The anti-neta neta
AAP is doing what politicians have forgotten to do
As the summer kicks in, people's representatives are often seen scurrying for their cool drawing rooms. A wicked theory about the daily demands for the immediate resignation of the PM is that most MPs desire a salubrious October election this year rather than face a sweaty trawl through Real India in mid-May 2014. Yet Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP party are doing what most mainstream politicians no longer want to do: risk the summer heat.
So far AAP has an angry, anarchist, urban Naxalite image. Think of AAP and you think of unruly folk on the streets staging dharnas outside the power bungalows of Lutyensland, or tearing up electricity bills, or voicing the kind of strident anti-corporate anti-growth sentiments that strike fear in the heart of the middle class. But whether it's in taking up the issue of inflated electricity bills, taking up the child rape case in East Delhi, supporting Sikh protestors like Nirpreet Kaur and staging agitations against Delhi's VIP culture, AAP is playing daily street level politics and communicating with people directly, the way mainstream politicians have singularly failed or neglected to do.
Civil disobedience Kejriwal style has limited relevance in a democracy. While AAP insists on a Independence-era vocabulary in naming its protests "satyagrahas" and staging "Gandhian" fasts against what it considers "illegal" laws, the fact is a democracy constantly in the throes of elections, with a myriad forms of redressal available, with law courts, public interest litigations and a highly aware citizenry is simply not a colony governed by an imperialist. Anyone suggesting otherwise is doing an injustice to the republic's daily existence.
Thus, tearing up electricity bills or pledging not to pay them is not the answer. Instead AAP would have been better advised to look for solutions, find ways in which cheaper electricity can be made available from distributor companies, encourage more competition, in short press for more reforms in the electricity sector. Yet whatever the rights and wrongs of AAP's intervention, the fact is Kejriwal remained in Sundar Nagri in North-east Delhi, fasting for approximately two weeks against inflated bills and in the end producing 10 lakh signed letters which Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit was forced to accept. Which elite politician today will go to the home of an individual afflicted with high power and water bills? Which elite politician today will bother to even explain to voters why prices of water and power have to be raised?
When a five year old was raped in Gandhinagar in a working class colony in East Delhi, AAP party volunteers arrived almost instantly, helping the family file an FIR. AAP was criticised for politicising the subsequent protests and for creating a ruckus outside hospitals, but which mainstream politician today bothers to visit the home of a poor family whose child has been raped? When Nirpreet Kaur, victim of the anti Sikh riots decided to fast against the acquittal of riots accused Sajjan Kumar, Kejriwal and Sisodia fasted for a day in solidarity. If AAP persists in its energetic espousal of peoples issues on a daily basis, as it is currently doing, it could well be on its way to establishing itself as the regional party of Delhi, a Dilli ki awaaz.
An articulate citizenry is growing across India and disenchantment with mainstream politicians - seen either stalling parliament or facing graft charges - has never been higher. Across metros public spirited citizens are banding together to campaign for causes from urban governance to noise pollution. Mainstream politics, dominated by land sharks, liquor barons and dynasties is a closed shop for those eager to join. The Congress remains tethered to the dynastic principle, the BJP to the Sangh Parivar's view of the world, the regional parties more often than not are dominated by single families and their coteries. Author Patrick French writes if the trend of hereditary MPs continues, most of the Lok Sabha will be made up of dynasts in the next decade, and Lok Sabha will have to be re-named Vansh Sabha.
In this predicament, parties like AAP remind the political class what politics should be about-a 24*7 vocation of self-made individuals, ceaseless mass contact with voters, constant communication of messages, constructive use of social media and taking up bread-and-butter issues. Pawan Kumar Bansal's nephew being allegedly bribed 90 lakhs for a Railway Board post is only yet another illustration of the privileged class that most politicians now inhabit - their Gulfstream jets standing at the ready for easy getaways, their security convoys and vast bungalows cocooning them in a heady world of big influence and bigger money. Added to this is the deadening effect of gerontocracy, party leaderships are 60+ and 70+ in a country where 66 per cent is under the age of 35. Arvind Kejriwal is still 44.
AAP is a noisy gate crasher in an interrelated darbar, a party that aspires to be everything that the typical 'neta' is not. In fact, AAP are the "anti-neta" netas, openly declaring they will never live in bungalows or use the notorious lal batti cars. Kejriwal's persona is still too angry and too subversive to perhaps attract the middle class and many feel AAP's tactics are one step removed from goondaism. Also, however high the disillusionment with Congress and BJP, it is by no means clear that AAP is as yet a bankable political alternative.
But AAP and Kejriwal are a wake-up call for mainstream politicians simply because of their call to ceaseless vocational participatory politics. When was the last time you saw a mainstream politician put up a list of donors on his party website or dare to speak out against VIP culture? Symbolism only perhaps, but a symbolism that connects instantly with the aam aadmi.