Pehele AAP, pehele AAP, phir Modi

December 10, 2013

by Saroj Giri

[Abstract : While AAP might undercut BJP/Modi, they are however part of the same tendency in Indian politics. It is directly linked to the new forms of (neoliberal) capital and the ongoing class struggle.]

It is very tough not to be impressed by the victory of AAP in the Delhi elections. Notwithstanding its upper middle class ‘character’ AAP somehow is powered by the aspirations of masses of people, including the poor and the marginalised. AAP is definitely a party of outliers from the establishment, start-ups and they have pointed fingers towards many blatant nexuses and corruption that define the present system. Large numbers of workers, Dalits and those marginalised have voted enthusiastically for AAP.

So here are ‘rank outsiders’ who are out to change politics, a party of honest idealist youth invoking radical democratic instruments of right to reject and right to recall.

And yet what we also know is that according to AAP’s own survey most of those who voted for it have stated that they are Modi-voters. The AAP wave is also a wave for something else more sinister. Hence it has been pointed out: Kejriwal for CM and Modi for PM. AAP locally and BJP nationally. But of course, since they are separate entities, one might come in the way of another, AAP might stall the BJP from say forming a government.

However as tendencies, as an emerging rationality, the AAP and Modi/BJP converge. The point then is that AAP cutting BJP’s votes in Delhi, and apparently stalling the formation of a right-wing government, is only half the picture — and not such a progressive outcome as is made out to be by some on the left. The point to be made is this: Irrespective of whether or not it stalls the BJP, AAP underwrites a Modi-style neoliberal rationality albeit laced with messy mass democratic or subaltern assertion.

That AAP rejects the establishment parties only to come in the shadow of Modi does not seem difficult to see. Modi too is fighting the Lutyens aristocracy as an outsider. But we will still not use this Modi-argument to start bashing the AAP phenomenon for being ultimately right-wing. We cannot afford to be that lazy.

Instead, here we will take seriously the pro-AAP argument that AAP is not a substitute for the existing parties, the Congress or BJP, but a real alternative. The question though is: what kind of an alternative is it?

Let us however get one particular ‘left critique’ of AAP out of our way. This critique wanted to reject the AAP, or if you go back, the anti-corruption movement under Anna Hazare, by characterising it as an upper middle class phenomenon. It imagines that this character of AAP ipso facto means that the poor and the wide masses or minorities are not with AAP. This is a misplaced reading and also factually wrong — and also grossly underestimates the power of upper class hegemony over the lower classes.

Further, this ‘critique’ often comes from those who enjoyed a particularly cosy relationship with the old establishment — that is coming from the old social democratic position, vested still in the ‘pro-poor’ stance of a Planning Commission or the National Advisory Council, or of the Congress’s aam admi approach. This is an approach coming out of the corridors of Lutyens durbar.

The entrenched aristocrats of Indian democracy (the Lutyens political establishment) do not want to give way to the new ones emerging ‘from the street’. As another, perhaps the biggest and oldest vested interest, it rejects what it calls the ‘self-righteous civil society’ which supposedly undermines our hallowed institutions of parliamentary democracy and elected institutions. We of course do not buy this durbari critique coming from the ruling aristocrats of India’s parliamentary democracy.

So the AAP is definitely an alternative to these aristocrats as represented by the big establishment parties. But is it a progressive alternative or is it merely carrying on what these aristocrats did, but now in a new aam admi way, in a new modality?

We all know that this ‘alternative’ started as a major upper middle class rant against politicians starting with the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, culminating in the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement [1]. This rant or ‘assertion’ was clearly reactionary, targeting the poor. It denied the poor the use of the vote to secure some crumbs, some minor amelioration from the dominant system. This anti-poor agenda was however articulated in terms of an attack on politicians and against corruption. Politicians are supposedly of a piece with vote bank politics and vested interests — misrepresenting how politicians have actually favoured the rich and their private capital all through.

The poor and by extension politicians and vote bank politics were inhibiting the smooth operation of India Inc, holding down India Rising. The poor were literally thrown out of Delhi city during the Commonwealth games – yet the only problem was supposed to be Kalmadi’s corruption and not this ‘cleansing’ the city of the poor. Add to this the jingioistic nationalism, anti-Dalit, anti-minority attitudes, belief in a nuclear state, security-centric state, and India more than willing to enter the US hawkish camp of post-9/11 war on terror — all of which had to configure around some kind of a ‘movement of the elites’.

But then came the masterstroke in the formation of this alternative: the conversion of this upper middle class agenda, the movement of the elites, into one involving the poor and the marginalised. The rubric of anti-corruption became this kind of an empty place-holder where what are the necessary products of an unjust system for the poor became categorised as contingent problems arising out of corruption, mismanagement and so on. The jhaadu is rightly this cleaning process — the structures are fine, no deep inequalities, they should remain as they are, we just need good cleaning, good governance and transparency.

