Editor's note: When it was inaugurated in November 2012, the Aam Admi Party symbolised an experiment in audacity; Jacobin radicalism wrapped in a muffler. It windmilled its catapult in the direction of the grand old goliaths of India's political pantheon, signalling its intent to dismantle the prevailing order. Three years later, on 10 February, it succeeded in felling the Philistine giant, seizing 67 of 70 seats in the Delhi legislative Assembly — 32 of which were held by the ruling BJP, and eight by the Congress. In the year that has elapsed since, AAP has pendulated between triumph and failure — some of its shimmer has dulled, and yet it is encrusted with new jewels; the muffler is frayed at the edges, and still it flutters as the pennant for an alternative form of political engagement.
It has lost much of its original flock, while gathering new, unlikely adherents to its scrappy, DIY dogma. The party is marking its anniversary revelries by launching a massive self-congratulatory campaign 'PehlaSaalBemisal (one wonderful year)' to draw attention away from the disappointments, and instead enumerate all that it has achieved. We shouldn't grudge AAP its birthday bash because that's what every party does: glorify its performance on the ground. But when it comes to politics, AAP came in with the promise of a difference, of ringing in an era of alternative politics. AAP has left out that aspect of its promise from its anniversary achievements narrative. To understand this aspect of the party, and the bearing it has on alternative politics in India, Firstpost has invited writers to assess AAP’s performance against its founding principles.
This essay by Shiv Visvanathan marks the second in the series.
To evaluate Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party is not easy. There is something ephemeral and unreal about Kejriwal. He looks like a village idiot with a PhD. He appears like a hypothesis that has to be constantly tested — an idea whose time comes again and again, only to be undermined by some insipid idea of his own.
Put him next to Sheila Dixit and Madan Lal Khurana and he almost appears laughable. The latter two are politicians in a classic style; they exude power and the confidence of decision-making. Kejriwal’s style looks like a student intern undergoing a prolonged apprenticeship. Yet this very tentativeness seems to work for Kejriwal and AAP.
By all conventional signs, the party was a disaster, anarchic to the core, abandoned in despair by many of its founders. Women disappear in it and its sheer patriarchy is obvious. Stalwarts from Madhu Bhaduri to Atishi Marlena fade away and yet the issue of gender hardly bothers AAP. Possibly because there is something androgynous about Kejriwal. He lacks the conventional machismo of an Indian politician. He is new, seen as new and therefore is not expected to fit into the standard costume ball of electoral politics. People expect the unexpected from him and appreciate him for that. This is what makes Kejriwal special to Indian politics. He is its Maggi sauce — he provides the difference.
Yet Kejriwal should not be seen as a monad. He is a hyphen and yet strangely he is not mentally associated with the AAP. The party seems to have a parallel existence, performing more as a chorus, or a three-ring circus around our star acrobat. That is why it can afford to be a confederation of clowns, some even blatant in their corruption, and still get away with it.
The crucial tandem is Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia enacting Don Quixote to Sancho Panza. Sisodia, as Kejriwal announces ‘Odd and Even,’ is out on the streets on a bicycle. The act is simple but the message is clear that CM and his deputy have learned to work together. Kejriwal announces a policy and Sisodia has already produced five commentaries on it.
The real strength of Kejriwal stems not from party dynamics but from his alchemy with the Delhi public. He has virtually invented the Delhi public and the latter has enjoyed its role. The relation between style and substance becomes important here. Think of it comparatively. When Rahul Gandhi talks, he talks to himself. When Modi speaks, he is addressing the masses. There might be adulation, even awe but there is also a distance.
When Kejriwal speaks, he is talking to an audience. He has turned the city into panchayat of listeners. He can be tentative, whine about federalism, propose the idea of Swadeshi budget, talk of equity and equality in schools. His surveys of their opinion are more like letters. They feel he is listening and they respond to it. It is the Delhi public that has reinvented Kejriwal. The elite is not too happy about it. They find his folksy style not exactly the expert policy oriented jargon that they expect and are used to.
I heard one TV broadcaster complain, “He talks so much to rickshawwallahs that he sounds like one. He is not like a Jaitley.” What sounded like a critique is actually a salute to the political acuteness of the man, that he feels close to the ordinary citizen. There is also a play of perceptions here. A Jaitley, a Sharad Pawar can be seen as secretary of cricket association. Kejriwal seems to evoke street cricket or Gulli-Danda.
The scale of his politics is also important. He is chief minister of Delhi. It’s very ecology sets the limit to his politics. Delhi might be symbolically important but it is the size of a few local administrations. Possibly because of it, Kejriwal is able to perform what I call the pedagogic act of politics. He is able to turn governance into an everyday experiment and the public into a combination of Panchayat and parent-teacher meeting.
Governance becomes more visually clear, whether it is questions of budget, transport, the economic and social cost of VIPs. Governance is also experimental and AAP can be seen both innovating and bungling, quarreling and constructing and it is this perception that is critical. He has depersonalized the abstractness of governance.
Luck also plays a major role in AAP’s career. When the question of confronting Delhi’s pollution arose, Kejriwal did not rush to a committee of experts who would have reduced the politics of pollution to an inane percentage or indicators game. He intuitively proclaimed the idea of “odd and even.” People loved it, were intrigued by it. They found the gossip of decision making interesting. It was the public response that created a sense of community. A city was addressing its future with a CM who understood the future. Yet everyone realised it was not just a question of voluntarism and consensus.
Change too is a rule game where those who stick to old attitudes are challenged. The punitive nature of fines and the systematic way that they were imposed or seen to be imposed added the right touch of fairness and gravitas to the experiment. It was a fortnight of possibility and Delhi was content that it had performed well. Even cynics were sounding sentimental. Worse the BJP and Congress felt left out. They realised that this was one event that they should have participated in. When the local and global combine, one goes beyond the provincialism of the party and Kejriwal showed that the future cannot be particularistic.
With AAP and Kejriwal, the picture is not sentimental and rosy. The garbage crisis provided that touch of realism to the celebration of the odd and even programme. But even here Kejriwal was revealing the challenge of nuts and bolts governance to the public. Governance was becoming a parade of everyday issues and Kejriwal and AAP are candid enough to show that they do not have the expertise to solve it. However, they show possibilities and have turned dense problems into the making of solvable problematic.
They also reveal that governance has a touch of trial and error and that today’s expert might be yesterday’s village idiot. In playing out the possibilities of governance AAP has pipped the BJP which stuck to conventional scripts. Yet one cannot get too positive. AAP’s performance has a contradictory quality. Kejriwal the star acrobat can trip on the stairs. Between frailty and possibility, there is a smell of a new politics. In that lies the hope for Delhi and a more modest idea of India.
The author is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy
In Part 3: The betrayal of its idealisations could decimate Aam Admi Party, writes Sudhir Kakar