The Aam Admi Party (AAP) is riding a wave. Ever since it hurled the Congress out of power in Delhi and chipped away a sizable chunk of the BJP’S vote, it has been making the headlines every single day. To its leaders nothing seems impossible – they are confident of enrolling one crore members throughout the country and talk openly of replacing the Congress as the second tent pole of Indian politics. To the millions of ordinary people, living increasingly harsh lives in our congested cities, who are queuing up to join it, it has become a beacon that promises to guide them to a better future.
But the wave they are riding is a wave of anger. It has been generated by the growing injustice of a political system that is dominated by a corrupt, criminal and predatory class that has somehow seized democracy by the neck and turned into an instrument of disempowerment, when it should have been the precise opposite. The anger has been visible and has been growing for the better part of four decades. Exceptionally high growth between 2003 and 2010 held it in check for a while. But the collapse of growth, the disappearance of jobs, and the return of acute insecurity in the past four years, has made it erupt again. When he decided to form a political party and fight the Delhi elections Kejriwal opened a new channel for the dispossessed to express this anger through. The Delhi vote shows how strong it was. Its electrifying aftermath shows that this anger is turning into a virtual Tsunami. If it is not controlled; if it is continuously stoked, it will not reform Indian democracy but destroy it.
Unfortunately, despite its good intentions, this is exactly what the AAP is leading the masses into doing. To say that victory has caught the party unprepared would be an understatement, for apart from announcing highly populist cuts in electricity tariffs and water rates, all it has done in the past four weeks is to feed the self righteousness of the underprivileged masses and lead, or encourage, them to take shortcuts in their search for redress.
One episode, that occurred within hours of their accepting power, reflects just how unfit the party is, at least at this moment, to govern a city let alone a country. Late in the night of January 21 the AAP’s new law minister Somnath Bharti led a mob that broke into a house in south Delhi inhabited by four (or five) Ugandan women, accused them of running a drugs and prostitution racket, forced them to provide samples of their urine, stormed to a police station and demanded their arrest without a warrant.
Had Kejriwal allowed the law to take its course, Bharti’s attack could have been dismissed as an aberration, but instead he summoned a ‘Khap Panchayat’ of his own senior party men, who decided that Bharti had done nothing wrong and, instead put the blame on the central government for insisting upon retaining control of the Delhi police. As if that was not Kejriwal personally led a ten day Dharna demanding that the central government hand over control of Delhi’s police to his government forthwith. And in a supreme act of contempt for the Indian State and Republic, he chose to hold his dharna in a manner calculated to disrupt the Republic day parade. When asked why he was bent upon doing so one of his lieutenants retorted “parade ko Goli Maro”. He withdrew his remark only when he remembered that TV anchors and audiences do not have a sense of humour.
This single common strand in this chain of actions was an utter contempt for the Indian State. Its institutions and legal processes can be brushed aside because they have all been perverted into instruments for protecting the power of this class. It showed that while Kejriwal talks of reform his purpose is to destroy the present edifice of the State and replace it with an ad hoc ‘peoples’ rule masquerading as democracy.
One swallow, his defenders may argue, does not make a summer. But when many swallows take to the air at the same time, a change is definitely in the air. On February 3, the AAP cabinet took two decisions: the first was to prosecute former Chief Minister Sheila Dixit on the grounds that she had hurriedly regularised 1200 unauthorised colonies in order to curry favour with the electorate, and to favour slum landlords and corrupt builders. The second was to pass a Jana Lok Pal bill for Delhi state that would pointedly include the sitting chief minister within the ambit of this seven member body’s investigative and prosecutorial powers. What is more, knowing that the bill is unlikely to receive the President’s assent because it goes against the recently enacted Central Lok Pal act which explicitly keeps the prime minister and the judiciary out of its purview, Kejriwal announced that he would not ask for the president’s assent to the bill but would call a special session of the Delhi state assembly to bring it into law.
The Jana Lok Pal bill is clearly intended to show up the cronyism of the centre. Sheila Dixit’s prosecution will, Kejriwal hopes, force the Congress to choose between backing her and leaving her to her fate. The former option will brand Mrs. Dixit as corrupt in the popular mind; the latter will brand the entire Congress.
