Debate: AAP Does Have an Ideology – Its Unique, Majoritarian Nationalism

The incubator of AAP was the India Against Corruption agitation. It will be wrong to say that AAP steered clear of an ideology. It was always moulded by cynicism.

Reading Neera Chandhoke’s plea to the Aam Aadmi Party to get an ideology for itself, I wondered how the AAP leadership would respond to it. 

The context for her piece is before us. After the party’s victory in Punjab, AAP has registered its presence in Gujarat too. It is not a small thing for a new party to get approximately 13% of the popular vote. AAP also defeated the well-oiled and highly aggressive election machinery of the BJP in Delhi to wrest control of the municipality from it. After its performance in Gujarat, it has secured the coveted status of a ‘national party’.

All this has again led to some of us harbouring the hope of AAP being a party which can challenge the hegemony of the BJP.

Already, there are people who have started saying that AAP can replace the Congress as a viable alternative to the BJP. Many of those who are horrified by the prospect of yet another term for the BJP have again started looking at the AAP as a party which can avert this prospect.

But Chandhoke looks at the results differently. She feels that AAP’s rather weak performance in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat could also be a result of the ambiguity about its ideology. The party could not tell people what it stood for, apart from promising improved delivery of health and education or free electricity. Nevertheless, there are people who see in AAP’s share of votes a beginning of its rise to power. As in Delhi and Punjab, this also means the demise of the Congress party.

At the same time, its former, now long-ousted ideologue, Yogendra Yadav has chosen to look at AAP’s rise in a different light. He says that AAP is a party with a bucket of petrol in one hand and a bucket of water in another. It can throw petrol to fuel the fire or use water to douse it, depending on its assessment of the benefit that the chosen act will bring in a specific situation.

Of course, AAP can well say that this is exactly what we were and are. And they might remind Yadav that it was. in fact, he who had formulated their ideology in true exactness in its early years.

When asked what the ideology of AAP was, Yogendra Yadav, then an important figure in the party, had explained that it didn’t believe in any ‘ism’. It was neither left, nor right. It is a different matter that it is not necessary to divide the ideological world into two neat camps of right and left. There have always been political parties in India which were neither left nor right. The most prominent of them was the Congress party itself. Are parties like the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal, Trinamool Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, etc., left or right? 

Yogendra Yadav said that AAP brought a fresh way of doing politics: “It looks at specific situations and it actually is into attaining our objective. So in a way of saying, you could say problem solving, responding to specific situations, looking at evidence and trying to say which is the best way forward. That is our ideology.”

So, AAP was welcomed as a political party which is a problem solver. A party of governance. The real issues or problems are bijli, sadak, pani, swasthya and shiksha (electricity, roads, water, health and education). The question of ideology was trashed as irrelevant, a thing from the era bygone. 

Also read: The Discrete Charms of Ideology (and Why AAP Needs One)

But the question of ideology, as Chandhoke says, never goes away.

It is strange that we do not count issues of governance as ideological issues. How would schools function? What counts as a successful school? What about the children who are systematically pushed out of formal schooling by design to have only ‘bright’ students in the higher classes so that the success rate of schools remain high? Similarly, we saw mohalla clinics failing when they were most required, that is in the times of COVID-19. 

But more importantly, when we talk about ideology, we enter the area of rights, as Chandhoke says. When I ask about your ideology, I want to know essentially your idea of what constitutes a good life. Also, about the ways to realise it. Political parties are expected to tell us their concept of collective welfare. What do they think about the participation of people in this collective called the nation, spiritually and materially?

When Manmohan Singh said that the most marginalised, including the minorities, had the first claim over national resources, he was making an ideological statement about his government’s understanding of the making of a nation. He was only articulating the principle of the ‘last person first’ enunciated by Gandhi. The Congress party is paying the price for this as it was condemned as being ‘pro-minority’. It is difficult to say if was wise for the Congress leaders to make their view public even if they were honest when they said it.

Talking about ideology, it is questions like this that have to be answered. But in India, the debate of political ideology has mostly been about the most difficult problem of the imagination of national life: Whether you are secular or not. It automatically gets linked to your attitude towards the minorities or minority rights. 

AAP has right from its conception evaded the secularism debate. It tried to show that the debate was irrelevant. It is a party of aam aadmi, the masses. But it would be wrong to say that it steered clear of it.

The incubator of AAP was the India Against Corruption agitation. The symbolism of IAC made it very clear. It was clubbing deshbhakti with anti-corruption. The moot question was whether you were anti-corruption or not. It didn’t matter whether you are anti-reservation, pro-Hindutva. But the semiotics of IAC betrayed its ideology. The backdrop of Bharat Mata, the aggressive use of giant tricolour flags, and the slogans of ‘Vande Mataram’ should have left no doubt in the minds of those who felt attracted to it. 

Anna Hazare in front of an image of ‘Bharat Mata’ during the India Against Corruption movement in 2011. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We also ignore the fact that initially the IAC used the crowd brought by Baba Ramdev and also the followers of Sri Sri Ravishankar. Their assistance was very useful. The images of huge crowds at the Jantar Mantar helped them attract more crowds.

IAC was compared with the Jayaprakash Narayan movement. Rightly so. Because JP had also made anti-corruption a substitute for ideology. He insisted on the resignation of the Congress government in Bihar, which was led by Abdul Ghafoor, one of the most honest politicians of Bihar. He was also a Muslim. Derogatory slogans attacking him personally were allowed by JP since his crowd loved them. He invited the RSS to be the muscle of his “non-party” and “non-ideological” anti-corruption movement. 

