Change and Hope in India – National Elections 2014 and the Rise of the Aam Admi Party
About 3 years ago, on Oct 4, 2011, Soni Sori, a schoolteacher and a woman of indigenous heritage ("adivasi") in the state of Chattisgarh in central India, was arrested in New Delhi on charges of being a messenger for the outlawed Maoists .
That was the beginning of a trial-by-fire for Sori, which involved incarceration and physical abuse, including allegations of electric shocks and stones inserted in her privates for her alleged role as a Maoist associate. However, one by one almost all charges against her were dropped by India's Supreme Court. The state of Chattisgarh which was prosecuting her could bring forth no credible evidence against her. Finally, on Feb 8 2014, the Supreme Court granted her "permanent bail."
Not long after that, around mid February, came the news that Sori would be joining the still-smelling-of-fresh-paint political outfit, the Aam Admi Party (AAP; "The Common Man Party") to contest in the upcoming 2014 Indian national elections to be held in April-May.
Sori, however, was not the only candidate with rather atypical credentials that the AAP decided to field. The AAP has a host of candidates that are long-time activists, social reformers and grassroots change-makers – people admired by those on the left, people who have struggled long and hard against issues like multinationals, big dams, resource extractivism and neo-liberalism. And this is a party that has constantly been assailed as being without an ideology or being "post-ideological."
A lot of these accusations are, strictly speaking, not untrue. The AAP was formed in November 2012, and it emerged out of an anti-corruption campaign - India Against Corruption (IAC) - that gained fairly wide popularity, especially among the middle-class. The anti-corruption campaign gave voice to a lot of hidden angst and resentment against widespread scams and scandals that the political class and bureaucracy was indulging in, something that especially became egregious in the last decade or so. One of the chief aims of the IAC campaign was to appoint an Ombudsman (a "Lokpal") to deal with corruption cases and prosecute the guilty.
Initially, the core members of the IAC refused to take to electoral path - even likening politics to a cesspool one did not want to have anything to do with. However, in November 2012, some of them, led by anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal formed the AAP. From the party's website, in the section titled “Why are we entering Poltics?” the party states its reasons thus: “Our aim in entering politics is not to come to power; we have entered politics to change the current corrupt and self-serving system of politics forever.”
Kejriwal, an engineer and a former bureaucrat (a member of India's revenue service) had left his job in the revenue service to form an NGO, Parivartan ("Change") which focused on issues of institutional corruption, principally in the capital city of Delhi.
The AAP adopted the common Indian house-broom ("jhaadu") as its election symbol and its thrust was anti-corruption and the related issue of better/transparent governance. For the AAP, in its primary messaging, the main ill besetting India was mal-governance by its political class and the political parties it represented and constituted - be it the dynastic Congress or the religio-nationalist BJP, the two biggest parties in India. These parties, AAP contended, were siphoning off India's resources for private gain through massive corruption and were also dividing people on various issues, including religion.
In such an environment of a system shot through with corruption, nepotism, bribery and sheer apathy, the AAP came in trying to project sincerity, honorable intentions and relatively clean political pasts - most AAP members were in fact political novices. This has to be contrasted with the conclusion of the Association for Democratic Reforms survey on an initial list of candidates for the 2014 elections from the Congress and the BJP, 30% of whom had “declared criminal cases against themselves in their previous election affidavit.” As the leader of the AAP, Kejriwal, likes to say, the "neeyat" (intention") of those in government matters – and the AAP members, he claims, at least have clear and honorable intentions.
The AAP's stance on targeting corruption. by naming and shaming, was criticized by several groups, especially on the left, as it did not seem to address any systemic or structural issues, economic or social, in their opinion.
For a country like India, riven by various social divisions like caste that result in severe oppression and is also increasingly falling prey to neo-liberal visions of development, the AAP did not seem to offer anything radically new in terms of a vision to effect radical change.
It did have what seemed like piecemeal reformist measures on its agenda, such as steps against privatization of water and disallowing Foreign Direct Investment in retail. However, its more general prescription of eradicating corruption, streamlining and devolving governance felt like the advice by the World Bank to incorrigibly corrupt third-world countries, in order that neo-liberal capital can flow in smoothly and the business environment is better, as critics pointed out.
There was no explicit stand on capitalism, though the AAP declared itself against crony capitalism. It sought to put forward a business-friendly image too, laying the blame on the door of excessive regulation and corrupt regulatory practices – and not on the businesses themselves - which force business operators to grease palms and compromise on their ethics.
The AAP decided to make its electoral debut in the 2013 elections for the city-state of Delhi, India's capital city. The state had been ruled by the Congress party for a total of 8 years and was led by a chief minister who did not have any obvious odds stacked against her. Yet, in an election result that stunned Delhi and the nation, Kejriwal and his band of merry women and men, wielding real or symbolic brooms, secured 28 seats out of the 70 being contested. The incumbent Congress managed to secure only 8 whereas the BJP got 31. Since none of the parties had secured an absolute majority (greater than 50% of the seats), the AAP with support from the Congress decided to put its hat in the ring to form the government.
