By Swapan Dasgupta
A note of piousness invariably overwhelms the small screen each time the news anchors shift their gaze to the Delhi-centric phenomenon called the Aam Aadmi Party. This was definitely in evidence during the last phase of the Delhi Assembly election when it became increasingly clear that the BJP was very definitely on the back foot and that Arvind Kejriwal was heading for a clear victory. It persisted during the painless process of government formation but acquired an extra thrust as a vocal section of the commentariat posited AAP as the ‘real’ alternative to Narendra Modi and Kejriwal as the man who would effect a major realignment of a Congress-free opposition. For a media that has traditionally had a severe distaste for ideas, the undefined term ‘alternative politics’ began to be bandied about with generous abandon.
In normal circumstances, this piousness would have turned to allergy as leading stalwarts of ‘alternative politics’ let loose charges and counter-charges against each other. The parody version of the ‘socialism in one country’ versus ‘permanent revolution’ that had marked the Stalin-Trotsky battle in the late-1920s in the Soviet Union was, however, treated with surreal seriousness. Reams of internal position papers with sombre headings like ‘The Way Forward’ suddenly began to be reprinted in a media that is otherwise inclined to give a wide berth to anything remotely smelling of policy. In the social media, AAP camp followers shed copious tears over the ‘unfortunate’ happenings, even when the public disposal of accumulated grievances revealed that ‘alternative politics’ wasn’t free from mainstream chicanery and even old-fashioned financial dodges. The supreme leader of the movement was even quoted by his factional rival as suggesting that electoral politics necessarily involved some ‘compromises’.
Those familiar with the vicious ‘ideological’ sparring that is a feature of the Left, NGOs and the Lohia-ites would instantly have recognised a very familiar phenomenon in the intra-AAP squabbles. However, there was one major differences: the schism and splits of political sects happened outside the public gaze and was of no interest to anyone apart from the actors themselves and a few fellow travellers.
Ideally, this should have been the case with AAP’s internal strife. Viewing completely from the outside and as a non-sympathiser of AAP, the conflict was always completely one-sided. For better or worse, the mobilisation of AAP was centred on the personal appeal and charisma of Kejriwal. This may not have been the case when the party was forged out of the India Against Corruption movement of Anna Hazare. However, with time, it was clear that the ‘Muffler man’ and the ‘Muffler man’ alone represented the AAP mainstream. Yes, the new outfit picked up passengers along the way, many of whom spun verbose theories of ‘alternative politics’ and the ‘third’ or ‘fourth’ way to breathless young reporters and anchors who just wanted something to beat the BJP with. But in terms of popular understanding, there was never any doubt that AAP had evolved into a proprietary concern of Kejriwal, ‘alternative politics’ be damned.
Frankly speaking it couldn’t but be otherwise. ‘Collective decision-making’ is a wonderful ideal but any political party or, indeed, any organisation that attaches equal weightage to every input stands in real danger of becoming a victim of fractious incoherence. In many ways, AAP-1 was marked by such anarchic tendencies, especially after the 49-day government triggered a media-fuelled bout of irrational exuberance. AAP-1 became an incoherent coalition of individuals with bleeding hearts, the so-called people’s movements, NGO dropouts, disaffected Leftists and academics trying to conjure up a post-Marxist utopia. It is to the credit of Kejriwal that he drew the relevant lessons from the 49-day disaster and the general election debacle to cobble together an AAP-2 that was different.
AAP-2 is still work in progress but from initial indications, it seems that Kejriwal has discarded much of the ideological baggage he accumulated. The broad thrust of the anti-corruption crusade and the overall commitment to the underprivileged is intact. However, while AAP-1 was trying to change India, using models drawn from Europe and Latin America as inspiration, the scope of AAP-2 is far more modest: to act as problem solvers. From a party propelled by ideologues, it is rapidly becoming a party of new age technocrats with compassion. In addition, it is also creating a support base among that section of the underprivileged that has been orphaned by the increasing irrelevance of the Congress.
Curiously, and minus some embellishments, the new Kejriwal project isn’t entirely different from the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah bid to change the profile of the BJP. Apart from tactical miscalculations, one of the reasons why AAP-2 overwhelmed the BJP in Delhi was the latter’s inability in Delhi to break the mould of middle-aged, middle class politics that has traditionally defined it. Judging from recent speeches, it would seem that the Prime Minister has drawn the right lessons from the Delhi defeat. The Modi government is now combining its emphasis on ‘deliverables’ with the conscious targeting of the less privileged.
Finally, sheer pragmatism has propelled Kejriwal into realising that national expansion be damned, the priority is now to consolidate the AAP gains in Delhi and, at best, make some forays into the wider National Capital Region. AAP-2 is, in effect, fast turning itself into a regional party of Delhi. It has kept its national and even international pretensions on hold as it settles down to the mundane and often dreary process of governance. I would even hazard the guess that in the coming days it will move decisively away from what the media classes hoped it would evolve into: the nucleus of a national opposition to Modi.
These shifts are certain to disappoint those who embraced AAP as a vehicle of what some Marxist sects call ‘entryism’: entering a mass movement with the express purpose of shaping its ideological direction and eventually taking it over. Some of them will make peace with Kejriwal and await another opportune moment to resurface.
Soon, even the media will grasp the emerging reality of an AAP that practices ‘normal’ and not ‘alternative’ politics.
Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, March 6, 2014