Prem Shankar Jha

India’s 16th general election will be the most important that it has held in its 66 years of independence. It will also be the most dangerous. For Indian politics is in the midst of a gigantic 90 degree turn away from the politics of caste and entitlement, towards the politics of class. If this is shift is not managed well, it has the capacity to destroy the democracy of which we have been justifiably proud for the past six decades.

If one were to judge from the spate of opinion polls that have been held in recent weeks, the euphoric statements of media anchors, the surreptititous realignments being made by regional parties, the failure of a Third Front to be born, and the swelling return flow of foreign financial investment, the results of the coming general election are a foregone conclusion. The BJP and its allies are bound to win; Narendra Modi will most probably be India’s new prime minister; industry friendly policies will once again be adopted and growth will pick up once more. To say that virtually the entire propertied class of India , not to mention foreign governments and investors, are praying for this to happen would not be much of an exaggeration.

There is only one fly in this ointment. It is the Aam Admi Party. At present most people consider the AAP to be not much more than a fly, for it has fought elections only for the Delhi State Assembly – hardly the typical state or constituency in the country. That may be why the opinion poll published last week by NDTV, the most reliable of the many that have been published so far, has given it only four seats and given the NDA 232.
But the AAP is not a fly. A more apt description would be a dark horse in a dark room. One senses its presence; one suspects it may be larger than it seems, but since one cannot actually see it, one does not know how large it is or how fast it is growing.

As of this moment, we can only guess where the AAP is going, because the AAP itself is still feeling its way ahead in the new, and alien, territory of electoral politics. But small or large, it has already shifted the arena of political contestation, and begun to redraw the conflict lines in Indian democratic politics. The most radical change it has wrought is to introduce class conflict explicitly into Indian politics. Closely related to this is its decision to forego traditional appeals based on caste, creed and ethnicity, and base its own appeal solely upon issues of governance.

The AAP’s manifesto for Delhi fully reflected both departures. “The AAP will make no promises to you. Instead it will ask you to make a promise. This time you will not cast your vote on the basis of kinship. You will forget caste; you will drive away the distributors of alcohol and money’. It listed 35 areas in which reform was urgently needed and spelt out 201 specific reforms. But it warned the people that they would achieve very little if they did not participate in all aspects of its implementation and monitoring. Its final paragraphs were: “AAP has not come to ask you for your vote. If there is anything we ask of you, it is to have faith in yourselves; and to listen to the voice of your soul. This election is not about the victory or defeat of political parties; it is about victory or defeat within ourselves. In front of the voting machine, we must think of the future of our children, the future of our city and our dreams for the future of our country.”

This is not the language that voters have been accustomed to.

In the 90 days since the Delhi state elections Kejriwal’s political credo has evolved. Initially it did not contain an explicit element of class. His attack was on corruption, crony capitalism and a clientelist democratic system – evils that the professional middle class is every bit as opposed to as the poor. But in Delhi he found that the response to his party had come overwhelmingly from the white collar and working classes. A study of voting in the slum colonies of the city showed that all but two had voted overwhelmingly for the AAP. What is more, most of this vote had come in the last two hours of voting – the time when the working class usually votes. As a result his statements and actions have become explicitly geared to mobilising the ‘have-nots’ – those who have either not benefited from the acceleration of growth in the past two decades, or have become its victims through a loss of land, income, status or security.

Kejriwal’s 49 –day experiment with government in Delhi is widely regarded as a mistake that has cost him credibility among his own supporters, not to mention the wider electorate. In the India Today conclave of March 7, former police commissioner of Delhi, Neeraj Kumar, read out an SMS that jeered at Kejriwal savagely for having ‘run away’ from the challenge of running a government. But in retrospect it is beginning to look like a brilliantly calculated move designed to expose the sham that democracy has become, by showing how readily all political parties sank their differences and joined hands to repel boarders the moment they sensed a threat to their monopoly of power. He seems to have succeeded because an instant (and no doubt wildly inaccurate) opinion poll carried out by a TV channel within hours of his submitting his resignation showed that if an assembly elections had been held then, 67 percent of the respondents would have voted for the AAP.

In the weeks since he resigned as Delhi’s chief minister Kejriwal’s assault on the crony capitalist state has become more focussed. He has simplified his message by rolling the Congress, the BJP and Big Business into one easily recognisable bundle. And he has personalised this bundle by giving it a set of names – Narendra Modi, Mukesh Ambani, Adani. While intellectuals may disapprove of this facile and overtly populist stratagem, its impact on the ordinary public cannot be wished away. Kejriwal is building his party and (one hopes) his alternative model for democracy, upon the pent up anger of three generations of Indian’s who have been preyed upon mercilessly by a corrupt and criminalised State. The Delhi elections showed them that they did not have to suffer its depredations helplessly. Today they need symbols to attach their hatred to.

