The Modi government and its tame, hyper-nationalist media are so disturbed by the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party that they have taken time off from self-praise to dub him a traitor for suggesting that the army should release its videos of the surgical strike across the Line of Control. To do this they have chosen to read skepticism of the army’s claims into his remarks when what he was urging the government to rebut was the skepticism that Islamabad was trying to implant in our minds. But this is hardly surprising because the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh elections are only months away and defeat in these could easily turn the Modi government into a lame duck administration for its two remaining years in office.
Modi and BJP president Amit Shah may think this is a good electoral strategy, but it will be a tragedy if the public is taken in by it, for the issues around which the struggle between the BJP and the Aam Admi Party is conducted will determine the future of democracy in India.
Five weeks ago, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal by the Delhi government against a judgment of the Delhi high court that had stripped it of all its powers, terming the issue an “extraordinary matter”.
Perhaps a better description would have been “unprecedented”. For except when Boris Yeltsin, the elected president of Russia in the Soviet Union’s newly minted democracy, challenged Mikhail Gorbachev’s right to rule Moscow as president of the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been no comparable struggle between two tiers of the same government in the annals of modern nation states.
The outcome of Yeltsin’s challenge was the break-up of the Soviet Union and Russia’s decade-long plunge into poverty and anarchy. But the outcome of the struggle between Kejriwal and Jung could be even more momentous; the August 4 judgment of the Delhi high court that Delhi is not a fully fledged state ‘like other states’ but a union territory where the elected government must rule at the pleasure of a lieutenant governor appointed by the Centre, has cleared the way for a conflict not just between two tiers of democratic government but between two strata of society – the rich and the poor, the privileged and the deprived, the predators and the prey, that has the capacity to tear the nation apart.
Delhi LG Najeeb Jung is sublimely unaware of this. Like Adolf Eichmann, who “only followed orders”, Jung took his cue from the Delhi high court judgment and stepped up his attack on the Kejriwal government by appointing three respected retired IAS officers to sift through no fewer than 400 files of the Delhi secretariat in the hope of unearthing irregularities in the decisions of the Kejriwal government to hang it with.
Only days later, he disregarded the entreaties of deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia and summarily transferred two of the Delhi government’s most valuable officials out of the administration – health secretary Tarun Seem, who had been doing exemplary work in setting up mobile health clinics, and the PWD secretary S. Srivastava, who was setting records in connecting homes in previously unauthorised colonies to a piped water supply.
These were the most recent shots in a never-ending fusillade aimed at the AAP. Jung’s earlier attacks included taking away the Anti-Corruption Bureau from the state government; bringing it squarely under the control of the Delhi police and choosing a rabidly anti-AAP officer, Mukesh Meena, to head it; preventing the government from choosing its own officials for key and sensitive posts; abruptly transferring Kejriwal’s most trusted officers out of the Delhi government without even informing him; filing corruption cases against his principal secretary; and relentlessly harassing officers who continued to work with the AAP government by allowing the CBI to summon no fewer than 200 of them to its offices in a bid to extract information that can be used against AAP’s ministers and MLAs.
When the AAP responded to these attempts to paralyse it by appointing its MLAs as unpaid parliamentary secretaries to oversee its programmes of slum improvement, regularisation of unauthorised colonies, supplying piped water and electricity supply, building new schools, adding classrooms, regularising temporary teachers and so on, the BJP challenged their appointment claiming that the MLAs had been given offices of profit to swell their bank balances.
Delhi’s middle class is treating this battle as entertainment, but what it is overlooking is this is a government elected by the largest majority, and probably the largest vote share, that any simple majority voting system has ever yielded. But this is the lesser part of the assault. AAP is not just any other party; and Delhi is not like any other state of the Indian union.
By retrospectively legitimizing all of these actions the Delhi High Court’s judgment effectively disfranchised the 16 million residents of Delhi state. The learned judge on this bench may not have been conversant with history, and may not therefore have known that the Monarch in England has the absolute right to reject any advice given to him or her by her council of ministers, but has not done so in 250 years. The president of India, similarly, only has the power to return a bill for reconsideration but not to veto it. In reasserting this right, therefore, the court took the citizens of Delhi state back to where the people of England were in the 17th century.
No ordinary challenger
Had AAP been a run-of the-mill Indian political party that based its appeal on ethnic, communal and caste loyalties, this interpretation of law to pervert its purpose might have been swallowed by the long – suffering people of the country: “after all”, they could have consoled themselves, “till sixty nine years ago we had no rights whatever”.
