Sunday, 29 September 2013

Why Kejriwal’s AAP is looking like old wine in new bottle

So, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is all set to make an impressive debut in electoral politics, if the latest opinion polls are to be believed. We’ll have to wait till November-end to know. 
If the polls are correct, Arvind Kejriwal and his team will deserve kudos. Delhi has always been the fiefdom of the Congress and the BJP (and its earlier avatar, the Jana Sangh) and both need to be given a good jolt. But what after that? That’s a question the AAP cannot ignore.
Ever since the AAP came into existence a year ago, Arvind Kejriwal has been promising that the party will usher in a new kind of politics. That has also been the running theme in all interactions that party leaders have had with the public. They have been fanning across the city since August, meeting small groups of people in public spaces. In all of them, brandishing the broom – the party’s symbol which they say they asked for – the leaders vow to sweep out all that is bad in Indian politics and bring in what they insist will be an entirely new kind of politics, no matter how long it takes and regardless of how the party fares in elections.
Unfortunately, that is exactly where the AAP promise flounders. There is little evidence till now that the `new’ political style and culture that AAP promises is anything more than the way the party is managed and the behaviour of its elected representatives. So, the party has a transparent and democratic organisational structure; only candidates with a clean reputation are chosen in a very transparent manner; elected representatives will not use red beacons on their vehicles or live in sprawling government bungalows and be surrounded by a phalanx of security personnel. The kerfuffle over a key member, sociologist Yogendra Yadav, being sacked from the University Grants Commission (UGC) is at variance with these lofty ideals, but more on that later. 
A new political culture cannot just be about the way a party is organised or functions. Nor can it be limited to symbolic gestures like shunning red beacons. It also has to be about the way a party engages with the voters. (Actually, AAP is not the only non-traditional party to have a strong ethics code in place. Several new do-gooder parties that emerged on the political landscape after 2007 are doing the same – fielding squeaky clean candidates, taking donations only by cheque, putting up lists of donors on their websites. It’s just that the AAP has managed to grab national attention, thanks to the India Against Corruption Movement, in a way that the others did not.) 
When one talks about old-style politics, the association is always with caste-religion-community based politics and economically ruinous populism. A new kind of political culture should entail a movement away from such divisive and fiscally imprudent politics. Instead, the AAP has only continued down the same path, down to some well-known Muslim figures joining the party at a public function. At that do, Kejriwal admitted that there were already a large number of Muslims working for the party. He then gave a somewhat unconvincing explanation that this special function was organised to highlight the politics of hate that was taking centrestage. Couldn’t this be done in any other way than putting an AAP cap on top of a skull cap that one of those who joined wore? How is this kind of tokenism any different from what mainstream parties do? 
Take also the pamphlets that the AAP candidate have been distributing in their areas. The promises they make include waiving of water bills and providing 700 litres of water a day to every family free of charge, halving of electricity bills and regularisation of unauthorised colonies. Where is the new paradigm in this? A couple of months back, the Congress government in Delhi regularised a host of unauthorised colonies and is now tom-tomming it on FM radio ad spots. The BJP, which has been out of power for 15 years, has also been promising cheaper power bills.
Nor is the AAP lagging in making tall promises. One of the ads it has placed on the back of autorickshaws laments the lack of security for women in the capital and promises – hold your breath – an exclusive commando force for women! 
And now the issue of Yadav’s expulsion from the UGC. This is very clearly a vengeful and stupid move by the UPA government. But the idiocy and meanness of the human resource development ministry does not diminish the fact that Yadav is also not entirely in the clear. He had been appointed to the UGC as an academician, which is what all commission members are. When he joined the AAP, he should have quit the UGC. Yadav says he had offered to resign last year and that the UGC told him to stay on and that his removal has been done not by the UGC but the ministry. But this is a kind of hair-splitting that does not speak well of the leading light of a party taking the moral high ground all the time. If he had insisted on stepping down from the UGC when he formally joined the AAP, that would have been something completely different from the way normal politicians behave. 
Right now, the popular disenchantment with the mainstream parties is so overwhelming that the AAP is getting away with mere marketing gimmicks, passing off the same old model as a radically different product. There is, of course, the matter of whether the public really wants a different political discourse. There’s no getting away from the fact that people are not really concerned with their elected representatives framing and legislating sensible policies. All they want is for them to do favours – recommend a child to a school here, stop the demolition of an illegal construction there, swing something somewhere else. Corruption too is not as big an issue as it is being made out to be. It is an issue only if people see that the politicians are concentrating only on filling their personal coffers without addressing their problems. Let’s face it: honest people don’t get elected; `effective’ people do. If they are also honest, that’s an added bonus. 
The AAP has probably realised this and that is why it is not departing from old-style paternalistic, sops-driven politics. Right now, its only USP is the `added bonus’ – people with clean reputations. But if these people don’t deliver on the things the public wants, disillusionment will soon set in. And then the AAP will be just another party. Is it prepared for that?

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