How far Kejriwal will succeed in mobilising the have-nots of Indian society remains the biggest enigma of this election. AAP has fought elections in only one small and atypical state so far. From its runaway success we can deduce that it has the capacity to mobilise a substantial chunk of the urban blue collar, white collar and professional vote in every large city. But logic can take us only that far. Beyond that we are in the land of intuition, where one person’s guess is as good as another’s.

But in his bid to polarise politics around class Kejriwal has other allies, of whose existence he is only dimly aware. The best of them is the Congress Party. In the past four years the UPA government has gratuitously destroyed India’s growth by relentlessly raising interest rates in a futile but pig-headed bid to stop inflation. As a result industrial growth has all but stopped for the past two and a half years. Virtually the entire propertied class is therefore living in mortal fear of bankruptcy and is flocking to the banner of Narendra Modi.

Barring a handful of exceptions, the members of this class are not against the reforms that Kejriwal is pushing. For, if anything, they have suffered even more at the hands of the predatory state than the poor. But in the past four years they have seen the collapse of India’s dazzling growth; they have seen orders shrink, sales slow down, inventories pile up and the cost of maintaining them rise relentlessly as the Reserve Bank has pushed interest rates ever higher. They have seen the rupee crash, industry stall, small companies close down by the tens of thousands, and the golden future for their children, they had taken for granted till just the other day, disappear in smoke. Today they are flocking to Modi because he has a proven track record of being industry-friendly, and because the BJP still contains ex-ministers who steered the country out of its previous recession (1997-2002) and know how to do so again.

To them, and to the 10 million or so young people who have entered the labour market every year for the last four, and found that there are no jobs to be had, Modi is a saviour. Anything that jeopardises his ascension to power becomes a direct threat to them. This is the other half of the rapid polarisation between haves and have-nots, that is making the coming election unlike any other that we have held in the past 65 years.
This polarisation is already well advanced. In the December state assembly elections, the BJP’s vote rose by nine percent in Madhya Pradesh, but the Congress’ vote also increased by 6 percent. The rise took place at the expense of third parties and independents who lost three quarters of their share of the vote. In Rajasthan 8 of the BJP’s 12 percent increase in vote came at the expense of third parties, and only four percent from the Congress. In Chhattisgarh too both parties increased their share of the vote at the expense of local parties and aspirants.

But the eruption of the AAP is speeding it up. For the Delhi elections showed that where there is an alternative to both the Congress and the BJP, the have–nots will prefer to vote for it. Should this happen, the next election will not yield a stable government, confidence in India’s future will crash once more, foreign exchange will rush out, and the rupee will tumble to depths never dreamed of before.

It comes as no surprise therefore that today, as Arvind Kejriwal prepares to take on Modi in Varanasi, the possibility that the AAP will cut severely into the ‘Modi wave’ has begun to force heads of Indian and foreign banks and corporations to rethink their options. In the coming weeks this uncertainty will percolate into India’s middle bourgeoisie and speed up its rush to the security offered by Modi.

There can be little doubt that the BJP under Modi will be able to revive India’s growth. But it is equally certain that he will give short shrift to the dream of accountability and equity that AAP has awakened in the vast urban and rural masses. In the weeks that follow the disappointment of defeat and the loss of hope will percolate from the large to the small towns, and from there into the villages. Modi’s blatant disregard for Muslim sensibilities will further alienate large sections of that community.

In the coming years, therefore, three powerfully explosive forces, that are separate and still largely dormant today will coalesce to create a more dangerous confrontation than any India has known. There are the Maoists, the disaffected urban working class, and the Muslim underclass. The further this polarisation progresses the less space will it leave for democracy to function. For democracy needs a middle space of uncommitted voters who can bring about changes of policy and government by shifting their vote from one party or coalition to another. The guardians of this middle space are the members of civil society, and the flagbearers of civil society are the media. Today the extent to which the collapse of economic growth and the acute insecurity it has created in the propertied classes has erased this middle space and endangered civil society can be gauged by the openness with which the media—TV in particular – is backing Narendra Modi. This is why Kejriwal’s attacks on the media and its links with Mukesh Ambani have created no sense of outrage, except in the media itself.

Had the emerging polarisation been even-handed – had the new Left that is being born had a clearly articulated programme that addressed the well-grounded fears of the haves as well as the have–nots, the coming election would have seen the birth of a new, deeper, and more responsive phase of Indian democracy. But today, the regional parties that could have created this Third Front against the BJP’s Goliath we have only the AAP’s David. And, however welcome Kejriwal’s call for honesty and accountability may be, his party is in no position to offer, on its own, the alternative that India‘s large, endangered middle class so desperately needs. Only a Third Front, that is prepared to make common cause with Kejriwal, and simultaneously reassure the Indian middle class that it will get the economy moving again, can halt the rush to Modi that has begun today. But the formation of such a front requires the perception of a common threat. And, as the bickering over seat allocation among its potential members has already shown, the putative members of such a Front have no inkling of the storm that lies ahead.

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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.

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