Understanding the Social Content of the Aam Aadmi Party

For a party which has stayed afloat without pitting Indians against Indians, without major corruption allegations and showed a working model of development, AAP has doggedly refused to widen its reach.

The Aam Aadmi Party is often described as a centrist, post-ideological party whose claims for a second term in Delhi is based on how it has made the lives of its residents easier.

The fight is, it is said, between the developmental record as well as plans of the AAP and the political Hindu-consolidation agenda of the BJP.

In his shift from the confrontational pro-transparency and inclusivist rhetoric to a non-confrontational, low-profile social development one, Kejriwal could come across as a non-ideological welfarist. Political enemies are going to further this by calling governmental facilitation as “populism” and distribution of “freebies”.

I think a look at the social content of this phenomenon will give us certain insights.

A good point of beginning would be to see that AAP’s aesthetic introductions, their topi and the broom have been appropriated by their opponent. The BJP gave the topi a colour change from white to saffron and used the broom extensively through Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

Why would the BJP appropriate these? In the past five years, there are reports that say Arvind Kejriwal is the most hated politician on the Indian web-sphere. What justifies the BJP spending considerable energy on the chief minister in what is not more than a glorified city-state?

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The BJP consolidated itself and grew as the political expression of the new Indian middle class – a post-globalisation entity which gets its sense of coherence from the Hindu religious identity. This class defined itself against the traditionalism of the Congress and the cosmopolitan intellectualism of the Left that happily co-existed with the Congress. Given that the social force of political dynasties was spent and the intellectual left did not mass mobilise in areas that were not already its strongholds, the two parties became pasts which the new middle class could define itself against – an extension of the old “Muslim infiltrators” imagination.

But globalisation didn’t only increase wealth through the creation of an immigrant, professional and post-industrial (workers in the knowledge economy) middle-class. It also caused a huge growth in India’s urban population. An agrarian crisis pushed the rural towards the cities, where new jobs were being created.

The Aam Aadmi Party is the political expression of this class, as their imagination, their symbolism and their voter-base point to.

The fight between the BJP and AAP could be read as the battle for political upper-hand between two emergent classes seeking “change” and looking at the future. This is where AAP and Arvind Kejriwal, as its chief architect and icon, become crucial enemies for the BJP. Because of the Congress’s intellectualism having a certain native elite, entitled streak, it would have utter contempt for this kind of politics, recently expressed in Sashi Tharoor’s contemptuous tweet on Kejriwal.

Even as we talk about the social content of the urban poor, the vanguard of this movement is not from this class: civil society activists, women, youngsters and well-meaning progressives heralded this movement. Thanks to the republic’s terribly graded scheme of casteist, patriarchal and plutocratic inequality, India’s urban poor is yet to have the socio-cultural capital and institutional presence which allow a class of intellectuals and spokespersons from them. But eventually, that has to happen.

The so-called “freebies” provided by the AAP government have the potential to make us move towards such a social change. This change will be the result of the social impact of some of the party’s work in education, women’s travel, weakening the bureaucratic power of the state and of the academic engagement with social justice and constitutional nationalism.

Delhi chief minsiter Arvind Kejriwal. Photo: Facebook/AapKaArvind

In the case of education, if the urban poor get to educate their children well in a socially and economically pluralist environment, it is going to refill our universities and systems of knowledge production and dissemination in less than ten years.

I consider this, if seen through its logical end, an achievement similar to the achievements of the foundational ministries of E.M.S. Namboodiripad in Kerala and Sheikh Abdullah in Jammu and Kashmir. It is great that the students of premier institutions are standing in solidarity with the lower class and lower caste Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh. But the paradigm shift will come when the children of the women of Shaheen Bagh actually study in these very institutions. In this process, the government has an important role.

If women can travel free of cost by bus and later in metros, it will allow more women to step out. Women tend to travel less because they receive less payment and also because of feudal, patriarchal impositions. More women out on the street means more safety for women and that will bring fundamental changes in the very nature of our public sphere.

