The Aam Aadmi Party has shown that the old politics of connecting directly with the people is still relevant.

Anna Hazare and the likes of Kiran Bedi must rue their decision not to support Arvind Kejriwal’s move to convert the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement into a political formation.

By going ahead even if it meant incurring the displeasure of his mentor and virtually disbanding the IAC, Kejriwal has proved to be a real political entrepreneur.

An entrepreneur, we know, is someone who is able to identify opportunities that others cannot and — more important — is prepared to work hard while risking failure and putting his own reputation on the line.

Kejriwal, from the outset, was clear that his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) wasn’t going to be like Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan Samaj Party — fighting to lose the first time, causing upsets and becoming kingmaker the second time, and going on to win the third election. AAP for him was in the fray as a serious political party contesting to win.

No aam achievement

Well, the party that was formed in November 2012 may not have won the Delhi Assembly polls. But by finishing a respectable No. 2 — just three seats below the Bharatiya Janata Party and leaving the Congress way behind — it has shown what entrepreneurial energies can do to transform the political space.

The last time any party put up such a dramatic performance within a short period of its launch was more than 30 years ago: N.T. Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam Party, founded on March 29, 1982, swept to power in Andhra Pradesh on January 9, 1983.

Apolitical roots

What is remarkable about the AAP though is not just its electoral performance, but its origins in a movement wedded to a strident anti-politician and anti-political ideology.

I, for one, never supported the IAC campaign. Whatever may be their failings, our netas are the elected representatives of We, The People.

One of Independent India’s greatest triumphs has been its political system, which, by recognising the principle of one man-one vote and one vote-one value, has enabled even women and men from the most backward communities to become lawmakers, ministers and heads of state. Today, we have at least a semblance of equality of opportunity in politics, even if not so in economic and social life.

The IAC, on the other hand, considered politicians the problem. They were seen to preside over a corrupt system that, in collusion with a venal bureaucracy and police administration, was looting the aam aadmi.

The solution, then, lay in (a) not allowing netas, who anyway came to power only through cynical ‘vote bank’ politics, any role in government or even policymaking; and (b) establishing an anti-corruption watchdog, the Lokpal that would have suo moto powers to receive complaints of graft from the general public, initiate prosecution and investigations, and directly impose penalties against any public servant found guilty; these could include removal from office, imprisonment and recovery of assets.

One-sided graft

A major flaw of this approach is that it viewed corruption as a simple phenomenon of netas and babus taking money. It totally underplayed the reality that corruption existed also because there are people, including corporates, giving money to influence policymaking or bag contracts.

Also, for the IAC, the victim of corruption was only the law-abiding middle class citizen. The fact that the Lok Pal would not address the problems of street vendors or slum-dwellers — who pay bribes only to be able to sell on the footpaths without licence or escape demolition, in short, for activities technically not permitted by law — wasn’t even acknowledged.

The IAC ultimately got exposed for what it really was: a movement of the urban middle class that sought to subvert the democratic process by asking elected members of Parliament to enact a Jan Lokpal Bill drafted by those neither accountable nor representative of We, The People.

Even more deplorable was the method it used: of getting a 74-year-old man to sit on an indefinite hunger strike to force Parliament to adopt the so-called civil society’s Bill. The way Anna Hazare fasted even as civil-society wallahs watched and egged him on was reminiscent of the medieval practice of Sati – where the act of sacrificing one’s life became a public spectacle enjoying social sanction.

Thankfully, neither Parliament nor the Government succumbed to this crude blackmail. They had reasons not to; this was, after all, a movement of people who either did not vote or whose votes did not count. That the IAC leadership had no Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs or minorities made matters worse. Hazare’s second fast at Mumbai in December 2011 was a complete flop-show, unlike the one at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds eight months earlier that succeeded largely because of disproportionate media attention.

Political transformation

The one man in Team Anna who learnt the right lessons from all this is Arvind Kejriwal.

Kejriwal did not stop just at starting a new party, but went much further by addressing what was the IAC’s real Achilles’ heel: its appeal to a predominantly upper caste, urban middle class elite.

His party, in contrast, actively reached out to auto-rickshaw drivers and municipal sweepers belonging mainly to the former ‘untouchable’ Valmiki community. The adoption of the jhadu or the broom as the AAP’s election symbol — Kejriwal couldn’t have chosen anything better for representing his party’s aim of cleansing society and the nation of political filth — was a true masterstroke.

What Kejriwal has also done in the process is take politics back to the way it used to be during the times of Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan or Charan Singh.

These were leaders who believed in connecting directly with the people through volunteers committed to their party’s cause. Their kind of mobilisation required hard work and patience, not money or muscle. Many politicians today, from Mulayam Singh Yadav to Ram Vilas Paswan, were actually products of this kind of politics. The same men are now dependent on corporate funding, a result of their losing connect with the masses.

Kejriwal has demonstrated that you can, even in this day and age, fight elections without money or muscle power. One doesn’t know whether he or AAP will be able to extend their success beyond the city-state of Delhi. But they have shown that there is a huge ‘market’ for their sort of politics. The current set of entrenched players have seemingly lost the capacity to tap into this.

(This article was published on December 8, 2013)
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