Then soon enough Kejriwal breaks with his earlier declaration to always ‘fight from the outside’. He now took the agenda of joining politics in order to cleanse it. He calls upon the youth to join politics. We must clean politics, we must go contest elections — but this means that in order to win the traditional stronghold of the politicians, the poor and the marginalised who are the most enthusiastic voters, must also be taken along. The turn towards electoral democracy then connects the upper middle class agenda to now an involvement of the poor and the marginalised.

Apart from the turn to elections and the attendant exigencies, there were substantive issues that could create this convergence with the lower sections. And here we must highlight AAP’s ability to re-articulate upper middle class values of clean governance into the ‘development issues’ of the poor and the marginalised. The question of the provision of basic amenities for the poor, including those living in slums, could now be connected to anti-corruption. This allowed AAP in Delhi to garner votes even from unauthorised colonies.

In his campaigns in lower income neighbourhoods, Kejriwal would poignantly highlight that Delhi has enough water per capita but not enough reaching people’s homes. There is a water tanker mafia in Delhi which is responsible for this. This mafia comprises the politicians of the Congress and the BJP. Hence if we want water in our homes ‘we must enter politics and cleanse it of these corrupt, criminal elements’. Join politics, cleanse it, otherwise politicians will sell off the country!

Notice that here the poor were not only passive recipients of welfare (as in the Congress’s aam admi approach) but also got a political cause to fight against wrong, against corruption. AAP often rhetorically presented this as taking on the powerful, India’s ‘second freedom struggle’ and what not. Lower class agency and anger was thus mobilised along safe channels. The primary modality of power has thus far been one of containment, keeping the poor passive. Now true to its roots in neoliberal rationality the modality is one of mobilisation, activation.

The same ‘cleansing politics’ argument is offered to businessmen. For the stranglehold of corrupt politicians, Kejriwal blurted from loudspeakers, has also meant that it does not allow good business to flourish. And without business there are no jobs, no employment. Hence we must cleanse politics first of all.

AAP also highlighted other elements of challenging the dominant model of development. They aroused the people on issues of improving government schools and government hospitals rather than making flyovers. They have also promised the regularisation of unauthorised colonies where most of the poor live in Delhi. Hence now the AAP could both excite the agency of the lower classes and also bring them under the hegemony of an upper middle agenda.

Let us now look at the AAP politics bit more closely and critically. We will see that the above progressive agenda actually underwrites a repressive logic.

Exposing corruption, ridiculing politicians, vilifying chief minister Sheila Dixit were major focal points of AAP all through in their campaigns. The rulers are presented as shameless. Vilifying those in power allows AAP to give the impression that if not for these politicians everything could have been fine. Politicians are treated as though they are the end-all and be-all and as though there are no role played by deeper socio-economic inequalities. Indeed, AAP has no critique of these deeper sources of ‘social problems’.

As we know, one kind of opportunism is to critique structural inequality and go on to get cosy with the actual rulers and parties that preside over this inequality and the dominant system. Another kind of opportunism is to viciously attack the presiding parties and political leaders but never question the underlying deeper social relations and structural inequality. AAP engaged in this latter. Hence their rejection of the political establishment then is very surfacial — and conceals deeper inequalities instead of raising questions about them. The problem is located only at the level of delivery, consumption or at best circulation, never at the level of production or basic distribution.

One good example of this kind of activism is I guess when people somewhere in Delhi, fed up of the minister’s non-availablity to inaugurate a flyover, themselves one day started using it. The corporate media of course highlighted this as ‘citizen’s power’, ‘bottom up consciousness’ and what not. The flyover is already there, ready, but ministers and their vested interests do not want to immediately pass it on to the citizens: it is a problem of not passing on, non-delivery of what is already there, ‘blockage’. For AAP then all social problems accrued from this kind of a last mile blockage. AAP’s anti-establishment radicalism therefore dispenses with any wider social understanding. We see this same approach in their mobilisation in Delhi refusing to pay the electricity bills.

So much foam and froth are generated around what are issues of delivery and retail consumption. A more classic case is one linking poverty with the kala dhan (black money) in Swiss banks — so the promise made during the Anna Hazare movement was that poverty can be eliminated by a quick action of recovering kala dhan. Here the rationality suggested is: poverty exists because of kala dhan, or because corrupt politicians allow this stashing away of kala dhan. An immediate vilification of politicians, treating them as the source of all problems, allows avoiding any deeper understanding of social issues.

Hence, AAP comes across as extremely populist if not outright opportunist in spite of mobilising people and engaging in messy politics.

Same is the case with their proposal of a ‘commando force’ to protect women. It is more about as it were ‘blocking’ the enactment of a crime against women rather than engaging with wider assymetrical gender relations in society. The mohalla sabhas or neighbourhood self-governance councils too are oriented towards managing services and their delivery: make everyone perform their duties well so that they can discharge that last mile delivery.

What is working here is the very neoliberal imagination of a well-oiled machinery, smooth running of the system, efficient and frictionless capitalism. This fits so well with AAP’s frequent declaration that they are fighting crony capitalism. Their closeness with World Bank agenda is unmistakeable. Indeed Kejriwal never tires of referring to how good democracy is in the US, talking about copying the idea of primaries in elections there or how local councillors meet residents in the Town Halls.

