City City Bang Bang, Columns

The ideological vacuum

The AAP’s woes continue. The admonishments keep flowing in and suddenly it seems as if the same party that had fired so many imaginations can do nothing right. And while it does seem that the party has made some grave errors, some of the arguments being made against it are a little unfair, and care needs to be taken to separate the party’s mistakes from some legitimate if unusual choices that it has made.

The criticism that it is inappropriate for the CM of a state to go on a dharna has been widespread, and deserves some scrutiny. To argue that the act of governing carries with it an implicit decorum is another way of saying that rulers must embrace the surrounding aura of gravitas that has historically been associated with power. They must be seen to be spending time in acts of governance, and not be seen shouting slogans and confronting the police. Now while this is conventional wisdom, there is no intrinsic reason why this must be the case. Why is it all right for political leaders to spend time includes giving meaningless speeches, cutting ribbons and laying foundation stones and generally be so involved in the ceremony surrounding the act of administration and not acceptable if they agitate for what they believe in? A new political culture means that some old customs must give way to the new. Using the power of public opinion to agitate for a cause is an option available to everyone, the CM included. If anything, a protest like this, if held peacefully and for the right reason reinforces the idea that democratic persuasion is an on-going process and not a once-in-five-years phenomenon.

Had the agitation been aimed at the real problem, that of Delhi Police reporting to the Central Government, and not at the refusal to be browbeaten by a minister throwing his weight around, the choice of this mode of protest would have not appeared as inappropriate. If the goal was to show up the local police for the lazy, inefficient and corrupt institution that so many citizens believe it to be, there were several other ways of going about it.

The trouble with the AAP is that while it is fired by a powerful idea, that of revitalising democracy by ‘cleaning up’ politics, it lacks the ideological filling that converts ideas into coherent and sustainable practice. The position it has taken against the political establishments wins for it many adherents, all of them extremely passionate but most equally vague about how to convert an inspiring idea into an on-going reality. ‘Cleaning up politics’ and ‘listening to the voice of the aam aadmi’ are not ideas but hand waves, expansive gestures rich with intent but lacking in substantive content. The people who come together under this banner have little in common by way of worldview, and in the absence of ideology, the ‘how to’ part of the equation creates big problems for this new outfit. It is relatively easier to learn the ropes of administration but ideology steeped in a larger worldview is not that easy to acquire through experience.

Protests deal in singularities while administration is about negotiating the plural. Standing against something converges the diverse but governing is about choosing between competing priorities, guided by some overriding principles. The method of making these choices cannot be negotiated afresh every time by ‘going back to the people’. For one thing, for the government, ‘people’ fragment from a monolithic crowd at a rally into several ‘peoples’ each with their own need. As AAP discovered, the people include the African women they harassed as well as the police force they so easily condemn. For Somnath Bharti to argue that he was representing his people is therefore problematic for as a minister he represents and needs to uphold much more than the interests of his own narrow constituency. As things stand, every time when any of the diverse voices that make up the AAP have to deal with questions outside their chosen script of corruption and the venality of other political parties, there is a real danger that they will fill up the gaps with their own individual prejudices and mistake their personal biases for the will of the people.

On the other hand, the Congress has the opposite problem. It has a surfeit of mouldy ideological filling without an idea to wrap around it. It knows the grammar of power, but has lost the ability to create meaning. In some ways, the BJP under Narendra Modi is managing both- it has a larger idea, even if it is not ambitious as that of the AAP as well as enough ideological filling for it to navigate the everyday questions of ruling the country without having to consult a rule book. Under Modi, the party has been careful to keep its ideological filling from overwhelming the idea it is peddling today- that of strong leadership that has a plan for the country.

Perhaps the way to evaluate the efforts of the AAP is by acknowledging the ambitiousness of the project that they have undertaken. What we are seeing unfold in front of our eyes is an attempt to build the foundations of democracy based on a notion of citizenry from ground up. The experiment in creating a political paradigm is being conducted out in the open. Nobody knows if this will succeed; the odds are stacked against it, but to write off the entire experiment because of a mistake or two would be doing everyone an injustice. No one knows the script in this case, and all criticism, including this one, is in danger of using old frames to comprehend new phenomena.