31 January 2014

by Praful Bidwai

A month after storming to power in Delhi following a spectacular electoral debut, the Aam Aadmi Party has tarnished its image by taking three false steps. First, its law minister Somnath Bharti and women and child welfare minister Rakhi Birla indulged in obnoxious vigilantism. Second, AAP’s top leadership, including Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, defended their conduct and even commended Mr Bharti’s actions.

Third, AAP’s official Hindi organ “Aap ki Kranti” on January 24 recorded on its website “shortlisting of Bangladeshi infiltrators” as one of the 15 achievements of its government. Although not widely noticed, this was disturbingly reminiscent of the Hindutva forces’ past attempts to illegally expel or summarily deport Bengali-speakers by branding them Bangladeshis.

The touting of this “achievement” so greatly embarrassed some of AAP’s own leaders that the entire e-magazine was withdrawn after attempts to pass it off as someone else’s handiwork failed to convince. But the offending sentence showed that communal prejudice and xenophobia are alive in the party’s ranks; their votaries have no qualms about using words like “infiltrator”, which suggest not just illegal migration, but dark intent to “subvert the Indian nation”.

Public attention was diverted from the first misstep by the Rail Bhavan dharna—which provoked charges of “anarchism” and worse. But AAP should not be faulted much for occupying a visible public space in central Delhi, as distinct from tiny Jantar Mantar, where protests are confined and made invisible, unlike in any other democracy.

Nor should AAP’s demand for making Delhi’s police accountable to its elected government, and rooting out corruption in the force, be lightly dismissed. But this isn’t enough: the crucial issue is police reform, and how the force should be used.

AAP’s real culpability lies elsewhere: most gravely, in Mr Bharti’s attempt to bully the police to arrest four African women in Khirkee who, the local residents alleged without evidence, were involved in drug-peddling and prostitution.

When the police rightly refused, citing lack of a warrant, and the rule that no woman be arrested after sunset, a rowdy mob surrounded the women. They were racially profiled, abused, manhandled for hours and forcibly taken to hospital and subjected to humiliating medical tests. Videos show Mr Bharti saying the Africans “are not like us”, inciting the mob, and insulting police officers.

Nine women’s organisations, both independent and politically affiliated, condemned Mr Bharti for racism, xenophobia and male-supremacism, and said his conduct violated human rights. The minister was trying to cynically exploit the widespread prejudice prevalent in India against Africans based on the colour of their skin. They are stereotyped and baselessly accused of peddling drugs.

Medical tests showed the harassed women hadn’t consumed drugs. This made the injustice even more egregious. Such treatment of Africans reveals a lack of civility and respect for natural justice, which is part of a lynch-mob’s anti-democratic mindset. Africans living in Khirkee are routinely pelted with pebbles, subjected to humiliating taunts and treated like animals.

If AAP leaders had a modicum of civility, they would have deplored Mr Bharti’s actions and sacked him from the cabinet pending the results of inquiries against him by a judge and the Delhi Commission for Women. But they backed him and staged a dharna against police “insubordination”. This ended with a face-saving formula and wrongful transfer of two officers.

AAP beat a retreat, like any other party, for political reasons, but called it a “victory”. AAP leaders have since practised the tactics of denial and prevarication typical of political parties.

The dharna was staged for narrow party-parochial considerations, and in response to the public criticism of the AAP government for its cavalier reaction to the gang-rape of a Danish tourist. Mr Kejriwal, who had promised to make Delhi safe for women—unlike the “incompetent” Ms Sheila Dikshit—first pleaded helplessness when the rape happened, and then resorted to crude dramatics.

Mr Kejriwal displayed crass male-chauvinism and gender illiteracy in saying that “rape tendencies arise out of” sex, prostitution and “drug rackets”. This shows a failure to grasp that rape has little to with sex, and even less with drugs. It’s about subjugating women through force in a patriarchal society. Such remarks are far worse than the deplorable comments of policemen and politicians who attribute rapes to women’s “provocative” attire or their outdoor presence at night!