Listen to what AAP told the commando who got injured fighting the 26/11 terror attack. This commando was denied proper benefits by ‘corrupt politicians’ after he received those injuries. AAP invited the commando to contest elections on AAP ticket and told him: ‘so far you have fought terrorists who are outside the country, now you have to fight terrorists inside the political legislatures’! These are incidentally Kejriwal’s own words. Here ‘anti-corruption’ joins hands with the dream of a hawkish security centric ‘strong India’. It is in this real sense that the tendencies called AAP and Modi converge. And it is this which enthuses many voters to see a continuity between AAP and Modi.

Now lot of people are celebrating the rise of the issues of development and governance, apparently taking us away from the older vices of caste and community afflicting Indian politics for a long time. And we are now supposed to be finally going beyond those narrow sectarian interests towards a united and strong India where we can all finally be just Indians, all ‘equal’ and united. Some people even think that this, including AAP’s victory in Delhi, also means a check on the rise of the BJP’s communal or sectarian politics. Indeed this is what it seems like. And yet nothing is further from the truth if we look at the emerging rationality.

Think of how the recent Muzaffarnagar riots near Delhi and the horrors committed there, including rape of women, did not become an issue at all in the elections. The persecution of minorities can take place without even becoming an issue of national debate. And of course, how can the clean governance of citizen-entrepreneurs have anything to do with sectarian interests and communal violence!

Is this what the move away from narrow ‘identity politics’ and the focus on governance and development issues means? Is this what we should celebrate? Here we see an unstated, unavowed nexus of majoritarian Hindu politics with issues of development and good governance. The supposed ‘move away from sectarian politics’ is therefore full of double meaning, a sinister trap.

The best way to shove away and belittle persecution of minorities will be to treat ‘communal conflict’ or ‘caste conflict’ as the consequence of corrupt political machinations. Or as the consequence of minority appeasement. Or caste conflict itself as the consequence of reservations, dividing the country along sectarian lines and so on. This is the kind of smart reactionary ideas on which the group called the Youth for Equality (Y4E) thrived. This group, an early votary of transparency and good governance, is no doubt a major precursor of AAP. Kejriwal himself is rumoured to have been its member.

Minority persecution is shunned away from the realm of politics, from the new kind of politics — any possibility of fighting it is lost. It is shoved into the arena of some kind of a naturalistic inevitability or merely a carryover from the practice of vote bank politics and corrupt vested interests. It will appear as a bad carryover about which we good citizens, innocent of those horrible machinations, cannot do anything about. Or good governance and the transparent system will produce communal violence or caste atrocities as a complusive inclination, an orientation, about which again we cannot do anything.

Thus think of the ease with which Kejriwal conveniently forgets that it is the aam admi too who are killed in communal riots or Dalit massacres or by the Army in Kashmir and the north-east. Here AAP makes no effort whatsoever in challenging upper caste Hindu domination in India. Indeed on these questions it continues doing exactly what the ‘Congress dynasty’ or Lutyen bureaucrats do. There is a deeper unity between these different factions, insiders as well as outliers, of the ruling order here. It is then not too difficult to visualise this conjugation: Y4E/AAP/Modi.

The social imaginary of this conjugation is one of a technocratic, frictionless space of ‘free and fair’ competition, supposedly without vested interests and without entrenched feudal power — a theme which also appears again and again in say someone like Congressman Nandan Nilekani or Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s writings. Transparency, clean governance, and corruption free society are the ideals of this neoliberal imagination. Anyone talking about structural inequalities and deep societal discrimination are just vested interests unable to accept the outcome of competition.

AAP’s and Modi’s focus on rank outsiders and people entering the centre from the margins is then no innocent democratisation but points towards a much deeper rationalisation of society and its constitutive hierarchies — the search for new reflexive (non-feudal) hierarchies in consonance with new forms of capital. It points to in a way a more perverse form of neoliberal egalitarianism where everybody is a potential entrepreneur, along with greater penetration by capital. No wonder even the World Bank supports these anti-corruption movements.

But the Lutyens Congress political establishment is too feudal and too stuck in its ways to adapt itself to the new forms of capital — the AAP and Modi stand for the new kind of politics fit for the new form of capital in India.

AAP and Modi stand for a shift from social democratic containment of labour and the lower classes to neoliberal mobilisation/egalitarianism as a modality of power [2]. This means that the dominant powers are changing their strategies: as in, they are getting more confident to release the lower classes from mere containment and passivity to inviting them to the ‘citizen-entrepreneur’ model allowing for free play, upward mobility and so on which produces optimum results for capital. This is the changing dynamics of the class struggle. The class struggle today suggests the confidence of the ruling classes and the weakening of the working class power.

Modi already has his model of development or business friendly approach in place. What was lacking was the right model in electoral politics: AAP has filled up that gap, providing the winning model of cementing lower class agency with upper middle class hegemony.


[1] See my ‘The Anti-corruption movement and its false divides‘, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLVI, Nos. 26 & 27 (June 25, 2011)

[2] I have dealt with this idea of democratic containment and technocracy with regards to the anti-corruption movement, in ‘The Anti-corruption movement and its false divides’.

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