Monday, 23 February 2015

AAP's Ghar Waapasi

De-criminalise Urban Politics: AAP can transform the city


The day after the Delhi election results were declared, I took old friends on a visit from Sweden to the Patel Nagar office of AAP. They got a sumptuous flavour of the fanfare and unpredictable drama of Indian politics. With every fresh victory reported on giant TV screens, thousands of AAP supporters roared in unison, as ‘Paanch saal Kejriwal’—a slogan that turned political failure into stunning success—boomed from big speakers.

When we returned home to Vasant Kunj, the tricolour painted on our faces, we were soon besieged by people from Dalit Ekta Camp, a basti that was all but demolished in December at the behest of the Delhi BJP, the RWA and the DDA. It was saved by an urgent legal intervention via the Delhi High Court, which issued a ‘stay’ order, AAP leader Prashant Bhushan playing a crucial role in court in defending the rights of slum-dwellers. I have yet to meet a single person among the 1,000-odd voters of Dalit Ekta Camp who did not vote AAP on 7 February. The party’s 49-day reign in 2013-14 nostalgically resides in local collective memory here as a time when policemen were afraid to approach common people for routine bribes and favours. The joy on the faces of people from the basti had to be seen to be believed. It felt as though they had all themselves become MLAs in the Delhi Assembly! Celebratory mithai was distributed in the neighbourhood, as taxi drivers, auto-rickshaw drivers, domestic workers, plumbers, electricians and their families danced in glee.

What a fightback AAP volunteers, workers and leaders have achieved!

Did AAP win the election? Or did the BJP lose it? Both, perhaps in equal measure. Full marks to Arvind Kejriwal’s party for faithful persistence. Most others would have given up after the series of political blunders that led to his Varanasi defeat and AAP’s dismal showing in the Lok Sabha polls of May 2014. Credit is also due to him and his party for quickly learning from past mistakes, not getting distracted—for instance, by refusing the temptation to fight the Maharashtra, Haryana or Jharkhand elections last year—and focusing on Delhi and painstakingly building AAP’s organisational structure in the city, something that proved decisively formidable for BJP’s Delhi outfit, which was hardly a pushover. The massive vote-switch from the Congress, and the consolidation of support for the new alternative of course came handy in determining the scale of the AAP win. Since December 2013, AAP’s vote share has risen dramatically from 29.5 per cent to 54.6 per cent. That of the Congress has fallen from 24.6 per cent to 9.7 per cent. The transparent communalism of the ruling party worked against it, as it directed the vast majority of minority votes towards AAP, the most electable alternative to the BJP.

However, the BJP’s own hand in its rout cannot be under estimated either. Sitting on one’s laurels never goes unpunished in Indian politics. Pompous complacency was bound to drown in the AAP tsunami. True to the arrogance of its leadership, the BJP underestimated its rival and overestimated the popularity of its own leader. It hit the ground late and made fatal mis calculations, such as the desperate choice of its CM candidate at an advance dstage once the realisation hit that it was a laggard.

Other than driving a wedge within the party, whose Delhi stalwarts were ignored as a result, how could the party high command imagine that an ex-policewoman would be welcomed by an electorate whose majority are poor and often at the receiving end of police brutality and corruption?

It is hardly excessive to interpret this election result as this city’s referendum on the ruling party’s rock-star Prime Minister, given how much he personally put at stake during the election campaign. It was he who took the risk of saying that the ‘mood of the country’ was also the ‘mood of Delhi’. While he of course retains a hold on the imagination of much of the country’s corporate elite and aspiring middle-class, he has been given a close examination by the Delhi electorate. His rallies have been poorly attended. His negative campaigning against AAP and its leadership was counterproductive. At one of his rallies, when he asked, “Aap kisko vote denge?”, people replied “AAP ko!” His sartorial narcissism, his expensively styled suits (his own name printed unabashedly across them), worth many years of wages for some of the families who have frequented his rallies, have not gone unnoticed.