From dimly-viewed first-timers up against more experienced stalwarts, the AAP had catapulted to the heights of political recognition. It was now charged with governing India's state capital. It had fielded mostly first timers as its candidates and such novices too were in-charge of the various ministerial portfolios.
Its critics were unrelenting in their accusations of AAP lacking a coherent ideology. Jacobin Magazine ran an article soon after AAP's victory, highlighting the "post-ideological" nature of AAP and its “political expediency.” Other leftist ideologues in India more explicitly railed against the lack of robust theory under-girding the AAP vision - "The AAP ideology, in short, apotheosises non-thought," declared one such opinion-piece.
Yet, even as such criticisms kept coming their way, the AAP seemed to hold out some sort of a hope - some felt maybe it was the alternative in a TINA situation between the Congress and the BJP.
Its experience governing Delhi did not last too long, dogged by controversy like the flap in Khirkee Village with African residents, and it resigned after 49 days in power when an ombudsman bill it was trying to bring in the Delhi assembly was scuttled by the other parties over some technicalities.
Yet, the AAP did not seem to skip a beat. The national elections were looming and a fledgling party needed all the support and guidance of its core team to make any dent in India's vast and complex electoral landscape.
All the while, especially after its spectacular performance in Delhi, people from different areas of life and society continued to join the AAP - former leftists like Kamal Mitra Chenoy (a member of the Communist Party of India for 40 years), Narmada Dam crusader Medha Patkar, the "iron lady of Jharkhand" and tribal activist Dayamani Barla, Bhopal Gas Disaster activist Rachna Dhingra, anti-nuclear campaigner SP Udaykumar and of course Soni Sori...the list is long and thick with candidates with ties to the community, to people's organizations and grassroots struggles against the system. The party is well aware of this phenomena and even proudly displays it on its website ">http://www.aamaadmiparty.org/Social-Activists-from-across-the-country-jo....
For many people joining the AAP, it represents a clean beginning and, definitely good intentions. It is not tainted like the two major national parties either by nepotism and corruption or by a polarizing ideology of religious nationalism. Patkar, for instance, has clearly stated that her organization, the National Alliance of Peoples Movement (NAPM), "found a common ground with the AAP on decentralisation of power, policy-making independent of divisive politics of caste, religion or gender and on issues concerning Dalits , Adivasis , farmers, urban poor and middle classes." Barla too stated that there was an overlap between her struggles and AAP, like on the issues of corruption, control over natural resources etc.
As the Jacobin Magazine piece states about Kejriwal (and by extension all of AAP), "His is a catch-all populism, capitalizing on popular discontent and welcoming all comers."
It is true that the AAP seems to be welcoming "all comers." Many have asked it to show its "true face" - that represented by likes of party members who had former corporate connections like Royal Scotland Bank chairman Meera Sanyal and others like Sori, for instance, who was accused of being a Maoist supporter. But the AAP has carried on with a straight face, almost letting the composition of its party and the easy co-existence right now with many heavy-weight activists do the talking than putting forth any agenda that seems too radical or a further departure from its core mission of targeting corruption in public life.
In many ways, the India Against Corruption movement was the closest India had to its own "Spring" or even an Occupy. While unlike the Occupy it did not question the basics of a capitalist system, it pointed fingers at greed and crony capitalism – and at something terribly amiss in the era of acute neo-liberal state agendas. It also was a mass upsurge, made more visible by the media – both social media and traditional – which saw ripples in many parts of India, at least in urban areas. It is not as though India has not seen recent uprisings and mobilizations – from tribals demanding their rights to massive workers' strikes. But the IAC got the dormant and often apathetic middle classes of India (and the disapora) buzzing, it got many among the youth energized and ready “to do something.”
The Occupy movement, constantly assailed to define concretely "what it was about," to list its "demands" so people could understand what it stood for, never committed itself politically. Neither did the Egyptian Spring protesters who seemed to have let the existing political parties take back the political stage. The AAP, on the other hand, took the political plunge, in a bid to "clean and fight the system from inside."
Many seasoned campaigners in the community movements space in India, like Right to Information activist Aruna Roy, feel that one engages with politics not just through the medium of electoral politics, because that then brings about all the entrapments and paraphernalia of that path – compromises, politicking etc – but all struggles for basic rights and dignity involve politics.
In a political landscape as vast, complicated and divided as India's – it is the most “populous democracy,” as is often touted – even any sense of hope and a challenge to the status quo seems like a silver lining. But the world has seen, not too long ago, the “audacity of hope” and the promise of “change” get lost, distorted and co-opted.
Will so called good intentions be able to withstand the pressures of global capital and the urgencies of growth-directed economic policies? India's left-wing extremism (also known as the Maoist movement), which sharpened over the last decade, and the various struggles against different kinds of violence – that of resource extraction, that against the marginalized people and communities like Dalits and against women – has already been a heavy price to pay for the aggressiveness of change, as brought about by many market-oriented policies. India itself is a global player now, a major arms-importer, global land-buyer (especially in Africa) and resource consumer. How much longer can it afford to keep sweeping the critical issues under its carpet?
Umang Kumar is an activist with the Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia.