Observe the tensions between its elite leadership and subaltern membership
Arvind Kejriwal is all geared up to play David to Narendra Modi’s Goliath in Varanasi. Even as Kejriwal has claimed that the Aam Aadmi Party will win a hundred seats in the Lok Sabha elections, the poll projections are near-unanimous in giving it less than five. Despite the Delhi verdict, this is not the sort of Tom and Jerry contest in which the underdog emerges a sure winner.
However impressive or dismal the performance of the AAP might eventually be, it is becoming evident that the broad coalition of social classes that the party had managed to forge has unravelled. Its support base among segments of its middle-class constituency has dwindled, and a very brief honeymoon has ended in disenchantment. This may not matter to the numbers, but it says something potentially significant about the possible longer-term impact of the AAP on Indian politics.
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Early signs of this disillusionment became evident with the spectacle of the chief minister sitting on dharna by day and sleeping beside his Wagon R on the street by night. The vigilantism of the midnight raid in Khirki Extension raised questions about the Delhi government’s commitment to upholding the law. Founder-member Madhu Bhaduri quit the AAP, accusing it of being a party with the mentality of a khap panchayat. Despite periodically voicing dissatisfaction with the “self-righteous arrogance” of the leadership, Captain G.R. Gopinath has stayed the course, declaring however that the AAP-effect on the two major parties has already worn off.
Indeed, many supporters of the AAP gave it a long rope, despite being perturbed by the stone pelting, the vandalising of opposition party offices and the frequent tendency to get into street fights. It is another matter that the major political parties have a reserve army of foot soldiers to do such dirty work, from which their top leadership keeps aloof. Compared to them, the AAP still retains some of its freshness and distinctiveness: it remains a solo act without any dynastic baggage, fighting an election with modest resources and without being bankrolled by big industrial houses.
However, whether in spite of or because of the erosion of some of its middle-class support, the AAP may unwittingly be, in the medium to long run, the harbinger of a politics that speaks to the widening class divide in Indian society. The party has emphatically and unabashedly adopted a patois of the street. It has chosen to express itself through a democratic idiom that self-consciously distances itself from the language of parliamentary and TV studio discourse (with all the necessary caveats about these).
There was an earlier moment, in the 1980s, when the political mobilisation of the backward castes made our legislatures much more representative of social diversity. The disdain of these parties for the norms and niceties of parliamentary institutions was valorised as the plebeianisation and vernacularisation of an elitist democracy. Yogendra Yadav had called this “the second democratic upsurge”. The language of the AAP is suggestive of a new phase of vernacularisation, albeit one that detaches the aam aadmi from his (since the party’s gender politics are deeply ambivalent) caste identity.
Knowingly or otherwise, the AAP has, to use academic shorthand, introduced an elite-subaltern tension into ways of thinking about governance. On one hand, there is the model of governance applauded by the elites, which provides the frills of the so-called world-class city: the flyovers, the metro, spanking new airports, malls, ATMs and all the good things described in the Bharat Nirman advertisements.
On the other hand, there is the claim to governance that People Like Us often ignore, but which the AAP has effectively articulated. This is the governance that the subalterns crave, a reliable supply of water and electricity unmediated by slumlords, functioning government schools and primary health centres.
These are arguably very different aspirations of governance. What the subalterns need and want is what the elites already have — whether through public provisioning of water and electricity ostensibly subsidised for the poor but appropriated by the non-poor, or through private provision of education and healthcare, or the hybrid of the PPP model.
The AAP has already found itself singed by this tension between an elite leadership and subaltern membership. As journalists, lawyers, social activists, intellectuals, IT professionals and bankers received tickets to contest, the party’s more humble workers, and even one of its leading legal activists, expressed their frustration, sometimes through violence.
The distribution of the Delhi vote, analysed by Srinivas Ramani of the Economic and Political Weekly, using GIS mapping, echoes this. His study shows that constituencies with the highest concentration of jhuggi clusters voted overwhelmingly for the AAP. In these areas, he argues, the appeal of the AAP was not so much that of lowering the cost of public services, but the promise of reliable provision — water once a day instead of twice a week — that would reduce their dependence on the local pradhan, mostly a caste patriarch who is typically cultivated by the major parties and decides everything from ration cards and water supply to voting.
It was the AAP’s promise of cutting out the slumlord (which it succeeded in doing during its brief term in office) that won it the support of the working poor. This support will surely endure.
The turn in political idiom makes sense given that a large number of those who come onto the streets for this party belong to relatively under-privileged groups. Many of them also appear to be young. Remember that the average age of the shortlived AAP cabinet
in Delhi was 35 years, as compared to the 63-year average of the outgoing government.
The AAP has opened the doors to a politics in which the clichéd rural-urban divide will have to give way to the unpacking and disaggregation of the category of the urban voter to account for a more complex and stratified electorate.
It is not certain if the AAP’s keenly awaited manifesto will reflect this divide. The party’s most thoughtful leader, Yogendra Yadav, admitted in an interview that it is the lack of an economic policy that is keeping the party from releasing its manifesto, which is in other respects complete.
The previews are already suggestive of anomalies. Kejriwal’s flip-flop on capitalism is one such. The simultaneous endorsement of khap panchayats and the decriminalisation of homosexuality is another. Both indicate a tension between aspects of the party’s agenda that appeal to its aam supporters and those that speak to the self-styled liberal and progressive middle class.