By Kusal Perera –
“Mr. Modi is now invariably relegated to the inside pages while every initiative of AAP dominates the front page of national newspapers. Mr. Modi’s pronouncements also seem to hold less interest for TV audiences than Mr. Kejriwal’s, who is undoubtedly the flavour of the season and crucial to the ratings of television channels.” wrote Bharath Bhushan, a reputed political journalist to “The Asian Age” on 10 January, 2014.
Bhushan tries to capture the urban middle class sentiment that pins plenty hope in Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Admi Party in India. That wish is not less here in Colombo too. With no decent opposition in Sri Lanka, there is political wish making, looking at India. Sri Lanka should have a Kejriwal too. The print media in particular caters to such wishful writing. This attempts to see through those colourful, urban middle class tapestry.
Present day media does not reflect feelings and aspirations of the larger society that plays small or no role as consumers in a neo liberal market economy. In India that has 30 percent below poverty line, media reflects only that of the economically vibrant middle class with a daily spending capacity of at least 10 dollars. Media today is heavily market based and therefore mirrors the dominant consumer segment with a “buying power”. What Bhushan says in “The Asian Age” is therefore right. The media is now following Aam Admi Party (AAP) and Arvind Kejriwal, the public expression of corporate management and IT professionals, technocrats, lawyers, NGO activists, celebrities and the like that makes the rich and affluent urban middle class of new India. Those who want to define India according to their wants and comforts.
The rich Indian middle class (leaving out those who can only afford 09 dollars or less per day), 67 million in 2012 and growing, is considered the “high potential of the domestic market”, for investments in India. “…..However, our respondents continue to cite inadequate infrastructure and a lack of governance and transparency as major obstacles to investment. The majority of our respondents believe that improving these obstacles will have a high impact on India’s attractiveness” (emphasis added) wrote Ernest & Young in their 2012 India Attractiveness Survey report titled “Ready for the Transition”. The Ernest & Young survey was a total reflection of the rich, “urban middle class mindset” that wanted improvements in governance and transparency with no change in economic policy.
This was what the “Public Cause Research Foundation” (PCRF) leaders – Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, Prashant Bhushan, Manish Sisodia and their “Right To Information” (RTI) activists brought into the “India Against Corruption” (IAC) campaign in 2007 to have funding for “Commonwealth Games 2010” seriously monitored and investigated. With all of them getting involved in kick starting a new public campaign by 2010/11 against massive corruptions reported in media like the 2G Spectrum Scam, Anna Hazare with a middle class touch and a Gandian image was their choice as against the earlier thought of popular, rustic yogi, Ramdev.
Formed and projected as “Team Anna” campaign for a “Jan Lokpal”, a people’s ombudsman, they became a storm among this rich and affluent middle class and in media, ferociously reacting to media exposures on heavy corruption at the Centre and in State governments. With the media creating a “larger than real size” IAC campaign, Team Anna was slated social winners when year 2012 began. Yet it wasn’t so in August 2012. Almost one year after the victorious Ramlila Maidan fast, they had to give up their indefinite fast on a very low key at Jantar Mantra.
Leading figures in Team Anna, former supreme court Judge Santosh Hedge and environmentalist Medha Patkar among them, moved out with their own differences on how the campaign was being geared, when Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan, Manish Sisodia and few others proposed to politicise their campaign. Kejriwal wanted to “throw them (government) out of power,” He meant they would have to get into electoral politics and defeat corrupt politicians. That is what AAP promised to their followers.
This single issue IAC campaign has lessons to learn. One, corruption is an urban middle class issue and the numerically larger, rural poor and marginalised constituencies don’t see it as important. Their issues are different and revolves round land, water, resource use, unemployment, wages and livelihood. They are about social justice and economic policy. Two, such middle class campaigns on single issues that can not reach other social segments, would not attract productive forces like organised urban workers, who could impact on the economic life of the society. Without such productive forces on board, an issue based campaign can not push the government into compromise. Team Anna and their IAC campaign could not attract such organised urban work force and that most certainly cemented their failure.
AAP and Kejriwal is thus a product of a hyped but failed urban middle class effort in having a government with less corruption managing the same open market economy for middle class comfort. A dragged out campaign that had nothing to do with national development, economic programming and stronger democratic reforms.
This political switch from IAC campaign to AAP certainly raises another issue. Can such political switching of a single issue urban campaign provide a much needed “alternative” in national politics ? AAP became a new phenomenon to talk of, not because of their political programme, which they almost lacked, but for their style of campaigning. Their style of street campaigning gave credibility to their promise of transparent and accountable governance. This was very attractive to the Delhi middle class that was tired of Congress and Dikshit together. Then came AAP’s list of promises. That perhaps attracted the 55 lakh Delhi slum dwellers too. They were therefore talked of in media, tweeted and shared in FaceBook during the elections as replacement for Congress and Dikshit. But, they rocketed into new fame and as an Indian middle class craze in cities and towns, only after the Congress decided to use AAP to keep the BJP out of Delhi administration.