Thirdly, the step of “home-delivery” of government services is a significant contribution to weakening the colonial state’s callous babu entitlements. This is in keeping with the work done for the Right to Information Act, which won Arvind Kejriwal the Magsaysay Award in 2006. The Indian state needs to be forced out of its colonial habits through transparency, accountability and participatory insistence.

The decision to teach the Constitution of India and the writings of B.R. Ambedkar, just like the process to mechanise sanitation work, are far-reaching steps in actualising social justice.

Thus, AAP’s social content largely has the required orientation.

The party also positions itself as a post-Mandal party, one which sees socialism as a means of ending caste discrimination while abandoning the Mandal vocabulary, one that has been wasted by corruption with the Mandal-caste-communities getting Hinduised. Philosophically, at a time when a Hindu identity has been manufactured metaphysically, AAP is trying to be pragmatic: keep looking at the impact of the action before judging whether it is right or wrong. Ducking the agenda of majoritarianism and compelling those who love to do politics around symbols to come to the social sector can thus be read as useful tools.

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Such a step also has topical global relevance.

In the context of the rise of majoritarianism in all major democracies of the world, the biggest component is the unhappiness of the urban, suburban poor, a class which has come under awful pressure and feels stranded as a result of the economic policies of globalisation. Multinational corporations, in their attempts to freely advance in the market, made governments withdraw from the social sector and blame the difficulties on “outsiders” – geographic, religious or ethnic migrants.

The AAP’s is a governmental move against fund-cuts from the social sector in a huge democracy’s National Capital Region. They started a movement, initially for transparency, then it became one for affordable facilities (many major anti-globalisation movements in Latin America have also been on electricity charges) and later moved on to increasing the involvement in and better management of the social sector.

It is one thing to do things and it is another very different thing to be able to tell the story, making the connections. The political and ethical angle of the work done has to be convincingly narrated, which, from the AAP side seems woefully lacking in content and clarity. If the Indian left’s traditional weakness was theoretical insistence operating like dogma, this new post-globalisation, post-Mandal, left-of-centre party seems to suffer from a certain ability to narrate its existence theoretically.

Delhi Dy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia,(C) with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leaders Sanjay Singh, Gopal Rai and others during an event to launch slogans in collaborate with Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC) for the 2020 election campaign, at AAP headquarters in New Delhi, Friday, December 20, 2019. Photo: PTI

This absent and pronounced theoretical frame causes AAP to sound arbitrary and resemble a front that is failing to ask important political questions.

They could have, even while supporting the reading down of Article 370, opposed the imposition and lock down as lacking in the participatory character democracies ought to have.

They could have made the connection between Delhi’s having a Lieutenant Governor and creating a Union Territory out of a state.

In the case of Shaheen Bagh, though Kejriwal brilliantly handled a Times Now interviewer and exposed the BJP’s plans, the focus should have been on the basic social constituencies of the party and how these could bring in social change: women and the urban poor.

The problem with populism is when the core voter-base becomes majoritarian, the party will have to make allowances for that and the way to stop being led by that sentiment is to clarify the moral imperatives of the party.

While being effective activists and reasonable people in governance, the AAP is weak on the party-building front for this reason too. If the party can’t grow to be a party to reckon with in general elections or can’t win municipal elections, it is surely not going to impact people outside of Delhi, as what does it to have to tell others becomes the crucial question.

It is one thing to create a message and build a model; but it is quite another thing to make it into a movement around a stated ideology.

For this election, the AAP is handling these flaws in political messaging through the personality cult that has developed around Arvind Kejriwal and seeing that it works, it is a good enough strategy.

But they will surely need to go beyond this after the elections. For a party which has stayed afloat without pitting Indians against Indians, without major corruption allegations and showed a working model of social development, it might not be such a bad and long wait.

N.P. Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.