The 2020 Delhi elections consist of two political imaginaries locked in battle. One, spearheaded by the BJP, is a political imaginary driven by ideology. The other, spearheaded by the AAP, is decidedly post-ideological. The former grounds itself in identity — Hindu, Muslim, Indian, Pakistani. The latter simply side steps the identity question. The former talks of citizenship, nationalism, terror, sacrifice. The latter talks of water, electricity and parent-teachers’ meetings!
Even as we continue to follow with keen interest the daily unfolding of electioneering, it might be worthwhile dwelling on the implicit logic of this peculiarly asymmetrical battle. The battle is between two political languages, between one that is ideology-heavy and ideology-driven, the other that refuses to be drawn into making ideological statements, even under the greatest of provocations. That the AAP’s post-ideological orientation is a well thought out stance is signaled by Arvind Kejriwal’s recent repartee to Amit Shah, when he expressed delight that the BJP too has had to come down from its lofty rhetoric of nationalism to the apparently banal issues of the everyday life of Delhi citizens.
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The AAP is a relatively new political force. It is not clear if the AAP actually conforms to the structure of a traditional political party and can therefore be seen as a formation equivalent to a BJP or a Congress. And yet, what is interesting about the AAP phenomenon is its rather low-brow mode of operation — which not only irritates conventional parties like the BJP and Congress, but also makes uncomfortable liberals, progressives and leftists, who are used to thinking of politics in ideological and normative terms, such as of secularism, nationalism and socialism. Being post-ideological and refusing to make its position explicit in terms of normative parameters, the AAP appears difficult to slot either as right or left, secular or national, binaries that continue to inform our current political analytics. The AAP speaks of cheap water and electricity without invoking class. It makes the broom its party symbol without invoking caste. It disassociates from the BJP’s Citizenship Act without invoking the Muslim!
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The AAP, it seems, is a sign of a new and emergent form of post-ideological politics, which we may call, though rather provisionally, a politics of infrastructure. Politics of infrastructure unfolds in the name of jobs, schools, local clinics, water, wifi, electricity, flyovers and cheap housing. These are not issues that lend themselves to political heroics or to any rhetoric of revolution, glory and sacrifice. But, clearly, a large number of ordinary people identify with these. How does one read this move, beyond simply saying that these are local issues raised by a local party for a local election?
Let me point out three aspects of this post-ideological political imaginary. One, while issues like free water and wifi might be overwhelmingly issues of the urban poor, these are also shared issues that do not call for precise identification in class or caste terms. This then can play out as a kind of everyday politics where nothing more or nothing less than everyday life is at stake. There is, therefore, a certain generic or general nature to this politics, which does not demand the drawing of any battleline between friend and enemy, self and other.
Two, while these issues appear to be important for the facilitation of everyday lives of ordinary people, they do not seek to determine in any overt way the actual content of lives lived, which is what ideological and identity politics seek to do. This disinterest in lifestyles is seen as particularly welcome, especially by younger people, at a time when political forces seek to regulate in real time and not just symbolically, what people eat, what people wear and who they can love. Politics of infrastructure, as opposed to politics of ideology, in fact, claims to simply facilitate life, form its background condition, allowing people to go about their business as they think fit.
And three, the politics of infrastructure does not demand constant activism of citizens. It works on the premise that ordinary people want to go on with the ordinary business of life. They do not want to be heroes or revolutionaries or activists. They may be interested and even vigilant about politics, but they do not want to partake in politics as a vocation. Older forms of ideological politics, both of the left and the right, demanded sacrifice and street-fight from citizens and ceaselessly lamented people’s political apathy when people just tired of politics and returned to the quotidian activities of life and living. Politics of infrastructure, by paying homage to the cause of unspectacular and unremarkable everyday life, seems to recognise and respect people’s choice of when to play politics and when not to.
One last clarification is in order here. Politics of infrastructure, as we see it emerging, goes way beyond the older framework of development politics, which too has had its own heavy ideological baggage. For development, the buzzword of Indian politics since Independence, has at its heart an inescapable hierarchy with colonial antecedents. This hierarchy is on the one hand geopolitical, as between developed, developing and underdeveloped countries, the West and the rest so to speak, which makes us feel anxious, inferior and pathetically desirous of some vague global stature. On the other hand, this hierarchy is also domestic, such that we still imagine the diverse regions and peoples of our nation in terms of their relative backwardness and modernity, implying thereby that all Indians despite being Indians are not quite equal. Development is a vertical and top-down political imaginary. Politics of infrastructure, by avoiding the rhetoric of development, plays with a more lateral imagination of a proliferating and multiplying infrastructural network.
Many would, of course, say that it is one thing to imagine infrastructural politics at the level of a city-state, another to pitch it as a national paradigm. We can only wait and see, while we mull over the fact that both economists and media theorists today are calling for renewed attention to infrastructure — both hard (roads, schools etc.) and soft (data access, cloud, bandwidth) — as central to the betterment and equalisation of contemporary life.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 30, 2020 under the title “Delhi’s choice”. The writer, a historian, is professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.
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