It would be unfair, however, to compare JP with Arvind Kejriwal. JP had a moral core. JP did have secular pangs but Kejriwal and his associates never lost sleep on this question.

Also read: Neither ‘Pro-Hindu’ nor ‘Anti-Hindu’, Kejriwal is a Monetary Genius in Modi’s Mould

We also forget that the whole IAC was built on lies or half-truths. The demand for a Lokpal was also an easy and false solution to systematic corruption. It was very much like demanding the death penalty for rape, if we recall the popular slogans heard across India during the Nirbhaya movement. 

There were people who were cautioning against this easy formula for justice which completely brushed aside the idea of democracy being a process of deliberation. The IAC demanded that parliament should accept the referendum on Lokpal done by it. They said that parliament should not waste time discussing the process and structure of Lokpal. They knew what was best and they have acquired mass approval. All that parliament had to do was to approve it.The disdain for deliberative mechanisms, which gives democracy life, was evident in the working of the IAC. 

Similarly, when Anna Hazare was brought to Delhi as a ‘second Gandhi’, people who knew about his truth chose to remain silent. A carnival of a fast was organised at the Ramlila maidan. Again, this farce was not called out.

I remember a small piece penned by Dr Abhijit Vaidya which questioned the honesty of the fast, published by Rediff.com.

He wrote, “My first encounter with Anna Hazare was when I was requested by the veteran trade union leader Dr Baba Adhav to come to Ralegan Siddhi as a doctor to examine Hazare on the 13th day of his first notable hunger strike in 1998. At that time, his relative and a close associate showed me packets of glucose and electrolyte powder, which he was giving to Hazare everyday, and asked me whether the quantity was sufficient.”

People of Maharashtra knew that Anna was a charlatan.

But apart from Dr Vaidya, no one had the courage to say that. He wrote, “Hazare is being used symbolically and shrewdly by Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan and Kiran Bedi – who are known as Team Anna or the self-proclaimed ‘civic society’ representatives of 120 crore Indians.” 

As it turned out, Bhushan was also being used by Arvind Kejriwal. He allowed a movement crafted by him to be called the ‘Anna movement’. Poor Anna had neither the mental ability nor the inclination to even think about it. He was happy with the title of ‘second Gandhi’ bestowed on him by the media.

Dr Vaidya warned that the movement was putting sentimental pressure on the people. It has no ideology and was essentially anti-democratic. How could one achieve any noble objective by using dubious means? Is it not surprising that those who claim that they are Gandhians chose to ignore the shady means involved, as they were desperate for a change in power? As desperate as JP was, in fact, when he didn’t think it wrong to use the RSS for his ‘total revolution’. 

After the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party, it continued to show people that it was fundamentally majoritarian. It was clear from the hounding of African students and residents in Delhi by its local leaders. And its sober-faced justification of such racism. Its refusal to intervene during the communal violence in Trilokpuri. This writer has a first-hand experience of the inaction and absence of the party from the ground. The area was being represented by AAP.

The cynical response of the leadership was that it was not wise to intervene as the party would be seen as pro-Muslim. Elections were close. “Let us not alienate Hindu voters. Once we come to power, we will ensure justice to the Muslims.”

We never saw the bucket of water which Yogendra Yadav claims it holds in one hand. It was only petrol or a match stick to light the fire of anti-Muslim violence. What we saw in Trilokpuri was repeated in the violence of the northeast Delhi. Not only did it refuse to intervene to stop the violence, it delayed setting up relief camps and it again dithered, delayed and discriminated against Muslims while compensation was being decided.

Also read: As Northeast Delhi Was Burning, What Were Local MLAs Doing?

We were desperately looking for help. I remember a friend calling a top leader of AAP and an important functionary of the government. He knew him from his civil society activism days. When he pleaded for intervention to stop the violence, he said that since the house of one of his relatives was attacked by Muslims, he would not do anything.

I also recall a senior AAP functionary, a Muslim, telling me that his calls were not received by senior leaders when he was desperately trying to get help from them. 

We faced enormous difficulties in our relief efforts as there was no support from the AAP government. Before that, the party has defamed the Shaheen Bagh movement calling it a ‘BJP conspiracy’ and claiming that it would have cleared Shaheen Bagh of the protesters if it had Delhi police under him.

Worse was its painting the Nizamuddin Markaz gathering as the ‘super spreader’ of coronavirus and demonising the Tablighi Jamat. The murder of a Hindu man, Rinku Sharma, was cynically used by the AAP and BJP to stoke hatred against Muslims. A person no less than Manish Sisodia claimed that people trying to chant “Jai Shri Ram” were not safe in India. 

In the Punjab elections, AAP used the ‘Hindu in danger’ card. So, there should not remain any confusion about its ideology. It is majoritarian nationalism that it practices.

It might be difficult for us intellectuals to see and name the problem but Muslims have seen through it. At the cost of losing civic amenities, they voted against AAP in the recent municipal elections. They did it because the question of ideology is existential for them.

For people like us, it can wait.

There are still people who hope that once AAP is safely placed in the power structure, it will shed its majoritarian ‘frills’. Till then, we should allow it to use majoritarian demands and ideas so that Hindus vote for it.

What can one say about such hope except that the question of ideology can be simplified by going to the poet who said, “Jaakey paanv na phati biwai, vo kya jane peer parai?”.

‘How can someone who has never suffered understand the suffering of others?’

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.