City City Bang Bang, Columns

The perils of self-righteousness

As expected, the news cycle has turned. Yesterday’s media darling is today’s unstable anarchist. In media depictions, the AAP has gone from being the saviour of democracy to being an immature bunch of clueless individuals without a common worldview and a pronounced love for the limelight. Perhaps it is unfair description of the party that is admittedly a new experiment in politics and one that does need to be allowed to make mistakes. One cannot have it both ways — yearn for a completely new political discourse and then complain about the immaturity of those grappling with something new.

In particular, the fact that there are discordant voices within the party is inevitable for a couple of reasons. For one, given its electoral success, along with believers, any number of opportunists has climbed aboard. And even many believers have joined it because of what it stands against, more than what precisely it stands for. A lot of the messiness that surrounds the fledgling administration is understandable — the attempt to exercise power in a new way is unfamiliar territory, and the idea of participatory democracy is not an easy one to practice. The confusion about Kejriwal’s residence, the free-for-all at the public durbar; are all part of this process of discovering a new idiom of governance. Even the AAP’s economic policies, which have caused much distress in many circles and which can legitimately be criticised as being populist, are consistent with their overall beliefs and have been in the public domain for a while.

However sympathetic one might be to the untidiness of the AAP experiment, it is very difficult to explain the behaviour of its law minister and more significantly of the decision of Kejriwal to back his party member. For, far from being part of a new political consciousness the law minister’s actions smack of the worst aspects of the traditional political culture. For what we saw the other night was nothing but a whimsical demand based on a personal peeve that aimed to bypass prescribed procedures by the use of brute force, and one which was enacted for the benefit of media summoned specifically to cover the manufactured spectacle. Worse, all of this was part of a witch hunt that sought to clean up the neighbourhood of ‘contaminating outsiders’, an idea that is deeply disquieting in the kind of actions it can potentially justify. It is difficult to prioritize what is the most nauseating part of the whole sordid drama — the action itself, the manner in which the vigilante operation was conducted, the attempt to bypass the law with a show of goondaism, or Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to back the protest and demand suspension of the policemen, in effect for the temerity of standing up to the rampaging minister.

Far from changing the political culture, this is a naked assertion of all that is wrong with the notion of power in India. The idea that power provides a shortcut between intention and action, connecting the personal interests of the ruler with the desired outcome without regard to rules or procedures is precisely the one that the AAP is in theory fighting. The one thing that it should not do is to bulldoze the official machinery with an army of supporters for a cause it thinks is just. The people who burned tolls booths at Kolhapur thought they were acting for a just cause as did Mamata Bannerjee when she stormed a police station to free her supporters.

Individual politicians cannot be allowed to directly act upon their idea of right and wrong; in some ways the policemen in question have acted in a way that the AAP should celebrate. For once they were not browbeaten into submission by loutish politicians. It might be because Delhi Police does not come under the jurisdiction of the local government, but the truth is that they acted as they should have.

It is much easier to identify what is wrong than it is to set it right. The mantle of crusading for what is right can sometimes create the illusion that everything that one wants to do is by definition right. Equating oneself with the right side makes what is personal interest or a pet project appear to be in the larger interest. This can result in justifying the same actions and culture that one came to power opposing simply because this time around the ‘good guys’ are doing it for a ‘good reason’. Used as he is to ignoring opposition, for certainly Kejriwal wouldn’t have got to where he is if he had listened to his detractors, the danger of insular self-righteousness is a very real one. The trouble with movements that strive to represent popular sentiment is that they sometimes can lose sight of the underlying principles that must circumscribe mass aspirations. In pushing for the Jan Lokpal Bill, the original protests had recognized the importance of legislative mechanisms over one-off actions. It would be a shame is the pressure of politics caused the party to mistake flashy crowd-pleasing discrete bits of action for an attempt to bring about fundamental and durable change.

Part of the advantage of being an experiment is the freedom to make mistakes. But that freedom can be availed of only if one acknowledges these lapses of judgement and learns from them. Doubling down on one’s actions or words is not an act of belief but one of political one-upmanship — it comes from the ‘Digvijaya Singh school of politics’. Of late, the AAP has made many mistakes, but the decision to back Somnath Bharti is not only its very worst, but much more importantly one that tells us that a genuinely new political discourse is a long way off. Mobs are mobs, no matter who leads them.