Faced with the dramatic politics of the Hindu Right, the Aam Aadmi Party has focused on social policies that would make a difference to the everyday material lives of its constituency.
The right-wing forces have steadily unravelled a politics of perception — how you perceive the country and your non-Hindu neighbours is the crucial element of Hindutva politics.
It is their USP and they are eager to violently ‘persuade’ those who perceive differently. On the other hand, the AAP has focused much more on policies that would make a difference to everyday lives, especially of the non-middle class. Their education policy has been their flagship, but they also unveiled a slew of policies covering health, rehabilitation of unauthorised colonies, slum improvement and so on. They also drastically lowered the power and water bills as soon as they came to power. To a great extent then, the AAP government has resolved the conundrums it posed when it swept into power in 2015.
Evolution in power
The AAP started as a party of movement when Arvind Kejriwal broke with Anna Hazare and announced — on Gandhi Jayanti in 2012 — the decision to form a political party. It had only a single issue then, that of corruption. Moral concern brought together the middle classes and the urban subalterns. But what would the AAP do once installed in stable governance? What identity would replace its oppositional character? How would it keep balancing the interests of the middle class and the poor? Two strategies followed. The positive one was to evolve into a government of pragmatic policies. This was evident in their reduction of electricity and water charges in an imaginatively graded way so that increased consumption would be disproportionately taxed. This was something that could appeal to the lesser sections of the middle class and the poor, while making good environmental sense. It was backed up over the last two years by a number of social policies. This defined the AAP as a governmental party that would rule for the lower sections of the expanding metropolis of Delhi. But could a governmental party of policies compensate for the lack of a clearly defined political identity?
Tussle with Centre
It did seek to keep up its original oppositional image. But this was mixed up with governance and led to unfortunate consequences. Its oppositional character was retained in its fight with the Central government. The situation reprised the way the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government tried to squeeze out the Left government in West Bengal of the Seventies.
The situation is worse in the case of the AAP because there is a tussle over control over who controls Delhi, the Centre or the elected governments — a tussle that has reached the corridors of the Supreme Court. Like Indira, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used the gubernatorial office very effectively in consistently retarding the implementation of government policies.
The perception war
The problem has been compounded by AAP’s inability to deal effectively with the media. Given the huge setback suffered by the media empire of the Ambanis that had suffered a blow with the crackdown on the BSES bills, the AAP should have thought of an intelligent strategy to disaggregate different sections of the media and influence them. Instead, the AAP identified its image with that of Mr. Kejriwal, whose acute sensitivity to public criticism supplied a picture of comic anarchy, relished daily by the oppositional media. The AAP lost the war of perceptions. The consequence has been a loss of influence among the middle class. This can have adverse electoral consequences as new studies tell us that it’s the middle class that contributes more substantially to voter turnouts in Delhi.
Party and government
True, we have today a polity suffocated by identity mobilisations and wars of perception — with sentiments longing to be violated. By contrast, it is a good idea to work on concrete, gritty policies. But it is not an equally sensible thing to ignore popular perceptions, something that cannot be effectively addressed without a clear political identity. Maybe a start could be made by freeing the AAP from its government. The government cannot double up as the Opposition.
Giving the party autonomy could allow AAP to build a convincing sphere of oppositional movements, one that can evolve its own identity and reach out to sections not benefited by government policies. As it stands, the AAP may squeezed between the Modi government and a possibly revitalised Congress that can reclaim the oppositional space. Simply projecting the image of the AAP as a government of policies may not be sufficient to stave off the challenges of the two conventional parties. It cannot keep alive the political imaginings of change.
The author teaches at the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, School of International Studies, JNU.
The Article was first Published in Newspaper The Hindu on November 25 2017. The link is given below.