AAP versus VIP

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: Jan 6 2014, 09:36am hrs
Something quite remarkable happened this Thursday in our political history. Unless you can remember any other time when a vote of confidence debate in the assembly of Delhi, which is not even half a state yet, was telecast live. And the stars of the day were many of the same people who had led a movement just three years ago that blamed our electoral system, politics, and by implication our democratic practice, for all that was rotten. In fact, at one point, some in the movement had even described the national parliament as a refuge of murderers and looters. If the smartest and most convincing leaders of the same movement now joined the same democratic practice and acquired power, it is a vindication of both our constitutional system and the aam aadmis strengthening faith in it.

This Thursdays debate also produced another rather unfamiliar sight: Arvind Kejriwal smiling. Usually you would find him grim and disapproving, playing to perfection the angry young man of this decade. And he deserves to smile. He spoke the truth when he said he and others with him were very ordinary people, given no chance of making it in elections. Its been more than two decades since a new political formation broke through the formidable entry barriers of Indian politics. Even in the past, those that did sothe TDP, BSP, SP, RJD or TMCeither had a strong vote bank or a slogan of region, language, caste or religion (often a combination of two of these). The Aam Aadmi Partys electoral performance looks even more remarkable because it did not have any of these. Its top leaders are generally upper caste, never an advantage in post-1989 politics. It had no Dalit, Muslim or backward caste leaders though, at a stretch, you could argue that its Chanakya, Yogendra Yadav, is a far cry from the Maithil Brahmin that the original was, though no less clever. It had very little money compared to others. Most importantly, it had nothing that could even remotely be called a claim or sense of entitlement: no heredity, no deities from the past (Lord Ram, Gandhi, Nehru, JP, Ambedkar), no history of great social mobilisation in a student, agrarian or labour movement, no ideology. To that extent, their success is even more credible than the rise of Assams student leaders to power at the head of the Asom Gana Parishad they formed months before the election of 1985.

For years now, India has been despairing for being ruled continuously by a gerontocracy of one party, coalition or the other. This at a time when younger leaders are rising around the world. David Cameron, for example, became prime minister of Britain at pretty much the age at which Rahul Gandhi was still confining himself to the Youth Congress and his partys student wing. The BJP had some younger faces in the states but much of its top leadership was born in the 1920s and 30s. And the younger leaders who rose in the various parties, national and regional, from Rahul to Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora to Akhilesh Yadav, Uddhav Thackeray, Jaganmohan Reddy, Sukhbir Singh Badal and Omar Abdullah, were all continuing their illustrious family legacies. The AAPs leadership was all first generation, self-made, genuinely youthful. A lot of young voters will see in them their own image: for them, they are people like them. Contrast the television visuals of Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia sitting next to each other in the Delhi assembly with Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani or, just in case you may have forgotten, H.D. Deve Gowda with Srikant Jena seated strategically behind him in Parliament, his sole and important responsibility to tap his prime minister on the shoulder as soon as he looked like dozing off, which was often.

That is why the AAP has succeeded in building an entirely new politics simply by being unlike politicians. In manner, style, method and speech, they are unlike any politicians you are familiar with. No red lights, VIP trappings, neurotic commandos jumping out ahead of them, fat jammer antennas following their cars. Your chief minister taking the metro to office in spite of his political power is the equivalent of an N.R. Narayana Murthy travelling economy and cleaning his own toilet despite his billions. It has similar sex appeal. Except a personality cult, the AAP does not display any of the stereotypes of tired, conventional politics.

That is the AAPs biggest and most positive impact. It is already forcing the political class to shed some imperiousness of power and making VIP culture look like a cheap thing. In much the same manner that Munnabhai-style Gandhigiri was portrayed as having changed citizens behaviour, AAP leaders are inspiring an anti-VIP wave, and riding it. This is a big and welcome departure from a situation where a buzz descended on a party or wedding the moment a neta walked in with his commandos who routinely shoved other guests away to make way for him, and wedding reception queues parted, wide-eyed, to let him walk up. So deep had this culture seeped in that everybody, including (in fact, notably) prominent journalists, had begun to expect similar status. Young officers of the Central Industrial Security Force, which oversees airport security, routinely tell me stories of familiar media faces throwing tantrums if subjected to normal frisking: jaanta nahin main kaun hun Some of this action has been caught on CCTV, and it is embarrassing.

It is not as if the AAPs is the first leadership to eschew privileges. P. Chidambaram has, for decades, been seen carrying his own bag through security, offering himself for pat-downs, and refusing security escorts even when he was home minister. Over the past months, I have been on flights with the chief ministers of Kerala (Oommen Chandy) and Goa (Manohar Parrikar), who carried their own bags and rode buses with the rest of us between the terminal and the aircraft. But nobody noticed them. You only noticed the VIP motorcade pulling up to the plane. One day, soon enough, the Congress party and its ruling family will wake up to the damage they have been caused by Robert Vadras name proudly listed at airport security checkpoints among those exempted. If it disappears at some point soon, you have to say thank you to the Aam Aadmi Party.

But after riding an anti-establishment agenda, the party has now become the establishment. The chief minister will need an official car, house and a retinue of staff. Even if he scales it down, he will never be able to beat, say, a Mamata didi at this game. Governance is a completely different craft from agitating. Remember that passage from Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collinss Freedom at Midnight that angered the Congress and nearly got the book banned in India It was Nehru and Patel, shaken by the Partition killings, confessing to Mountbatten they didnt quite know what to do as they had learnt to agitate, but not yet to govern.

Peace reigns in Delhi now and in most of India, so that is not the challenge for the AAP. Yet it has to make that transition from an angry, constant questioner to a calm, accountable ruler. In their anger with existing politics, most people have not really bothered to look at their larger political philosophy, particularly their economics. The AAP has grabbed the aam aadmi from the Congress and Bharat

Mata from the BJP. But sometimes they could also look like they have taken the most retrograde socialist economics from the Left and the most disconcerting extreme nationalism from the Right. No other political party in India is threatening to renationalise airports, and the power and oil sectors. Similarly, no one employs Bharat Mata Ki Jai and the tricolour as political slogan and banner. Nobodynot even the Akali Dal, our most religious partygives god the credit for their success. At least not in public statements.

There is much work to do in these areas. Ideologically, they have made their first move by defining themselves in opposition to the BJP. Which puts them firmly in the secular or third force camp, which also suits their economics. In other words, they have a formidable political rival and equally challenging likely partners (from the BSP to DMK, SP and RJD). Kejriwal will have to do more than keep trashing them as bhrasht or lecturing every party that only the AAP has a monopoly over the aam aadmi, or telling them that we give you the privilege of supporting us. In fact, Harsh Vardhans excellent speech in the Delhi Assembly was perhaps the first time they heard criticism from someone in the same room, barring the occasional irritated snarl from Pranab Mukherjee when they were drafting the lokpal bill jointly with the government.

Having arrived this far so fast, Kejriwal will need to pause and course-correct. Power politics, he will figure, is a heady but tough business. It also needs you to be flexible, genuinely liberal and thick-skinned. Most importantly, once in public life, you will need to understand the necessityand valueof engaging also with those who disagree or argue with you.