The Prime Minister’s poor etiquette was also exposed during the Obama visit, when he frequently referred to the American President as ‘Barack’. Many in the media finally seem to have found the spine to mock the follies of men in high offices. The aam aadmi on the street has been getting wise to the ways of the Prime Minister much faster. For instance, my cab driver said to me last month, “Sir, Pradhaan Mantri Amreeka aur Japan hamaare liye toh nahi jaa rahe hain!” Each foreign trip by a leader has a political price in India.

Even more importantly, the divisive communal social agenda of the Sangh Parivar has boomeranged on the BJP. It was widely seen as a distraction from its promised agenda of ‘development’. Ludicrous, misplaced claims about the putative ‘scientific’ knowledge of ancient India, ‘love jihad’, ‘ghar waapsi’, repeated acts of vandalism and church-burning in the capital, the rediscovery of the assassin of the ‘Father of the Nation’ as a national hero, countless taunts and insults hurled at minorities by Parivar members, the occasional riot or communal murder, not to forget the party leader’s own acquiescent silence on each of these occasions, have not gone down well with Delhi’s electorate. No one has time or patience for such nonsense anymore, and the BJP’s ‘achche din’ are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future.

AAP has national ambitions. The last time, however, it fell victim to its own haste. It was rightly seen to have abandoned Delhi in its impatience to make a mark in the Lok Sabha. If it is to emerge one day as “a principled force in national politics”, as Yogendra Yadav puts it, it must do many things very differently this time. To be fair to the leader of the ruling party today, he managed Gujarat for 13 years before staking his claim to Lok Sabha leadership. Rightly or wrongly, he was judged by many—both rich and poor—as having acquitted himself creditably as the Chief Minister of a major state.

By contrast, Kejriwal and AAP are new to politics. They are even newer to governance. Hopefully, the bitter lesson in patience has been absorbed and they will stick to the promise of ‘Paanch saal Kejriwal’. If the party hopes to represent Indians one day, rather than just Dilliwaalas, its leaders would not only need the hard experience of everyday governance (that too without an opposition in the Assembly!), demonstrating to the rest of the country by revitalising Delhi that they have what it takes, they would need to do the hard organisational work of building political bases around the country.

They would also need to think carefully and rigorously through the whole gamut of issues facing India—from ecological crises and their relationship to the workings of a globally benchmarked corporate market economy to defence and foreign policy, not to forget long-standing questions of caste and class, community and gender. None of this, as the BJP is learning, is easy or straightforward. A sectarian, parochial or communal imagination will simply not fly in the context of contemporary India. One needs a vitally fresh all-embracing vision. One needs a vision of the Subcontinent as a living, ancient civilisation, not a decadent, medieval vision of a Hindu Rashtra—which would only enfeeble the spiritual, cultural and intellectual life of India. AAP has to keep an eagle eye open to the perils of mimicking the ways of its main rival among its own rank and file. It needs a leadership that is unafraid to discipline its own workers when the occasion demands. Its track record on this over those 49 days was less than salutary. But Kejriwal has to be given credit for changing the composition of his cabinet this time.

The AAP experiment is best understood as an opening up of a golden opportunity to radically alter the horizons of Indian politics. It has shown that the emperor has few clothes just when he appears overdressed! It is a chance to make politics responsive to the hopes and needs of a beleaguered culture in an ecologically imperilled, globalised world. In its first electoral venture, AAP destroyed the impregnability of the Congress. In its third one, it has shattered in even more spectacular fashion the invincibility of the BJP.

Might it upset both the mainstream parties at the next Lok Sabha polls? Unlikely, but not impossible, especially if AAP is willing to learn from another of its mistakes last year: not welcoming the formation of a national platform—involving hundreds of political groups and formations fighting on a multitude of issues from land and labour to women’s rights and the environment—in which it could take a leading position (as against expecting everyone to join its ranks).

