What does an AAP candidate say about Indian democracy?
What does an AAP candidate say about Indian democracy?
In India at the time of a national election, it’s usually considered fair for politicians and political parties to make promises that everyone knows will not necessarily be kept; for electoral contestants to make claims, counter-claims and allegations that are exaggerated and sometimes completely preposterous; for ticket-seekers to switch parties and allegiances at the last minute depending on the patronage they receive or are denied; and in general, for language to be used loosely, excessively and rhetorically during campaigning. The usual rules about how we speak and what we mean are suspended for a few months, after which things once again return to normal. Odd as that sounds, the exceptional use of language is part of the routine of any big Indian election, and this is probably true in most other democracies as well.
But the 2014 Lok Sabha election in India appears to be unfolding in a way that distorts the use of campaign language as well as the language of election analysis more than usual. It is not just about exaggeration, false accusations and dithering, but rather about serious ideological about-turns and self-censorship on the part of many contestants as well as commentators. Thus a BJP victory and a Modi-led government are spoken about as foregone conclusions; a new party like the AAP is judged negatively and written off preemptively even though it has been in existence for a very short time before having to go into campaign mode at the national level; and pundits are busier making their own preferences and loyalties clear to those they imagine will assume power in short order, rather than actually doing the hard work of gauging and analysing the nation’s mood.
Opportunists of every type are jumping into the electoral fray, be it prominent journalists, controversial activists or hitherto untested politicians. Election surveys, that in previous polls seemed like a reasonably good measure of how things would play out, now appear designed to confirm whatever opinion-makers want the public to believe, rather than providing any genuinely new data on which way people are likely to vote when they rationally correlate their lived socio-economic conditions with the ballots they will cast in coming days.
Most worrying, however, is the growing list of topics that the media seems wary of tackling, whether on television or in newspapers. Thus despite a growing body of evidence on the Gujarat government’s culpability in the 2002 violence, there is no urgent insistence on an acknowledgment from Narendra Modi himself or from anyone in his administration at the time, nor is an apology forthcoming. Those in the press who ought to be stubborn about demanding some explanation, some ownership of responsibility for what happened, are in a hurry to move on from this subject rather than undertake any kind of serious confrontation with the Modi camp. Similarly, news and debate around a range of issues, from corporate corruption to crony capitalism, to the Muzaffarnagar riots, to rape laws, to the Ishrat Jahan encounter killings, to permissions for mining in ecologically sensitive zones around the country, all seem to be shrinking and shutting down rather than becoming much more vigorous and transparent.
As time comes to take stock of how various leaders and parties have performed in the past five or ten years, and to make up our minds about whether or not they deserve to be voted back into office, the media—especially the commentariat— is increasingly reluctant to speak truth to power. Whether this is because of explicit political pressure to remain silent and compliant, or because of an internal calculation of self-interest on the part of various editors, media barons and pundits, the overall effect is to create an impression of consensus or clarity where in fact none exists. A ‘wave’, a ‘surge’ and an overwhelming ‘mandate’ for change are notions that get bandied about when we do not really have any reliable way to measure, calculate or predict what voters are thinking and feeling, and how they will behave at the moment they reach the ballot box. Not just statistically based and frequently updated election surveys and opinion polls, but old-fashioned indepth and long-term economic, social and political analyses, too, look more and more predetermined, rigged and vacuous—unable or unwilling to engage seriously with the realities and possibilities of democratic decision-making.
How did we arrive at the point of such a comprehensive failure to make sense of our own democracy, of its processes of self-renewal and self-transformation, and of its radical potential that surely lies buried beneath the avalanche of fake news, bought opinion, advertorials and manufactured consent? Intense and escalating conflicts over resources, and serious and growing divides of class, caste and religion, suggest that ‘the public’ is very far from being on the same page on almost any issue of local, regional or national importance.
That such a huge, diverse and divided electorate will vote for (or against) any one person or party—that Indian democracy is in fact recasting itself as an American-style presidential race—seems to me a false assumption, and one that will not be borne out by the results of this year’s election. Merely because one contestant has been projecting himself as a prime ministerial candidate, and one party has been campaigning as though every seat in the Lok Sabha depended on the name and track-record of just this individual, doesn’t mean that practices of electoral choice, and habits of political judgment that have been in place for the past seven decades will suddenly disappear overnight and yield a new kind of democratic system. This is wishful thinking on the part of Narendra Modi and his campaign managers, and we should not grant that he is right simply because he says he is.
The Congress is campaigning in more or less its usual way—with a mix of large rallies, small meetings, some press and some advertising. Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and other senior leaders put in their usual face time, nothing beyond what they might have done in any previous election. The BJP, on the other hand, has conducted both massive public meetings with appearances and speeches by Modi, and an aggressive and expensive ad campaign. In addition, it has systematically bought huge amounts of network time, and now as the election actually approaches, Modi has started to give highly contrived and tightly controlled interviews to his chosen coterie of admirers and supporters.
