A poll without real alternatives?
WITHIN a month of storming to power in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party's image stands tarnished by three missteps. First, its ministers Somnath Bharti and Rakhi Birla indulged in obnoxious vigilantism. Second, AAP's leadership, including Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, defended and commended them.
Third, AAP's Hindi organ website recorded “shortlisting of Bangladeshi infiltrators” as one of the 15 achievements of its government. This was reminiscent of the Hindutva forces' past attempts to illegally expel Bengali-speakers by branding them Bangladeshis.
This embarrassed AAP leaders and the e-magazine was withdrawn. But the offending sentence showed that communal prejudice and xenophobia thrive in AAP's ranks; their votaries casually use words like “infiltrator”, which suggest intent to “subvert the nation”.
Attention was diverted from the first misstep by the Rail Bhavan dharna—which provoked charges of “anarchism”. But AAP shouldn't be faulted much for occupying a visible space in Delhi, as distinct from Jantar Mantar, where protests are made invisible, unlike in any other democracy.
AAP was right to demand police accountability to Delhi's elected government. But the crucial issue is police reform.
AAP's real culpability lies elsewhere: in Mr Bharti's attempt to bully the police to arrest four African women in Khirkee, alleged without evidence, to be drug-peddlers and prostitutes.
When the police refused, citing lack of a warrant, and the rule that no woman be arrested after sunset, a mob surrounded the women. They were racially abused, manhandled and subjected to humiliating medical tests.
Nine women's organisations condemned Mr Bharti for racism, xenophobia, male-supremacism and human rights violations. He cynically exploited widespread prejudice against Africans based on their skin colour. In Khirkee, they are routinely accused of drug-peddling.
Such treatment reveals a lack of civility and respect for justice. AAP should have sacked Mr Bharti from the cabinet pending the results of two inquiries against him. But they backed him and staged a dharna against police “insubordination”. This ended with the wrongful transfer of two officers.
AAP beat a retreat, like any other party, for political reasons, declaring “victory”. AAP leaders now practise the denial and prevarication tactics typical of venal political parties.
Mr Kejriwal displayed crass gender illiteracy in saying that “rape tendencies” arise from sex and “drug rackets”. But rape has little to with sex, and even less with drugs. It's about patriarchy and subjugating women. This is worse than attributing rapes to women's “provocative” attire or their outdoor presence at night!
AAP leaders equate good policing with control of the police by “the local people” through mohalla committees. They want police stations to be “directly accountable to” mohalla sabhas—never mind the rule of law, proper procedures, and the right of legal defence.
They obviously haven't heard of Dr Ambedkar's warning that the village and the mohalla are the worst repositories of casteism, patriarchy and parochial prejudice; excessive powers for them in the absence of structural social change and anti-caste reform would produce greater Dalit enslavement.
Only a thin line separates mohalla-based democracy from majoritarianism. If majorities are allowed to summarily punish anyone who is termed “deviant” for defying “customs”, they will act like khap panchayats. Brute majorities can do terrible things—including mass killings.
The crucial flawed concept here is “the people” as an undifferentiated, homogenous entity, without divisions along class, caste, power, religion or gender lines. This is a dangerous myth. As is AAP's woolly notion of the aam aadmi, which includes everyone from the “honest” billionaire, through the schoolteacher, to the pauper.
“The people” defined thus can be manipulated by dominant classes to oppress minorities. Blinded by prejudice and narrow self-interest, they can exercise power untrammelled by law, ethics or compassion—with horrendous consequences.
What we need is not “people”, but citizens committed to universal values of democracy, who give primacy to marginalised and excluded groups in a common project to build a more humane, equal and compassionate society.
AAP lacks this vision. Its dogmatic rejection of ideology and any broad programmatic perspective deprives its “solutions-based” approach of the moral compass necessary to judge what's in the public interest.
Unless AAP acknowledges blunders and corrects course, it will betray its promise of providing an alternative to the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
AAP is young and still evolving. So it would be wrong to judge it harshly. But its missteps and leadership divisions shouldn't be ignored.
Some AAP leaders want the party to focus primarily on the upper-middle and middle classes and adopt Right-of-centre policies in line with pressure from the corporate-controlled media.
On the other hand, a number of well-regarded Left-wingers have joined it because they believe that AAP, not the Congress, can effectively impede Narendra Modi's bid for power by taking votes away from the BJP.
But AAP has a long way to go. A CSDS-Lokniti-CNN-IBN poll estimates its national vote-share at just 4 percent and its Lok Sabha seat-tally at 6-12. The vote-share will probably grow as AAP recruits lakhs of members. But to make a real impact, AAP's growth must be backed by Left-of-centre, staunchly pro-poor, policies.
It would make practical sense too for AAP to fill the Left-of-centre space which is opening up as the BJP and the Congress move Rightwards. This space is likely to be partially vacated by the traditional Left parties. The CSDS poll gives them 15-23 Lok Sabha seats in place of the present 24.
How AAP makes its policy choices is an open question. Its economic policy team, dominated by pro-business individuals, doesn't inspire much confidence. AAP shouldn't accept its report without broad-based consultations and thorough debate.
If AAP wants to put up a spirited fight against Mr Modi, it must take a clear stand against Hindutva and oppose his neoliberal economic policies too. Mr Modi personifies three extremely negative traits: raw corporate power, virulent Hindutva, and authoritarian politics.
Defeating Mr Modi is a high priority for those committed to defending India's democracy. It's not clear if AAP can rise to that challenge.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.
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