21 February 2014

by Praful Bidwai

The Aam Aadmi Party has made a shrewd, calculated, well-planned move by quitting the Delhi government and taking a plunge into national politics. The issue on which it ostensibly precipitated its action was the Delhi Assembly’s vote against the tabling of AAP’s Jan Lokpal Bill, its trade-mark platform, based on the ground that its introduction wasn’t approved by the Central government.

AAP cited this as proof of Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party collusion, fuelled by Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to initiate legal proceedings against Messrs Mukesh Ambani, M Veerappa Moily and pro-Reliance bureaucrats for allegedly overpricing natural gas from the Krishna-Godavari basin.

There is strong prima facie evidence for such overpricing, which calls for further investigation, even trial. But AAP was legally wrong on the Bill’s tabling. Under the National Capital Territory Act 1991, no Bill with financial implications can be introduced in the Delhi Assembly without the Centre’s prior consent.

True, this requirement doesn’t sit well with basic democratic considerations. Delhi’s population (22 million) is larger than that of many nation-states; its elected Assembly should have the right to decide what it can debate. But the law can only be amended by Parliament. Until that happens, it should be respected, especially by those who lay claim to Constitutional correctness, as AAP does.

However, AAP chose to make a political, rather than a legal-Constitutional, point by quitting a government dependent on the Congress’s uncertain support. It hoped its own inconsistency would soon be eclipsed by other developments, as it well might. Frankly, AAP used the Lokpal Bill as an excuse to do what it wanted to do anyway—take credit for lowering water and power rates, create a new plank against “crony capitalism”, and show that it’s not addicted to power.

The move certainly put off some AAP supporters. An equal proportion (49 percent) of people recently polled by IPSOS-ABC-News liked and disapproved of it. AAP leaders reckon that since their party has been established as a credible wielder of power, many people would vote for it, who hesitated to do so earlier. They may be right. The same IPSOS poll says two-thirds of those surveyed would vote for AAP in Delhi.

So AAP leaders calculated that the sooner they launch their Lok Sabha election campaign, the better. Delaying it would only risk further alienating the middle and upper-middle class, which is moving away from AAP thanks to its agitation-centric approach—signified above all by Mr Kejriwal’s Rail Bhavan dharna and sleeping in the street—its emphasis on “mohalla democracy”, and tactics that the elite considers “populist” and “irresponsible”.

Signs of eroding upper-middle class support became evident through a sharp drop in donations to AAP—from a daily average of Rs 19 lakhs in the fortnight the party took power, to under Rs 5 lakhs in the fortnight ended February 8. (Donations have since surged.)

More telling, Residents’ Welfare Associations (RWAs), which represent the upper and upper-middle class elite of Delhi’s colonies, and want poor people excluded and evicted, strongly oppose AAP’s proposed Delhi Nagar-Swaraj Bill, which creates eight-to-12 mohalla committees in each of Delhi’s 272 municipal wards with special representation for women and Dalit-OBC groups.

The RWAs loathe such committees and contend that they would create a counterproductive “parallel power centre”, which cannot address the concerns of “planned” residential colonies—their constituency. With the right to impose penalties to be vested in an ombudsman appointed by them, the RWAs claim, these bodies will “encourage corruption”.

This self-serving argument exposes the growing rift in AAP’s support-base. But it’s not clear if AAP will take its pro-poor partisanship to its logical end while risking further alienation of middle-class support. Its recent record on this score is contradictory. For instance, it promised to abolish contract labour, but failed to give permanent status to Delhi Transport Corporation workers.

A basic problem with AAP’s approach is that it defines democracy exclusively in residential terms through the organisation of mohalla-dwellers around their civic amenities or lack of them. It leaves no room for class organisation, for self-activity and empowerment of workers as producers. Its agenda is not emancipatory or comprehensive enough.

AAP is also increasingly behaving like other cynical parties given to doublespeak and focused exclusively on short-term gains. It calls toxic khap panchayats “cultural” bodies and advocates a “dialogue” with them—because it wants to win the elections in Haryana, where khaps matter hugely.