Yet, AAP leaders harp on a notion of good policing as something based on control of the police by the aam aadmi or “the local people” through mohalla committees and gram sabhas. AAP’s vision document wants police stations to be “directly accountable to” mohalla sabhas—never mind the rule of law, proper procedures, and giving accused persons a chance to defend themselves.

They obviously haven’t heard of Dr Ambedkar’s warning that the village and the mohalla are the worst repositories of casteism, patriarchy, male-supremacism and other parochial prejudices; excessive powers for gram panchayats in the absence of structural social change and anti-caste reform are a charter for the further enslavement of Dalits.

AAP’s idea of policing is democratic only in appearance. There is only a thin line of demarcation between mohalla-based democracy and majoritarianism. If a majority is allowed to summarily punish anyone who is different or “deviant” in defying “customs”, it will act exactly like khap panchayats. Brute majorities can do terrible things—including pogroms and mass killings.

The troubled concept at work here is “the people” as an undifferentiated, homogenous entity, with equal distribution of power, and without divisions along class, caste, religion, gender and ethnic lines. This is a dangerous myth. As is AAP’s woolly notion of the aam aadmi, which includes everyone from the “honest” billionaire, through the schoolteacher, to the oppressed pauper.

“The people” defined thus can be manipulated by dominant classes to act as the collective oppressors of minorities. Blinded by prejudice and narrow self-interest, they can exercise power untrammelled by law, ethics or compassion—with potentially horrendous consequences.

What we need is not “people”, but citizens committed to the universal values of democracy and an enlightened view of the Constitution, who give primacy to marginalised and excluded social groups within a common project to build a better, more humane, more equal and compassionate society. Such citizens alone can become the true agents of progressive change with an inclusive agenda.

AAP clearly lacks such a vision. Its dogmatic, a priori rejection of ideology and all broad programmatic perspective deprives its “solutions-based” approach of the moral compass necessary to produce the criteria to judge what’s in the larger public interest. Indeed, it could also impede its ability to learn from its mistakes.

Unless AAP acknowledges its blunders and corrects course, it will betray its promise of providing a real alternative to the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party which can take this society forward. AAP is a young party and still evolving. So it would be wrong to judge it harshly. But it’s necessary to point out its missteps and the divisions within its leadership.

Some AAP leaders, perhaps a majority at the top, are conservatively inclined. They would like the party to focus primarily on the upper-middle and middle classes and adopt conformist Right-of-centre policies in line with pressure from the corporate-controlled media.

On the other hand, a number of well-regarded Left-wing individuals such as JNU professor and long-standing Communist Party of India member Kamal Mitra Chenoy have joined AAP. Like many public-spirited citizens, they believe that AAP, not the Congress, can effectively impede Mr Narendra Modi’s bid for power by taking a number of votes away from the BJP.

But AAP still has a long way to go. A CSDS-Lokniti-CNN-IBN poll estimates AAP’s national vote-share at just 4 percent and its likely Lok Sabha seat-tally at 6-12. The vote-share will probably grow because AAP is expanding and recruiting lakhs of members. But to make a real impact, AAP’s growth would have to be backed by Left-of-centre and staunchly pro-poor economic policies.

It would make good practical sense too for AAP to try and fill the Left-of-centre space which is opening up as the BJP and the Congress move Rightwards. This space is likely to be partially vacated by the traditional Left parties, whose Parliamentary representation is estimated to shrink. The CSDS-Lokniti-CNN-IBN poll gives the Left just 15-23 Lok Sabha seats in place of the present 24.

How AAP makes its policy choices is an open question. The composition of its economic policy team, with an over-representation of pro-business individuals, doesn’t inspire much confidence. AAP should not accept its report without broad-based consultations and thorough debate.

If AAP wants to put up a spirited fight against Mr Modi, it will have to take a clear stand against Hindutva and adopt an economic agenda that provides an alternative to his neoliberal policies. Mr Modi has come to personify three extremely negative traits: raw corporate power, virulent Hindutva, and authoritarian cult-based politics.

Defeating Mr Modi is a high priority for those committed to defending democracy. As things stand, it’s not clear if AAP can rise to that challenge.