The party emerged from Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement of 2011-12. Its strengths and weaknesses are rooted in this experience. Its organisational model is very different from that of conventional parties, relying much more on young volunteers than on old cadres. This makes it nimbler, but also ideologically less rooted. Impatience and populism have let it down in the past. If the leadership is not watchful, it could happen again. AAP’s leaders would be unwise to prevent a critical and intellectually creative culture from taking root in the party. One reason for the moribund state of other parties is that there is no semblance of intellectual openness and political democracy left in their ranks. If the leader goes blind, so does the party.

Delhi’s electorate has given AAP a mandate to empower communities vis-a-vis elements of the State (such as the police) and the corporate economy, which has been burrowing holes in the pockets of the poor when it ought to be generating livelihoods and affordable goods and services for them. Without much ado, AAP has to get down to meeting the tall promises made in its 70-point election manifesto.

For starters, it might consider two things. One is simple, the other more complex. Given the environmental health disaster that this city is becoming, AAP could begin work by encouraging auto-rickshaw drivers and rickshaw-pullers (two of its strongest support groups) to put on appropriately protective pollutions masks that can be made available. Much research shows that the exposure to pollution of such professional groups in the city is markedly higher than average. This can be achieved without much ado and would have far-reaching positive consequences not just on the health and medical bills of so many families, but also, by visible demonstration, on the attitude towards air pollution in the planet’s most polluted metropolitan area. It would also encourage a readymade business for street hawkers at the most appropriate places for the sale of such masks: traffic signals. The government can encourage this public habit by subsidising their purchase with the help of a small fund collected through an appropriate carbon tax on cars and four-wheeled vehicles. If masks are deemed too expensive, it could encourage people exposed to excessive pollution to consume a few teaspoons of jaggery every morning and evening.

My second proposal is harder to achieve. My suggestion is based on my experience of working with a slum across the street from where I live. In years past, I used to wonder why no political party ever fulfils its promise of legalising unauthorised slums. The answer is simple: once legalised, the slum ceases to remain dependent on the political party that patronises it. The party loses a captive vote-bank (since public memory is short), as also a catchment area both for rank-and- file workers and lumpen elements needed at election time.

If a way could be found to make India’s 50,000-70,000 urban slums legal, imagine the cleansing of the political system that would be achieved at one stroke. By putting a permanent end to what amounts to a politics of vote-extortion, you could begin to decriminalise urban politics in the country, reduce corruption substantially (not just because cops and politicians would have less sway over slums, but also because real estate scams involving slums would be harder to pull off). At the same time, a programme for decent housing for the poor could finally kick off the ground.

All that the AAP leadership now needs to do is push strongly for judicial action on the matter and aim at a Supreme Court order that would apply not just in Delhi but across the country. It would revolutionise the functioning of urban democracy in India. We could be living in a different country within the space of a decade or less.

At stake is not only the renewal of a great city, but that of a great civilisation.

(Aseem Shrivastava is a Delhi-based ecological economist. He is the co-author, along with Ashish Kothari, of Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India)

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Why isn't there an Indian green party ?

How/why, four decades after Chipko and Silent Valley, is there still not even a regional green party in India, let alone a national one? And how might someone like Gandhi think about this strange impasse, given the sheer gravity of the agro-ecological situation? After all, it is civilisation itself which is at peril.

Let us first handle one issue, the one about "compactness", which some argue accounts for green parties in countries like Germany. Skeptically considered, one would be led to ask whether all compact countries have green parties and no large, widespread country has one. The point is made by a contrast between Singapore (which still does not have a green party) and Brazil (which does for over 25 years now). India's story is of course more complex than each such extreme case. But my question still is, how come a Himalayan green party - linking issues from Chipko and Tehri to Teesta and Subansiri - has not come about in these last few decades? 

