In the throes of a political upheaval caused by the unexpected success of the Aam Aadmi (common man) Party (AAP), the country may soon begin to resemble, in its outline if not yet in substance, Nabokov’s Padukgrad ruled by the “Party of the Average Man”, its ideology of “Ekwilism” based on everybody being like everybody else, drawing the masses. In his 1947 novel, Bend Sinister, Nabokov sketched a political system in which the clever leader, Paduk, having installed the “average man” on a pedestal felt free to ignore him and pursue his own personal agenda.
The AAP has so far indulged in public relations fluff—invoking the average man as the all-purpose sanction, seeking street referendums (“mohalla sabhas”) on decisions its representatives have been elected to make, conceiving large tableau dramas regarding the prospective Lokpal Bill (to be enacted at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi), and newly installed ministers when not pulling off the Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rashid-type antics with surprise visits to public facilities and upbraiding, for the benefit of television cameras, petty officials for being on “picnic”—but done little to positively impact the aam aadmi’s life. For instance, the AAP has put the onus of fighting corruption on the citizen (with the helpline), decreed a 50 percent cut in power rates in anticipation of the audit of distribution companies showing unwarranted hikes in charges. What happens if the audit indicates only marginal price-gouging; who’ll make up for the lost revenues and the budgetary deficit, and will the subsidy then be terminated? It delivered on free water except it did so for customers well-off enough to afford houses, water connections and, therefore, water meters. This has left the bulk of the impoverished Delhi populace sheltering in shanties and slums who voted for it high and dry, and the AAP looking like any aam party–indulging in lofty rhetoric and low practice!
Quick to close the gap in the “visibles” separating them from the AAP, the established parties are divesting themselves of symbols of power—red beacons on cars, for instance, and in tactic—plastering autorickshaws with posters, doubling their mass-contact efforts, and rushing through anti-corruption legislation. They realise that the AAP, which they had seriously underestimated, has with considerable cunning capitalised on the opportunities it was afforded.
The Congress party’s support for the AAP to form government—to avoid another election and prevent the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from assuming power, has backfired. Its implied backing for the AAP’s 18-point plan has inoculated its supremo Arvind Kejriwal and Company against any failure in delivering on it by installing the Congress party as scapegoat.
The BJP is better off. Deciding to forsake power lest it be charged with luring independents and AAP representatives to obtain a majority, it can relentlessly attack the AAP-Congress combo, even as Rahul Gandhi’s brain trust apparently hopes that by stoking the AAP’s ambition and helping it win 20-30 especially urban seats in the general elections, Kejriwal’s gang will be instrumental once again in keeping the BJP out of power this time at the Centre, thus easing the Congress party’s task of cobbling together yet another corrupt and malfunctioning coalition government—UPA-III. The trick for the BJP will be to make the charges of amateurism and non-performance stick to the AAP and of cynical and moribund politics to the Congress.
Two basic sets of weaknesses of the AAP are now evident. The senior leaders of this ragtag outfit have already revealed a penchant for taking radical, when not whimsical, positions on issues, eroding the party’s goodwill and credibility. Prashant Bhushan’s ejaculation about Kashmiris having a veto over the army’s counter-insurgency deployment and his equally foolish opposition to nuclear power plants in general, which puts the future of indigenous technology and energy security in peril, has exposed the AAP to ridicule, which the BJP should remorselessly pillory hereafter to keep in public eye the dangers the AAP policy inclinations portend.
Then there are the differences in views of the rich lawyer, Bhushan, and Kejriwal, which will only grow with time, highlighting a related major weakness—the AAP’s complete lack of ideology. Well, yes, in the Ekwilist vein we are all “aam aadmi” now. The G R Gopinaths, the V Balakrishnans, and the Meera Sanyals, the well-heeled and the well-meaning from amongst the upper classes yearning for a corruption-free state and good governance are joining the AAP, but so is the much larger horde of political discards, opportunists, and malcontents from other parties, and crooks and carpetbaggers from all over.
How will the thinking of the “privilegentsia” (a word coined by Pakistani columnist Ayaz Amir)—the entrepreneurs, information technology bigwigs, and bankers, who afford the newly founded party glitz and gravitas, and who will expect their slant on public issues to be reflected in AAP’s policies, jell with Kejriwal’s archaic Leftist-populist mindset?
Will Kejriwal, as in Bhushan’s Kashmir episode, always have the last word on every issue at every turn? That is unlikely to be tolerated by the members for long. Kejriwal as final authority and adjudicator undermines the AAP’s self-definition as a collegium of average citizens and street democrats, which permitted the deep cleavages and fault-lines in the society to be papered over in the Delhi elections, but will not work elsewhere nor help a distinctive AAP ideology to emerge from a melange of disparate and dissimilar interests. With intra-party differences set to grow, more clashing pronouncements, frictions, and mistakes can be expected, providing Narendra Modi with ample opportunities and arguments to cut the AAP out of the picture.
The greater problem for the AAP is that while its recent heady victory has fired up its national ambitions, it has a ramshackle party structure that is manifestly incapable of coping with the business of sustained politicking and of running government. Nor has its extant leadership thought things through, leave alone alighted on solutions for perennial problems of the aam aadmi beyond announcing free this and free that, without a clue as to how to pay for such largesse without increasing public debt. Kejriwal’s trademark scheme of giveaways resonates with Sonia Gandhi’s populism-run-amuck. The AAP as Congress party’s “B Team” then surely has merit.
[Published in New Indian Express, Friday, 10th January 2014 at http://www.newindianexpress.com/opinion/Aam-Aadmi-or-Mere-Bust/2014/01/10/article1991729.ece ]