The AAP’s strategy is in fact the most interesting, because it must proceed with practically no funds, all new party-members, campaign volunteers and election candidates, and a complete lack of infrastructure, cadres or other sorts of resources to put up a viable contest in any constituency anywhere in India. The three parties are like persons belonging to three distinct generations—the aged Congress, the middle-aged BJP and the youthful AAP. The Left and regional parties, including the CPM, SP, BSP, RJD, Trinamool Congress, DMK, Shiv Sena, National Conference, etcetera, have their own styles and stories, but for the moment let us set them aside and focus on the national players.
The AAP is so small, so raw and so inexperienced compared to the Congress and the BJP that its main plank is to remind the nation of a possible—future—alternative, and not a realistic prospect of victory this time round or even any time soon. It is not contesting to win, and neither the party’s leaders nor their likely voters have illusions on this score. The AAP has set itself the task of keeping alive the imagination of a different kind of politics, a different language of public opinion, and a different type of ‘democratic upsurge’, to use its senior leader Yogendra Yadav’s well-known phrase from an academic article he wrote in 2000. It is expressing a principled opposition to both the Congress’ moribund way of doing politics, and the BJP’s bid to hijack the political narrative of 21st century India, even though it is still hesitantly and haltingly feeling its own way forward.
The AAP is not so much claiming to know how to set things right, as pointing out that things have gone badly awry, and need fixing. This is a courageous stand to take, all the more so because no immediate political rewards seem in the offing, despite the recent stint in office in Delhi during Arvind Kejriwal’s short-lived Chief Ministership of December 2013-February 2014. In fighting elections without much hope of gaining power, the AAP is trying to suggest a new paradigm for Indian politics, once that harks back in spirit to the national movement and makes the current political ambitions of the BJP look even more crass, cynical and lacking in idealism than they are already.
Some months ago in the run-up to the Delhi Assembly polls in late 2013, Yogendra Yadav had described the AAP’s politics as being about “alternatives, not substitutes”. During the all-too-brief tenure of the AAP government in Delhi, several observers called it ‘post-ideological’, since the party was distinguishing itself from the left, the right and the centre as conventionally understood, but still not clarifying a specific, separate, ideological position of its own. Over time, the AAP is emerging as not merely ‘oppositional’ with regards to ruling or hegemonic forces, but rather as ‘dissenting’ in the true sense of the term.
Its dissent consists in a thorough-going critique of politics as usual, and attempts, howsoever chaotic and sometimes unsuccessful, to do politics differently; indeed, to re-imagine politics in India as it was once sketched by Mahatma Gandhi, an outline of swaraj. Arvind Kejriwal’s 2012 book, titled simply Swaraj, does not resemble MK Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj of 1909, except in its underlying impulse to re-orient the relationship between self (swa) and sovereignty (raj), and thereby transform the very nature of the Indian polity. True dissent is constructive and not just about demolishing what exists and dominates; it is about painstaking efforts to build something unprecedented, to emerge out of a moral deadend and crisis of legitimacy of the kind that engulfs current Indian politics.
Kejriwal’s decision to contest the Lok Sabha seat of Varanasi against Narendra Modi, and Yadav’s decision to contest Gurgaon, both demonstrate a willingness to uphold a principle even at the cost of personal power. The probability that they will both lose these elections is high, even if we grant that it isn’t over till it’s over. Kejriwal wants to keep alive the vision of another Varanasi, a multi-religious space with inter-twined traditions of Hindu and Muslim provenance; a civilisational hub with a long history of inter-sectarian coexistence and dialogue that cannot be ceded to exclusionary and majoritarian Hindutva politics. To do this, he must be the David to the Goliath that is Modi.
Meanwhile, Yadav suggests a Haryana that is as much about rural society and agricultural production as it’s about urban development and modern technology. In a sense, he wants to bring Haryana down to earth and stem its growing class divides, its gender imbalance and outdated patriarchal notions of village justice, its violence against migrant labour and the working poor. That he can actually do any of this in the face of powerful landed caste interests, rich corporations, local oligarchs and a deadly real estate mafia seems like a Quixotic ambition at best. It is only the moral conviction of the real dissenter, the determination to fight the good fight regardless of outcomes, that can allow either of these AAP leaders to enter the electoral battles they have each chosen. These and other such contests are less important for the seats that will be won or lost by the AAP, than they are as symbols of an alternative (not a substitute) political imagination. Whether or not our local AAP candidate wins, it is for all Indian citizens to recognise that the work sought to be done by this fledgling party is actually the work of dissent.
And no matter how regular, free and fair our elections, democracy cannot flourish without dissent.