Kejriwal is therefore clearly spoiling for a fight. His goal is to force the Congress to withdraw support from his infant government in Delhi and further tarnish its own image while sparing the AAP from having to fulfil its populist promises. Had he stopped there he might have got away with it, for it is possible conceive of an Indian Union in which State governments pass more stringent laws than the centre advocates. But Kejriwal wants to bring the Delhi Lok Pal Act into being without any reference to the central government. And that is not an attack on corruption, or even on the Congress: it is a direct attack upon the Indian State. For if one state succeeds in dispensing with presidential assent for its enactments, all will follow suit. That will be the end of the Indian Union.
What Kejriwal has no inkling of is the power of the wave he is riding and the near certainty that if he loses control he will be its first victim. For this wave has built up when India is at the dangerous point in the transformation from a traditional to a capitalist market economy at which it can either build the political and economic institutions that are necessary to make the transition acceptable to the common people, or fail to do so and regress into violence, anarchy and disintegration.
Other countries have come to the same critical point and not all have been able to negotiate it successfully. In Europe Britain, France, Belgium and Holland did so with relative ease. Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, and Rumania did not. Germany succeeded initially, but regressed into failure in the 1930s under the combined onslaught of defeat in war, hyperinflation and the great depression of 1929.
The challenge that all of the above countries faced was the same as the one India is facing today. The most salient feature the early and middle stages of the capitalist transformation is that it creates a profound sense of insecurity. This arises from a growing desire to accumulate wealth – the key to prosperity in the market economy, rapid urbanisation and the consequent dissolution of the social bonds and relationships of traditional society. In India this change is visible in the inexorable dissolution of the joint family system, and the network of caste and community obligations that provided the social safety net for people in the past. In absolute terms, while this change has physically impoverished only the bottom ten percent of Indian society, the insecurity it has created now permeates its entire spectrum.
The acceleration of growth in the nineties and 2000s increased the pace of dissolution and therefore heightened the insecurity of the masses, but in the rapidly growing urban areas the resulting feeling of helplessness was held in check by the plenitude of jobs and market opportunities that the growth created.
However, when growth stalled in 2008, and Dr Manmohan Singh and his advisers deliberately sacrificed growth for the next six years as they chased the will-o-the-wisp of inflation, this urban, very recently empowered, population saw its businesses failing and jobs disappearing and realised that it had been robbed of its future. This is why the corruption, cronyism and lack of accountability that people had lived with for decades, suddenly became unbearable and unacceptable.
The Aam Admi Party has been able to tap into this vein of anger. But if Indian democracy is to survive it has to be assuaged, and the feeling of helplessness it breeds has to be removed. If the AAP does not pull itself together and offer a well thought out and ‘do-able’ programme of political and economic reform that both restores their future and makes it more secure, the disillusionment that will follow will make huge swathes of the people lose faith in democracy altogether. History is full of examples of rebellions arising from economic distress — the most recent being the chaos unleashed by the so-called Arab Spring. But the precedent that Indians should consider most closely is the death of the Weimar republic is Germany.
World war I destroyed most of German industry and the German hyperinflation of 1923-24 destroyed the purchasing power of the old German middle class. By 1928, however, Germany had begun to struggle back on its feet with the help of a new class of small entrepreneurs – the Mittelstand – when it was struck, like a bolt from the blue, by the Great Depression. In less than three years industrial production fell by 42 percent and unemployment rose from 8.5 to 30 percent. This second collapse destroyed the Mittelstand and caused armies of small bourgeoisie and workers to flock to the standard of the Nazi party. Between May 1928 and March 1933 its share of the vote rose from 2.6 percent to 43.9 percent and Hitler came to power.
The AAP is bent upon inflaming the expectations of the people. But the more it does so the more surely will disillusionment follow. Should that happen voters will have only one place left to go. And Narendra Modi, who is promising an industrial renaissance and a culturally homogeneous Hindu India, will be waiting to receive them.Read More