Congress’s decision to allow a very impatient Kejriwal to step in as Chief Minister with their 08 Congress seats, was of course a political calculation, that now has catapulted AAP into national politics. AAP now remains pitted more against the BJP than the Congress. Bharath Bushan in his article explains this electoral matrix well. “A random look at some urban seats from Mumbai, Pune, Nashik, Nagpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Allahabad, Kanpur and Chandigarh suggests that the BJP is unlikely to get a walkover. Those who follow the BJP closely believe that the number of seats where AAP is a grave danger to the BJP is about 50. The AAP is a threat to the BJP also in Tier-2 cities and moffussil towns.” wrote Bhushan.
This urban, rich middle class frenzy and media hype, certainly smudge their political relevance in the coming Lok Sabha elections. What is important is not how many seats they may secure at elections as analysts wish to predict, but how alternative they are politically, to the present day Congress and Modi’s BJP. The affluent, urban middle class fatigue with the Congress and the BJP for reasons of economic (dis)comfort, would provide space for Kejriwal and AAP to secure some seats on their promise of “clean politics”. For the rich and affluent urban middle class that had grown from 30 million in 1991 to 67 million in 2012 (leaving the undefined, mythical middle class away) this open market economy has to remain, “clean”. But most unfortunately, the type of “clean politics” they demand does not define politics for future socio economic growth in a secular, democratic and inclusive nation that has rampant poverty, increasing religious tensions, break down in law enforcement and curbing of democracy that now have militarisation piggy backing “national security”.
AAP does not show any commitment in and therefore the possibility of taking up these national issues. Their list of promises for Delhi NCT, shows how small they are in standing up to national challenges. In Delhi they were mere populists and as most populists prove are never pragmatic. The Delhi Jan Lokpal Bill promised to be brought within 15 days of coming to power has already been postponed to February. They are talking of a drafting committee, only now. Cleaning up the Delhi Jal Board and Kejriwal announcing his decision of providing the promised 700 litre water ration effective from 01 January, 2014, is only a temporary offer for 03 months. This 03 month offer, is not for all households either as promised. Those without water metres, that’s about 50 per cent of Delhi NCT and those within ND Municipal Council and Delhi Cantonment areas will not have this 700 litre water allocation. So is the promise of slashing electricity tariff by 50 per cent, with no clue as to how the whole service could be sustained without loss. To say government work would not be paid unless the Mohalla Sabhas they propose approve them, makes the existing system of administration and audits, obsolete. The promise of using proposed Mohalla Sabhas as policing instrument of schools, health centres and ration shops, Kejriwal sounds a new born Stalin heading Soviet type committees, taking over people’s lives with a rogue regime.
National politics that has to be positioned geo politically, can not be this absurd. National politics need answers to major sensitive issues like, mining and foreign investments, social inequality in wealth distribution, agriculture and rural unemployment, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka Tamil issue, China and Indian ocean security, Jammu & Kashmir with Pakistan and more. AAP has already proved they are “Liliputian” novices in a “Gulliverian” political canvas. AAP leader Prashant Bhushan talking on J&K said its the people in Kashmir who has to decide whether the army should be deployed for their internal security. Proposing a referendum he said the Armed Forces Special Provisions Act (AFSPA) should also be decided by the people, “Any decision which does not have the backing of the people is undemocratic” was his rational and I would raise no cudgels on that. But when asked about the right of the Kashmiri people to decide if they wish to secede through a referendum, his people’s democracy wasn’t available. “Secession from India is unconstitutional. We have to find solutions within the purview of the constitution.” he immediately quipped, much like finding “home grown” answers to the Tamil political conflict, by the Rajapaksas.
In for a huge onslaught by both the BJP and Congress, Arvind Kejriwal immediately contradicted his own party leader to say, “Deployment of Army (in the Kashmir Valley) is a matter of internal security. There is no question of having a referendum on it”. So that’s it. The AFSPA, one of the most draconian of all laws in India, most human rights organisations and activists want repealed, is there to be used even if AAP forms a central government.
AAP is being bombarded with requests for membership and the first 15 days after the Delhi elections brought in 02 lakh new “middle class” members on line. They are most certainly those who can afford 10 or more dollars a day. How “alternative” would a manifesto from them, for them be in moving away from Rahul’s Congress and Modi’s BJP ?
From what media say, AAP is scouting for “expertise” on different issues to have their own national election manifesto drafted and published by March. They may get some committees to have all suggestions that come in, vetted and formulated into another list of promises. What is AAP then ? AAP can remain popular in rich middle class mindsets for some time, wanting something “cleaner and honest” than Congress and BJP. Yet it is a clear case of a rich middle class, single issue campaign getting politically derailed and unable to define their own national perspective in clear terms. One that would take a Lok Sabha election to prove it so, despite a few dozen seats they may secure.