ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Aam Aadmi Party: Government of the Governed?

Aam Aadmi Party, in its attempt to subvert the process of government decision making,  is probably drawing from Rousseau’s social contract theory, where the idea of popular sovereignty, or the sovereignty of the people, gains authority over parliament. 

The Delhi Assembly election results have catapulted the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) from a non-existent political entity to a major contender for power in the state of New Delhi and bolstered its possibilities in the Lok Sabha elections next year. Arvind Kejriwal’s new vocabulary of politics has left the media and its experts looking for explanations as they grapple with this new phenomenon. Hearing Kejriwal and his team over the last few days has been an interesting experience.

Kejriwal’s idea of politics shows strains of similarity with Rousseau’s social contract theory, where the idea of popular sovereignty, or the sovereignty of the people, gains authority over parliament. It is an idea of a free government, where people decide on governmental decisions. The legislature proposes, but it is the man and woman in the street who dispose. India is, however, a parliamentary democracy where elected representatives propose and dispose the laws governing the nation. It may appear that Kejriwal wants to dismantle this framework of the state and replace it with Rousseau’s romantic idea of governance. But Kejriwal seems to be evoking such an idea only to remind everybody of the preamble of constitutional politics.

In eighteenth-century France, Robespierre unleashed his reign of terror by distorting Rousseau’s views after working for a revolution based on the principles of popular sovereignty. However, the original idea remained an inspiring force that led to the creation of modern democracies. In India, the most famous movement based on the idea of popular sovereignty was Jayaprakash Narayan’s in the 1970s. The situation was similar - unrestrained corruption of the Congress in power, high inflation and steep price rise of essential commodities. JP succeeded in unleashing the popular mood into the streets. Despite crackdowns and arrests during Indira Gandhi’s desperate proclamation of Emergency, JP’s movement-turned-party won the 1977 general elections. But the restoration of a moral political order based on the principles of popular sovereignty did not take place. The idea of a restorative order of politics is anyway conservative, within the rhetoric of good men who believe in virtuous politics. It sounds dangerously close, in the Indian context, to the idea of Ram Rajya.

Nevertheless, the JP movement did manage to throw up an important challenge and alternative idea to the insatiably corrupt state of parliamentary politics. JP, who worked in a canning factory, a garage and a slaughterhouse during his higher studies in the US, imbibed a Marxian–socialist ideology and used Gandhian methods of peaceful resistance. Kejriwal’s methods (already being tested by intimidations from an unnerved political class) are also avowedly non-violent but his ideological orientation, which reflects in the concerns of the AAP, is mired in liberal vagueness as much as it stands for populist concreteness.

But, before raising questions, let us first take cognizance of the attractive part of Kejriwal’s rhetoric. There is a new vocabulary of disarmingly (and deceptively) simple politics in Kejriwal’s assertions. The one move away from JP that Kejriwal seems to be making so far (a move that should interest the disinvested left) is to almost dissolve the idea of the party into the idea of the people. It is the people’s collective that will be driving the party according to Kejriwal, and not the other way round. However, the AAP admitting disparate opinions among its members risks ideological incoherence and its non-ideological heterogeneity raises legitimate doubts of majoritarian takeover.

Another novel aspect is Kejriwal’s sharp division of politics into the governing and the governed class. Kejriwal is transforming Carl Schmitt’s idea of politics as a site of conflict between ideologically opposed enemies into a conflict between civil society and the political class itself. But Kejriwal is also precisely caught within Schmitt’s critique that liberal politics seeks to abolish differences in the name of an anti-politics. The generalised idea of the “people” unanimously seen to be fed up with the political class and looking for change, is surely not a category that subsumes fundamental political differences in the social sphere. There is a strong ideological antagonism within castes and classes, who have different stakes in the polity as much as in law. If price rise and corruption bring their concerns together, the hierarchical differentiation within social groups, the ghettoisation of various minorities and the struggle for rights by all underprivileged sections against the monopoly of the social and the religious elite set them apart. The common man (‘aam aadmi’) is not a single political entity beyond “common” concerns, but highly differentiated by political interests.

The AAP’s political position regarding these social conflicts will definitely strain their consensual populism. But it is also time the moribund political class is confronted with a new brand of politics. In the light and shadow of this deep ambivalence, the AAP will reveal its credentials in the days to come. 

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