Could it have something to do with how politics has traditionally been framed in India? I think it would be fair to say that the Indian political imagination may be out of phase with modern ecological history and context. And this may have something to do with the fact that our political landscape has been all but lazily plagiarised from early 20th century Europe (without due upgradation or reconsideration in light of our own better knowledge of our past and present). Our political episteme itself is compromised in the process. India's liberals created a Congress modelled on the Whigs of Britain, the Communists modelled themselves after the Marxists there, and the Hindu communalists after their Fascist heroes abroad. I believe that mainstream Indian politics has stagnated after independence for all the reasons that haven't changed since Rajni Kothari's 'Poltics in India' (1970) appeared. The 'Congress System' has become even more decadent with the passage of time, the real steep fall coming rather rapidly after the pogrom against Sikhs in 1984. About the only slim and slender gain that might accrue in the public sphere from Modi's 2014 victory is the possibility of a proper indigenisation of the Indian political imagination - provided someone finds the courage and public intelligence to stand for Swaraaj. 

I told Arvind Kejriwal a year ago, when he was CM-1, that if he did intend to fight Lok Sabha, he should present the following alternatives to the people, keeping in view AAP's ideology of Swaraaj: "Vote for the assassins of Gandhi, the traitors of the Gandhi, or the followers of Gandhi". I was shocked when he said he could not do that! Even in this Delhi campaign he has not dared to do it. And without this extra moral courage, I do not believe the terms of politics will change from within the electoral scheme of things. More likely they will head Right, possibly even with Kejri at the helm! Let us not underestimate the power of the sheer momentum of two decades of consolidation of corporate feudalism in this country!

Likewise, in all our policy recommendations to AAP last year, we said that all economic policy henceforth should be made in an integrated manner with environmental policy, within a long-term horizon of 'Harit Swaraaj' (I am at work on a paper on it for the WSF and for a volume that Ashish is editing). I even suggested a 'Harit Swaraaj Sangh' (HSS), with its slogan of "Dharti Maata ki Jai!" to challenge the RSS slogan of "Bharat Maata". I believe that such an initiative will have wide resonance in many parts of the country - like J&K, HP, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Odisha, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and possibly others. Land, water and forest struggles are taking place everywhere I have visited during the last 8 years. The time for electoral ecological politics has been here for sometime (at least since Medha first appeared on the horizon), but no one has dared to take the plunge. As Gandhiji said of Christianity, to succeed, it will have to be tried out. My feeling is that it has to be happen in one or two places, for a domino effect to be unleashed. This is a largely safety-first conservative country, where to try something new, most people want guaranteed success first!

The other point about a green agenda emerging from only a science/theory/education/literacy-based culture could also be doubted. If there can be a land/water/forest-based movement in so many parts of the country, then why not also a political party? I think the key link issue here is livelihood. More and more people and places are making the link between loss of habitat and loss of livelihood - with no equivalent compensation in terms of remunerative and dignified employment. (I am going tomorrow for a couple of talks to Allahabad, to speak at the inauguration of a 'Beej Yatra' and at a PUCL seminar on 'Tikaau Vikaas' - where these issues will be in the foreground.) 

Also pertinent is the question of money-based economies and the inflation that comes with them. This, I believe, will take more time. Money is a more abstract and complex matter to understand and even if every Macroeconomics text has to admit that inflation is a form of (usually upward) redistribution of (real) wealth and income, it is hardly understood as such by masses (or even political parties or folks in the media) in this country - though they so evidently feel the pinch of higher prices, esp in the cities. 

As far as education goes, there are regions of this country I have visited - in Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh especially - where the level of 'habitat literacy' is incomparably higher than it is in educated, metropolitan India, or even in Germany. The cognitive awareness of Adivasi communities in so many places is still profound, where it has had some breathing space from the juggernaut still. (Think, for instance, of the Jarawas who saved themselves from the Tsunami by following the animals to the highlands, while Swedish tourists perished on the beaches of the Andamans. Or think of the adivasi elderly women to whom the drug and pharma companies go looking for herbs to patent. Why don't they go to MS Swaminadhan or Amartya Sen?) I find agrarian communities - especially the generation born before 1975 or so - also ecologically far more literate than downtown India. 

I believe strongly that Gandhi and Rabindranath have to brought to the centre of political-cultural-economic discourse in this country. If educated politicos in this country begin to heed their own ecological and cultural contexts rather than relying on a dated vision from the West, a lot would change. But McCaulay has had more of an impact on them than on the Babus, one would imagine!