But AAP is an entirely new type of political party. It is a party that has explicitly disavowed these loyalties and based itself solely on an appeal to the dawning class consciousness of the electorate. It’s raison d’etre is to break the hold of a corrupt and criminalised power elite in India by using the vote to empower its have-nots. That was what the Chartists had tried to do in England in the 1840s and been hanged for their temerity; that was what the labour party finally delivered to the poor of Britain half a century later.
AAP took India on its first steps down this long road in 2013. How hungry the people of Delhi were for this change became apparent when 30% of them voted for this unknown party in December 2013. That this readiness was not confined to the capital became apparent when 24.5% of Punjab’s voters also cast their vote for AAP in the parliamentary elections of 2014.
AAP’s first conflict with the entrenched power elite occurred when it set up a helpline and invited people to record demands for bribes on their mobiles and report them on a helpline established for the purpose. When 90% of the 32,000 complaints received during its first hundred hours turned out to be against the police and officials of Delhi’s three municipal corporations, the power elite took alarm. It dug its heels in when the Delhi Anti-Corruption Bureau attempted to prosecute two Delhi policemen for seeking a Rs 20,000 bribe for the routine certification of the sale of a second hand car.
That was when this power elite became alarmed. It explains not only the severity of the Modi government’s attack upon it, but also the Congress party’s strange refusal to criticise, let alone oppose it. For the Congress has been the chief architect of this corrupt, unaccountable and predatory power elite. Its objective today, if one can at all be perceived, is not to safeguard democracy but simply to come back to power in order to continue enjoying the fruits of predation. The AAP is therefore as much of an obstacle to its ambitions as to those of the BJP.
Delhi’s chatterati amuse themselves by holding up the AAP to ridicule because it is such a small party, trying to rule such a small state, led by such an ordinary man. But Delhi is not an ordinary state. Unlike the rest of the Indian states, it was not created to accommodate India’s ethno-linguistic diversity. It is a state self–created by people from every part of the country who have migrated to the capital in search of a better future. Its population is growing at twice the national average rate because this is where the largest chunk of new jobs is being created.
Delhi is thus a microcosm of the whole of India. Each migrant who votes in Delhi has a family, a clan, or a village, in his or her home state that depends upon their earnings, looks up to them and takes its cues from what they have to say. These are the people who are spreading the message that a new party has been born whose purpose is to enable the poor to exercise the rights guaranteed to them by the constitution. AAP is not so much a party as a movement. It is the spearhead of a great awakening that has already happened in Delhi, and has begun to happen all over the country.
The change has already begun. In Punjab, which goes to the polls early next year, a disillusioned electorate is flocking to AAP meetings in such huge numbers. In Tamil Nadu, MDMK leader Vaiko is reshaping his party’s platform in the hope of replicating AAP’s meteoric rise. In Manipur, Irom Sharmila gave up her 16-year fast not out of defeat, but because she too saw AAP’s meteoric rise and began to believe that entering politics and bringing about change democratically is the better way to go.
AAP may not have a formal presence in every state, but its supporters can be found in the most unexpected places. Jignesh Mewani, the leader of the Dalit agitation in Gujarat which, along with Hardik Patel’s Patidar movement, is shaking the foundations of the BJP, is the convener of AAP in the state.
On August 15, a tricolour was unfurled for the first time in many years in Gompad, deep in one of the Maoist ‘liberated areas’ of Chhattisgarh over the grave of Makdam Hidme, a young, beautiful adivasi girl who was killed by the police on June 13 in an “encounter” only eight days after she was married. It was unfurled by Soni Sori and Sanket Thakur, two members of an AAP team that had carried it 180 kms from Dantewada to Gompad, after being denied permission to do so from Raipur.
The transformation is in its early days still. But it is no longer possible to ignore the gathering revolt of the poor against a corrupt and criminalized democracy from which they have been completely shut out.
Today a third of all the 5,000-plus MLAs and MPs are indicted criminals. Another third are ‘princelings’, i.e legislators who have inherited what has been built by their fathers or mothers, often by means that cannot stand the light of day. All but a few of the remainder are in the thrall of big business houses.
Till 2013, democracy had offered those outside this charmed, but charmless, circle no way of being heard, and no way to make their rulers and representatives in parliament accountable. That is what Kejriwal has begun to do in the teeth of skepticism and outright hostility. And, miracle of miracles, he is doing this squarely within the four corners of the law, the constitution and the courts, without resorting to a shred of populism. The past 18 months in Delhi have shown that what he is intent upon is good governance and accountability. Whether knowingly or not, Jung and the BJP government at the Centre are determined to snuff this change out.
But the poor are awakening and will not be denied for long. If Jung and the BJP succeed, Kejriwal will be replaced by other, dangerously populist, leaders if we are lucky, and by Maoists and their ilk, if we are not.