votes in the large metropolises than in the towns and cities — 12.4 per cent against 2.4 per cent (see the next issue of Studies in Indian Politics). This was because of the quality of its candidates in the metros and the presence of a large intelligentsia there. But it was also due to the relevance of the party’s discourse for local citizens, irrespective of class. Urban dwellers of the large cities want less corruption as well as better infrastructure, roads, water, electricity and gas — and that too at the right price.

Now, in contrast to Gandhi and JP, who had never been in a governmental position, Chief Minister Kejriwal has to deliver. This is definitely not something Gandhians have been used to. Gandhism is more an opposition repertoire than anything else and Kejriwal himself once said he was an anarchist — this is well in tune with the anti-state character of the Gandhian ethos. The first challenge that Kejriwal has to face is developing a culture of governance. In order to do this, the halving of power tariffs and the supply of 20,000 litres of water for free can only be the launch pad. The Swaraj Bill, which deals with the creation of mohalla sabhas, may be the AAP’s first acid test on governance.

Besides, the AAP has inherited from the Indian socialist tradition features that are both refreshing and not necessarily compatible with Kejriwal’s style of leadership. The socialist identity of the party is evident from its emphasis on secularism as well as its defence of minorities and positive discrimination. In its 2014 election manifesto, one could find rare ideas such as: “In today’s unequal society, reservation is essential for the advancement of the deprived and marginalised section of the society… Therefore, those who have already availed the benefits of reservations should be placed at the end of the queue”. As well as “We will ensure that the practice of police harassment and filing false cases against Muslim youth is put to an end” and “Today reservation policies are religion-based and therefore, Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians do not fall under the SC category. AAP believes that reservations should be religion-neutral, and based on actual disadvantage”. Similarly, on land acquisition, the AAP asked that it happen “only with the consent of the gram sabha” and that the beneficiaries provide employment to one person per family that is losing land.

Access to land (land reform, even), reservations and secularism are among the ideological mainstays of Indian socialism that Ram Manohar Lohia, Karpoori Thakur, Madhu Limaye and others established and supported from the 1950s to the 1990s. These personalities had generous ideas and a great sense of intellectual debate. The reverse of the medal is well known: more than once, these debates resulted in disputes and splits.

This sense of democracy-cum-dissent, which often affected discipline in the socialist parties, is in opposition to the Gandhian concept of leadership that the Congress cultivated before taking a dynastic turn. The charisma of the Mahatma spared him the pain of having to go by the numbers — for instance, Subhas Chandra Bose had been democratically elected as Congress president when Gandhi forced him to resign because of Bose’s reservations on non-violence. Similarly, Jawaharlal Nehru forced Purushottam Das Tandon to resign from the post of party president in 1951, in spite of his election being free and fair. Tandon, a lieutenant of Vallabhbhai Patel, was, for Nehru, a symbol of the “communal and revivalist outlook”.

Kejriwal’s style of leadership harks back to this dimension of Gandhian politics — the personalisation of power in the name of values. Certainly, the Congress under Gandhi and Nehru had experienced factionalism, but partymen opposed their leader only up to a point — and after Tandon, no Congress president would disagree with a Congress prime minister. Socialists never suffered from such inhibitions. Whether the AAP can combine both traditions and, instead of neutralising them, get the best from each, remains to be seen. There is much at stake, given the weakness of the Opposition in Parliament and outside. As Yadav recently said, the idea of the AAP “is bigger than any of us”.

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s India Institute, London, Princeton Global Scholar and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.