Related to all this is also the fact that Indians - far more so than most cultures, and in a mode of colonial imitation, more thoroughly than Westerners - have reduced everything to politics. We are an over-politicised people. It has made us prisoners of the illusions spawned by that greatest of monsters of modernity - the modern State. This is the sort of thing that had been feared by men as otherwise divergent in their views as Gandhi, Rabindranath and Vivekananda. It is time we redressed this profound imbalance in our culture, return to realms of the spirit both individually and together, and forge new visions from compassion and community, freedom and creativity. Justice will follow.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Chanakyapuri ka Chaiwalla

Fact is at least as strange as fiction. I want to share a little experience from last week. Some friends in Bangalore requested me to submit papers for their visas to Pakistan at their High Commission here in Delhi. 

Here is what happened:

I approach a well-locked Gate #1 of the magnificent blue-domed building of the PHC at 3.50 pm (the office closes at 4 pm), thanks to a traffic snarl, which delayed me by 30 minutes. As I approach, there is only a commando with a Kalashnikov pointing straight at me...I smile and ask him where I could submit the visa papers. He gestures towards a tiny one-foot-square window...I find it too quite shut...however there is a marbled-eyed man with a long, flowing beard knocking on the window from the inside..."rukiye!", he screams at me just as I am about to turn away...he then opens the window, examines the papers, shakes his head and says, "aap ko saare papers jamaa karne slips kahaan hain?!" (I am thinking, wouldn't it be nice to have the Kalashnikov with me right now?!) 

So I was meant to go to the Malcha Marg Standard-Chartered counter and pay INR240 and obtain two bank slips...I say your website says no such my heart starts to sink again, he says "koi baat nahin, aap woh agli gali jo dikh rahi hai, wahaan se right ho jaayein, ek phal-waali baithi hogi...usse aap doh yellow slips khareed lein"...and I am thinking "what sort of hustle is this?" So I sprint, since barely 5 minutes are left for the deadline to expire (and Monday would be too late for my friends to make the trip)...turn right after 50 phalwaali!...instead some half a dozen pathaan women waiting for their stamped passports. They see me in despair and say "kya baat hai beta?" I tell them what I need...they say they do not know where the woman is...but they point to a little boy who might know, since he cleans the sidewalk. The boy says the lady is there only in the morning...damn! But there is always hope for the despairing in our land...the boy quickly adds, "lekin koi baat nahin, aap woh road ke aakhir tak jaayenge (300 metres or so), toh ek chaiwaala se mil lijiyega." I am stunned...I always knew the West did not understand the idea of free markets (we did) was more surprising proof of my prejudice! 

So I sprint another 300 metres in my dapper Clark shoes and blue jacket...make it to the end of the road (literally and otherwise)...but while there is a tea-kiosk, there is no chaiwaalla...more panic, since it is now almost 4 pm! I hear a helpful shriek from a distance..."rukiye sir, main abhi aaya!" Then he asks "kitne slips chahiye?" I mutter three (thought I'd keep one as a souvenir!)...he asks for Rs.100 more money than I had calculated. His explanation: "Sir, hamaara bhi toh commission hoga na!" Commission next to the High Commission...My heart melts and I give him a tip on top...he is delighted.

On the way back I encounter the elderly pathaan ladies again...from my sprint they can tell, I am half-way to my manzil...they smile and one of them says "Allah sabka khayaal rakhta hai!" I nod in profuse gratitude... 

I run back to the window near Gate #1. It is almost 4.10...the window tightly shut...this time I take bold and do the knocking myself...the man with the Talibanesque beard appears, opens the window and is finally happy with the yellow slips and the papers...

"Monday ko Mr.Sajjad ko doh baje phone kar ke poochhiye ki Karachi Literary Festival waale vise lag gaye hain ki nahi." 

Lag gaye thhe!

Columns on globalisation and development

During 2004-11, I used to write an occasional column on globalisation and development for the Pune website, Some 35-odd articles I wrote during this period are available from this website: