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Can AAP stop Modi?

March 18, 2014 11:15 IST

Even a 6 percent vote-share would make AAP an important player on the national scene. The key lies in strategically concentrating AAP's vote, especially in the cities, so that it can break Narendra Modi's momentum, besides defeating an already weak Congress, says Praful Bidwai.

The Aam Aadmi Party made a shrewd, calculated, well-planned move by quitting the Delhi government and taking a plunge into national politics.

AAP chose to make a political, rather than a legal-Constitutional, point by quitting a government dependent on the Congress's uncertain support. It hoped its own inconsistency would soon be eclipsed by other developments, as it well might.

Frankly, AAP used the Lokpal bill as an excuse to do what it wanted to do anyway -- take credit for lowering water and power rates, create a new plank against 'crony capitalism', and show that it is not addicted to power.

The move certainly put off some AAP supporters. An equal proportion (49 percent) of people polled by IPSOS-ABC News liked and disapproved of it.

AAP leaders reckon that since their party has been established as a credible wielder of power, many people would vote for it, who hesitated to do so earlier. They may be right. The same IPSOS poll says two-thirds of those surveyed would vote for AAP in Delhi.

So AAP leaders calculated that the sooner they launch their Lok Sabha election campaign, the better. Delaying it would only risk further alienating the middle and upper-middle class, which is moving away from AAP thanks to its agitation-centric approach -- signified above all by Kejriwal's Rail Bhavan dharna and sleeping in the street -- its emphasis on 'mohalla democracy', and tactics that the elite considers 'populist' and 'irresponsible'.

Signs of eroding upper-middle class support became evident through a sharp drop in donations to AAP -- from a daily average of Rs 1.9 million in the fortnight the party took power, to under Rs 500,000 in the fortnight ended February 8. Donations have since surged.

More telling, Residents Welfare Associations, which represent the upper and upper-middle class elite of Delhi's colonies, and want poor people excluded and evicted, strongly oppose AAP's proposed Delhi Nagar-Swaraj Bill, which creates eight-to-12 mohalla committees in each of Delhi's 272 municipal wards with special representation for women and Dalit-OBC groups.

The RWAs loathe such committees and contend that they would create a counter-productive parallel power centre, which cannot address the concerns of planned residential colonies -- their constituency.

With the right to impose penalties to be vested in an ombudsman appointed by them, the RWAs claim, these bodies will 'encourage corruption'.

This self-serving argument exposes the growing rift in AAP's support base. But it's not clear if AAP will take its pro-poor partisanship to its logical end while risking further alienation of middle class support.

Its record on this score is contradictory. For instance, it promised to abolish contract labour, but failed to give permanent status to Delhi Transport Corporation workers.

A basic problem with AAP's approach is that it defines democracy exclusively in residential terms through the organisation of mohalla-dwellers around their civic amenities or lack of them.

It leaves no room for class organisation, for self-activity and empowerment of workers as producers. Its agenda is not emancipatory or comprehensive enough.

AAP is also increasingly behaving like other cynical parties given to doublespeak and focused exclusively on short-term gains. It calls khap panchayats cultural bodies and advocates a dialogue with them -- because it wants to win the elections in Haryana, where khaps matter hugely.

Despite its shortcomings, AAP has shaken and stirred Delhi's political scene, and wants to stir things up at the national level. Yet AAP remains amorphous not just in its social base, but as analyst Jairus Banaji puts it, at the level of political ideas: It lacks a 'wider political understanding', leave alone a coherent ideology, whose very necessity it denies.

Given its ad hoc, discreet, 'solutions-oriented' approach, AAP has not decisively moved beyond its symptomatic anti-corruption agenda to engage with the great issues facing Indian society, including inequality, poverty, multiple forms of mass deprivation, class exploitation, gender and caste oppression, and growing communalism and authoritarianism.

However, AAP has done something that no political party has attempted for years -- except for the Left in Parliament -- namely, challenge powerful corporates like Reliance Industries and the Adanis. It has shown the courage to question business-politics collusion.

One must commend AAP's initiative on the Krishna-Godavari gas issue, which echoes a public interest petition by former senior civil servants T S R Subramanian and E A S Sarma and others. The initiative has expectedly drawn flak from businessmen who warn of a political 'witch-hunt' which 'is not good for India'. This only confirms the opposite.

Yet AAP is vacillating on the business-politics issue-- as it did in the past. A day after condemning growing Ambani-Adani-Congress-BJP collusion, Kejriwal reached out to industrialists at a Confederation of Indian Industry meeting, and invited their help to write AAP's economic-policy document. He stoutly defended private business, and said he only opposes 'crony capitalism', not capitalism per se.

AAP must link its stand against corporate-business collusion to neoliberal economic policies, and understand that that all capitalisms are crony. Capital rarely obeys the market's impersonal discipline; it has an inherent tendency to profiteer through cronies -- unless it is regulated and/or punished.

A second test for AAP lies in Gujarat, where it has decided to contest all 26 Lok Sabha seats. This brings it into a confrontation with Narendra Modi's communal-authoritarian politics and his slavishly pro-corporate economic agenda.

Whether AAP takes up these issues frontally will decide whether it can mobilise the substantial number of Gujaratis who question Modi's boastful development-related claims and his record of (mis-)governance.

AAP has declared Modi its 'next target' and promised to raise questions about the presence of convicted criminals in his cabinet and the murder of Haren Pandya, as well as corruption. It has also recruited noted activist Kanubhai Kalsaria, who agitated against Nirma's destructive cement project.

However, AAP still remains silent on the 2002 pogrom, and the shielding of its culprits. This must change if AAP is to offer credible opposition to Modi.

AAP's first list of Lok Sabha candidates is a mixed bag, which contains outstanding activists like Medha Patkar (Maharashtra), Alok Agarwal (Madhya Pradesh) and Lingaraj (Odisha).

But it has also given tickets to Right-leaning banker Meera Sanyal and to Kumar Vishwas, who made a series of communal, racist and male chauvinist statements in the past, and now claims descent from Chanakya and openly parades his Brahmin credentials.

As of now, opinion polls say AAP will win only 6 to 8 percent of the national vote. Of course, this could change as AAP grows: It has reportedly recruited 9.7 million members.

Even a 6 percent vote-share would place AAP in the same league as the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has 21 Lok Sabha seats.

The key lies in strategically concentrating AAP's vote, especially in the cities, so that it can break Modi's momentum, besides defeating an already weak Congress.

To win some 200 seats -- needed to form the nucleus of a winning alliance that can reach the 272 half-way mark -- the BJP will have to do exceptionally well in India's three largest states (Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar), winning about two-thirds of their 168 seats.

This won't be easy. Even if the BJP improves on its present score in Maharashtra (9 seats), it will be hemmed in by its alliance with the Shiv Sena, which faces tough competition from Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. If regional parties like the Samajwadi Party, BSP and Rashtriya Janata Dal put up a good fight against the BJP in UP and Bihar, Modi can still be stopped.

Whether and how much AAP can contribute to this in the two key states remains to be seen.

Praful Bidwai