Despite its shortcomings, AAP has shaken and stirred Delhi’s political scene, and wants to stir things up at the national level. Yet AAP remains amorphous not just in its social base, but as analyst Jairus Banaji puts it, at the level of political ideas: it lacks a “wider political understanding”, leave alone a coherent ideology, whose very necessity it denies.

Given its ad hoc, discrete “solutions-oriented” approach, AAP has not decisively moved beyond its symptomatic anti-corruption agenda to engage with the great issues facing Indian society, including inequality, poverty, multiple forms of mass deprivation, class exploitation, gender and caste oppression, and growing communalism and authoritarianism.

However, AAP has done something that no political party has attempted for years—except for the Left in Parliament—namely, challenge powerful corporates like Reliance Industries and the Adanis. It has shown the courage to question business-politics collusion.

One must commend AAP’s initiative on the Krishna-Godavari gas issue, which echoes a public-interest petition by former senior civil servants TSR Subramanian and EAS Sarma and others. The initiative has expectedly drawn flak from businessmen, who warn of a political “witch-hunt” which “is not good for India”. This only confirms the opposite.

Yet AAP is vacillating on the business-politics issue—as it did in the past. A day after condemning growing Ambani-Adani-Congress-BJP “collusion”, Mr Kejriwal reached out to industrialists at a CII meeting, and invited their “help” to “write” AAP’s economic-policy document. He stoutly defended private business, and said he only opposes “crony capitalism”, not capitalism per se.

AAP must link its stand against corporate-business collusion to neoliberal economic policies, and understand that that all capitalisms are crony. Capital rarely obeys the market’s impersonal discipline; it has an inherent tendency to profiteer through cronies—unless it’s regulated and/or punished.

A second test for AAP lies in Gujarat, where it has decided to contest all 26 Lok Sabha seats. This will logically bring it into a confrontation with Narendra Modi’s communal-authoritarian politics and his slavishly pro-corporate economic agenda. Whether AAP takes up these issue frontally will decide whether it can mobilise the substantial number of Gujaratis who question Mr Modi’s boastful development-related claims and his record of (mis-)governance.

AAP has declared Mr Modi its “next target”, and promised to raise questions about the presence of convicted criminals in his cabinet and the murder of Haren Pandya, as well as corruption. It has also recruited noted activist Kanubhai Kalsaria, who agitated against Nirma’s destructive cement project.

However, AAP still remains silent on the 2002 pogrom, and the shielding of its culprits. This must change if AAP is to offer credible opposition to Mr Modi.

AAP’s first list of Lok Sabha candidates is a mixed bag, which contains outstanding activists like Medha Patkar (Maharashtra), Alok Agarwal (Madhya Pradesh) and Lingaraj (Odisha). It’s reportedly fielding Anjali Damania against former BJP president Nitin Gadkari, Yogendra Yadav from Haryana, police victim Soni Sori from Chhattisgarh, and activist-lawyer HS Phoolka from Punjab.

But it has also given tickets to Right-leaning banker Meera Sanyal and to Kumar Vishwas, who made a series of communal, racist and male-chauvinist statements in the past, and now claims descent from Chanakya(!) and openly parades his Brahmin credentials.

As of now, opinion polls say AAP will win only 6 to 8 percent of the national vote and just 6 to 12 Lok Sabha seats—3 to 4 from Delhi, and the rest mainly from Haryana. Of course, this could change as AAP grows: it has reportedly recruited 97 lakhs members.

Even a 6-percent vote-share would place AAP in the same league as the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has 21 Lok Sabha seats. The key lies in strategically concentrating AAP’s vote, especially in the cities, so that it can break Mr Modi’s momentum, besides defeating an already weak Congress.

As argued earlier here, to win some 200 seats—needed to form the nucleus of a winning alliance that can reach the 272 half-way mark—the BJP will have to do exceptionally well in India’s three largest states (Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar), winning about two-thirds of their 168 seats.

This won’t be easy. Even if the BJP improves on its present score in Maharashtra (9 seats), it will be hemmed in by its alliance with the Shiv Sena, which faces tough competition from Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navanirman Sena. If regional parties like the SP, BSP and RJD put up a good fight against the BJP in UP and Bihar, Mr Modi can still be stopped. Whether and how much AAP can contribute to this in the two key states remains to be seen.