As long as there is life – Jab Thak Hain Jaan – there is hope. And every new birth symbolises the triumph of hope over bitter experience. Likewise, the birth of the Aam Aadmi Party, with Arvind Kejriwal as its convenor, represents the channelling of the hope that however rotten the political system may have become (and even those within it acknowledge that it has), the infusion of youthful vigour in an idealistic cause could contribute, at least on the margins, to a cleansing of the system.
And the early moves of the Aam Aadmi Party, which – true to its acronym AAP – promises to put you, the undefinable but universal icon of ‘normality’ that goes by the aam aadmi tag, show up a mature level-headedness. The core team that the AAP unveiled on Monday is drawn from low-profile activists who have been working for long on issues that make up the central plank of the new party: anti-corruption, right to information, grassroots democracy, and so on. There is a rustic simplicity about them that is endearing, and one hopes that they will retain this ‘common touch’ even when they ‘walk with kings’, as Kipling put it.
The advent of a new political party, particularly one like the Aam Aadmi Party – which is backed by a political movement that has over the past year or so enjoyed enormous popular goodwill and media exposure – ought to occasion some introspective reflection in other mainstream political parties as well. Thus far, we haven’t seen much evidence of that: the two national parties – the Congress and the BJP – appear to wallow in their comfort cocoon of dismissing Kejriwal’s party as a “fringe player” that will have little or no impact at anything other than the municipal level. Such an assessment reeks of political hubris, which – ironically – is what created the conditions for the birth of the Aam Aadmi Party in the first place.
Kejriwal’s team members, however, believe that their party taps into a subliminal yearning for change among a restless youth and middle class that the mainstream political parties are for now blind to. In language that recalls Barack Obama’s famous “There’s something happening here speech” from his 2008 campaign (at a time when no one other than Obama believed in him), political scientist-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav told a panel discussion on CNN-IBN on Monday (watch it here) that there was “something going on” in the Indian political space, which isn’t perhaps adequately reflected in the political discourse.
But, what’s more interesting, the birth of the Aam Aaadmi Party is already making an impact – for the better – on the tone of the political discourse. For evidence of that, just watch the same discussion on CNN-IBN; in particular, notice how Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar overcomes every core instinct of his to bad-mouth Kejriwal and his core team – in the way that he did the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement last year; Aiyar even manages to utter a few gracious words in support of Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav, and in particular on their focus on grassroots democracy. (I am being halfways facetious here, but any person or political force that can get the customarily mealy-mouthed Mani Shankar Aiyar to be even somewhat gracious must have something going for it!)
Kejriwal himself gave expression on Monday to his sense of disappointment that the formal launch of his party, and the energy that the spontaneous gathering of supporters exuded at the launch, hadn’t been reflected in the media coverage. But in fact, he should count it a blessing. There is much quiet, clinical work that the Aam Aadmi Party needs to do before it puts itself out in the open – and face the barrage of media criticism that will inevitably come its way.
(In an earlier article, which you can read here,I had criticised the economic worldview of Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan, and noted that it was regressive and populist in the extreme. It received a fair bit of pushback from Kejriwal’s supporters, whose sentiments I appreciate. In the discussion on Monday, Yogendra Yadav noted that the new party hasn’t yet formally outlined its economic philosophy; some of his comments pointed to an open-mindedness on the AAP’s part to review the unthinking ‘worship’ of public sector undertakings and on the role of the state. I still retain my inhibitions, but concede the point that a broader discussion on this must perhaps await the elaboration of the AAP’s economic policy.)
For now, the biggest risk that Kejriwal and his party need to avoid is the risk of triggering a revolution of rising expectations among the aam aadmi whose support it seeks in order to establish itself as a potent force. In positioning his party as the agent of definitive change and perhaps to harvest the popular outrage against official inaction on corruption, Kejriwal is already giving voice to borderline unrealistic sentiments: The Jan Lokpal Bill, he says, will be passed within 15 days of the AAP coming to power – and ‘corrupt ministers’ will be in jail within six months.
It could be argued, of course, that his larger point is merely intended to draw attention to the tardiness of the process of investigating and prosecuting the accused in corruption cases. But if there is one lesson that Kejriwal ought to draw from his epochal experience of the past year and a half, it is that this is going to be a long-drawn battle in which the vested interests (and, in some cases, their proxies in the media) will fight their damnedest to oppose. In politics, as in chess, you have to play to your opponent’s fiercest move; and what we’ve seen thus far from the dirty tricks departments of the vested interests may seem like a teddy bear’s picnic compared to what lies ahead for Kejriwal’s party.
If the faint hope that was rekindled on Monday is to be sustained, it’s important for the AAP not to underestimate its opponents’ strength or resolve – and not promise the moon.