Has Arvind Kejriwal altered the paradigm of India’s politics? What rubbish, many of us would say. Politicians of this brand come and go and are soon forgotten. One serious charge that is constantly levied against the Aam Aadmi Party in general and Kejriwal in particular is that they lack a clear ideological perspective to guide their actions, which then acquire an ad hoc character. And the charge does not originate in hostility to them, even as it is not even firmly denied by them.
But then the charge itself arises from certain ideas about what constitutes ideology. We have grown up with ideology being cast in terms of binary opposites of class, gender and, in India specifically, caste. Its purported “scientific” schema was laid down by Marx and Engels. In this schema, society, economy, state, politics, culture, religion — everything — imbibed a class character in a general context of irreconcilable class antagonism. Change, in this scenario, could occur only with the overthrow of one class by another and the replacement of an entire structure dominated by one class with an alternative one. There was no shared space in between. It had a sense of deliberate abolition of the past, as it were. The French Revolution was the first such moment of transition, which “abolished feudalism” through a law passed by the Assemblée Nationale one fine morning in August 1789. The 20th century saw several more changes which overthrew either feudal or bourgeois regimes. The socialist revolution of Russia was to mark the arrival of the penultimate stage of class antagonism, prior only to the end of all class struggle as humanity marched into the stage of communism, which would eradicate all trace of class difference among human beings. A dream-like prospect.
If the failure of the Soviet experiment does not nullify the concept of class difference in existing societies, it points to alternative modes of resolving social and other tensions. The concept of liberal democracy, which has virtually come to be equated with periodic, multi-party free and fair elections or representative democracy — very inadequate, in effect, for meeting the aspirations of the common masses — is a working alternative, and the only one available at present. The other option is to boycott it and wage revolutionary class war outside its framework, an option no longer viable.
It is true that the working of liberal democracy has almost universally been characterised by a gap between its promises and its delivery. The promises made to “we the people” in idealistic constitutions drafted in grand constitutional assemblies, made up of the most highly educated elites, have been denied to the people in real life. We have now reached a stage where about 80 individuals own half the world’s wealth and they have acquired it largely in the most advanced democratic set-ups.
Yet, the option of delivering the promises made by the same liberal democratic constitutions is opening up. Several experiments in Latin American states and societies, in Iceland and, most recently, in Greece have demonstrated the feasibility of looking after the interests of the poor and the downtrodden — and of the ecology — within the available framework of “democracy”. In other words, the ideology that has guided these experiments is redefining Marxism itself by drawing it away from the premise of irreconcilable class antagonism. The objective here is not to do away with the capitalist system but to compel it to fulfil the promises made by the “bourgeois” constitutions. Honesty of purpose seems to have replaced the ideological commitment to class antagonism.
This appears to be the guiding perspective of the AAP. It is not as if Kejriwal and his friends have sat down to deliberate these issues, even though it has eminent intellectuals steeped in the social sciences, such as Yogendra Yadav, Anand Kumar, Kamal Mitra Chenoy, Rajmohan Gandhi and others, in the higher echelons of the party leadership. But then, perspectives do not evolve through deliberations among intellectuals. They evolve through interactions with the people and a deliberate as well as intuitive understanding of their problems and aspirations. It would be interesting to investigate how many epoch-making leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, developed their perspectives by reading learned treatises. As recent exciting experiments in direct democracy, in Iceland and earlier Venezuela, have demonstrated, perspectives traverse many diverse and complex terrains as they evolve.
Thus, what the AAP is experimenting with is not a grand theory of overthrow or revolution but one of enlarging the public space within the existing structures. It is not premised on upheavals of one sort or another, but on an incremental claiming of rights that have, in practice, been denied to the common people, the aam aadmis.
Will this experiment evaporate into thin air? There is no guarantee that it will survive the expected onslaught of vested interests. But there is no guarantee that it will succumb to threats or temptations held out by vested interests either. Kejriwal has always laid stress on the sincerity of intentions and shown no sign of wavering from them, although it is too early to decide and power has the habit of corrupting. But if it is important to keep one’s scepticism alive, especially when it comes to leaders, it is equally important to grant them honesty and commitment to a cause until such time as they belie it. It is the simple principle of “innocent until proven guilty”.
But the success of the AAP experiment in Delhi will, even if not in full measure but substantially, in Nehru’s memorable words, galvanise other areas of public and political life in India. It is easy to envisage its cascading effect if it works out. That is its real message. That is our hope.
The writer is national fellow, Indian Council of Historical Research
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