De-criminalise Urban Politics: AAP can transform the city
- ASEEM SHRIVASTAVA
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)