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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

At risk, in Delhi

AAP’s diminishing credibility undermines its promise to transform. BJP’s premature panic casts a shadow

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
Updated: June 16, 2015 9:15:56 am
column, sunday column, AAP, Arvind Kerjriwal, social movement, Delhi Assembly, Fascism, BJP, CPM, Jayalalithaa, Najeeb Jung, Lieutenant Governor It would be foolish for the AAP not to recognise that it has been disappointing.

The conflict between the AAP and the Centre is a high-stakes game. Both the victories of the BJP at the Centre and the AAP in Delhi were propelled by disillusionment with a suffocating status quo that the Congress represented. Both promised change. Both carried risks. In the case of the BJP, the attendant risk of creeping authoritarianism. In the case of the AAP, the risk was that the party would perpetually stay in agitation mode, so convinced of its own virtue that it would have little patience to negotiate governance. Its strength, agitation for transformation, could become its weakness if it did not learn to master the thicket of institutional issues. For supporters of both parties, virtue is embodied in the leadership. But both project a disproportionate power in the party and are immune from questioning. The AAP has made serious mistakes. But on balance, the BJP’s conduct in Delhi poses a greater risk, both to itself and the country.

The AAP is going to be a thorn in the side of the BJP if it succeeds in Delhi. It would signal an alternative politics. The AAP had also made it clear that it had the BJP in its sights. So, the BJP was going to do everything to ensure the AAP’s failure. And it went about its task with alacrity. Delhi has a peculiar administrative status, power is shared between the Delhi government and the Centre. That status is the point of contention. Both the BJP and the AAP had, at different points, raised the demand for full statehood. The AAP’s central claim was correct. A democratically elected government that did not have a modicum of control over administrative appointments, entities like the DDA, empires within empires distorting the political economy of Delhi, gave the city a fragmented identity. This was exacerbated by one of Sheila Dikshit’s few cynical moves: trifurcating Delhi’s municipal politics. Delhi’s first challenge was to define a new architecture for governance. The AAP’s virtue was that it had reopened the question of who represents Delhi and how.

But as soon as the AAP came to power, the BJP decided to be provocative. The lieutenant governor chose not to give due deference to a democratically elected government, baiting it from the start. He questioned the AAP’s presumptive authority at every turn. The home ministry made its connivance clear by a broadly worded circular that reiterated the LG’s administrative powers in ways that threatened to reduce the Delhi government to a cipher. The BJP then decided to up the political ante by using police powers beyond the normal flow of things. Whatever the facts, Jitender Singh Tomar’s arrest at this stage was unnecessary. The manner of his arrest was designed not to uphold the majesty of the law but to send a chilling signal. It is perhaps not an accident that the BJP has shown no interest in reform of the police or the CBI. The perception is that it will continue to use these selectively — to go slow on allies when convenient, target opponents when it feels like it. It is easy to deal with opponents when there is no real challenge. The real test of commitment to institutions comes when there is a challenge. The BJP failed that test in Delhi. It is setting an ominous pattern for mischief elsewhere.

This could have been the perfect moment for the AAP. Its anti-corruption credentials remain strong. Even if it does not have the clearest blueprint, it has grasped that the sectors where inflation matters most are education and power. Its base among the urban poor remains strong and Arvind Kejriwal’s popularity is still high.

But it would be foolish for the AAP not to recognise that it has been disappointing. The expulsion of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan sent the message that the AAP will struggle with dissent and difference. Instead of sticking to the institutional high ground, the party engaged in the politics of innuendo, targeting individual officers who were unable to defend themselves. There is something insidious about fostering a culture of vigilantism and snooping that the AAP seems to license. The conduct of its leaders, from Somnath Bharti to Tomar, raises considerable doubts about just whom this party might have empowered. A party that wore the mantle of moral purity needed to set its house in order. For a party that stood for the urban poor, there was a shocking lack of sensitivity with which it dealt with two issues: the suicide of Gajendra Singh and the plight of sanitation workers. If courts have to resort to orders on government salaries, you are in danger of losing the plot. Whatever the circumstances that led to these issues, the AAP projected a curious lack of empathy. Its belief in its own victimhood and combative identity seemed to trump the crisis at hand.

The dent in the AAP’s credibility is more among its middle- and upper-class constituents than the urban poor. This is not electorally significant. But it matters for two reasons: First, these classes matter disproportionately for the institutional sites at which governance is conducted, from courts to the media.

Second, the AAP’s distinctiveness was the promise of a cross-societal dialogue. Indian cities will come to ruin if they cannot harness the resources of the rich with the interests of the poor, and relatively uncompromised credibility across a wider social base would have made its job easier.

To be sure, neither transformative trajectory is yet exhausted. Both the BJP and the AAP have a lot of political tenacity. Both can tell a story of decisive decision-making in many respects. Both still hold on to their core support base. But the BJP’s premature combination of panic and authoritarianism in Delhi will cast a long shadow on its credibility; it is frittering away by strong-arm tactics what it could have easily won over by generosity in granting statehood to Delhi. The shadow would have been even longer if the AAP had not muddied perceptions. But the BJP’s strategy is to box the AAP into a corner, incite it to agitation, rather than governance mode and hope the resulting chaos alienates the voter. This is a high-risk strategy and the AAP will have to play this game with tact and its own credibility in order. But the risks of Delhi getting caught in the crossfire are increasing by the day.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.

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