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The method behind the AAP's madness

February 14, 2014 11:48 IST

The AAP is arguing quietly that indifference, alienation have to go. These are symptoms of disempowerment. For AAP, the battle to empower people demands new engagements with the marginals and corporations, says Shiv Visvanathan.

Politics is often like theatre. And theatre is a mirror to ourselves, our unconscious, a catharsis about the fears we keep hidden. Sometimes lens, sometimes kaleidoscope, it captures a whole range of our anxieties and imaginings. I would even add that political parties are a bit like old theatrical groups.

The Italian playwright Dario Fo talks of theatre troupes, of professionals who have committed to memory, the numerous speeches and stock phrases around which they improvise the play. There is about the Aam Admi Party a touch of theatre, a continuous touch of drama and excitement where set pieces of politics are used to improvise a new politics.

Everything Arvind Kejriwal does excites controversy. More interestingly, every scenario that the AAP raises is like a morality play, outlining choices, resurrecting issues we prefer to keep buried. This is precisely what happened when Kejriwal decided to institute an investigation into Mukesh Ambani's role in gas overpricing.

One's attitude to Ambani is a litmus test of Indian politics. The Ambanis in folklore and fact run the country, entice bureaucrats to work for them. Yet in a sociological sense they created a middle-class proud of business, and engaged in stocks and shares. For them, politics was a continuation of business by other means. They own huge chunks of the media and control sections of the bureaucracy.

No controversy about them is given even a half-life of survival. Even critics tend to be discreet about them. So when Kejriwal announces an inquiry about them, he appears like Don Quixote crashing against the windmills.

The very invocation of the word Ambani brings about a huge epidemic of defences. Veerappa Moily claims that Kejriwal is an innocent, illiterate about gas protocols. Leading think-tank specialists think the whole thing is too technical for citizens or social movements to understand. Even television anchors suddenly turn hostile questioning the AAP's motivation. They claim it is a diversionary tactic to direct attention away from the AAP's own bumbling.

The veneer of contempt is obvious as the AAP is treated like a bunch of boy scouts fighting far beyond their weight. The semiotics of the situation is obvious. Fellow accused like Murli Deora, Moily look like party bosses too indispensable to remove. Think-tank specialists and journalists act as if Ambani anchors their idea of India.

Contrast the contempt and barely concealed hysteria of opponents with the AAP's behaviour. Kejriwal is normal while instituting the protocols of inquiry as if he is reading the latest weather report. There is a consistency here for the AAP is not pulling an Ambani rabbit suddenly out of its hat. It is following it with a quiet determination what is promised in its campaign.

It is challenging one of the tacit understandings of current politics that the Ambanis are one of the unquestioned axioms of the systems. Our politics steers around the fact of their power. Earlier only the Left objected to their hegemony, today even the Left is lackadaisical about them. The general reaction is that the AAP is naive about politics and power. They look like boy scouts challenging party bosses used to the everydayness of power.

One senses the AAP attitude in its other spokesman. Yogendra Yadav raises issues which our politicians have forgotten. Firstly, he emphasises that what the AAP did was normative and fully within the right of a duly elected government. An inquiry is a ritual protocol in the pursuit of more detailed information. In fact, he emphasises that what is greeted with hysteria and even consternation is a banal part of any elected government.

Secondly, he raises the politics of the obvious because the obvious often eludes or is disguised by politicians. Oil belongs to the people, to the resource commons and the Ambanis merely extract it. One cannot assume they own it.

Thirdly, he suggests that citizens have a right to information and fairness in pricing of basic goods.

He mentions how Jaipal Reddy, Mani Shankar Aiyar were removed ruthlessly from their ministerial posts when they refused to kow-tow to Ambani interests. He also asks why the major Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is completely silent about the Ambanis. For a party that claims to be swadeshi and defend the national interest, the silence is almost damning.

The AAP by flogging these issues raises deeper questions about politics. It asks whether politics is about empowering citizens or corporations.

A persistent critic could object that all of this is in the public domain and that the cases are pending before the Supreme Court. While respecting the law, the AAP is also emphasising the role of politics in keeping alive these issues. Raising some issues repeatedly is the stuff of a responsible politics. Politics often is a critical act of composting which keeps certain issues alive.

The AAP's politics has to be related to a different framework. The crime of politics is often the crime of silence. Often politics works to eliminate certain issues from emerging as problems valid for public debate. There is a silence about people retrenched from media and IT.

Suddenly a whole set of professionals dismissed from their jobs become non-persons. There is little conversation about corporate control of media, about a corporation's responsibility for nature, for rendering tribes obsolescent.

Party sloth in India was so high, that the politics of indifference becomes almost predictable.

The AAP is arguing quietly that indifference, alienation have to go. These are symptoms of disempowerment. For the AAP, the battle to empower people demands new engagements with marginals and corporations. Whether it is Foreign Direct Investment or Ambani, one has to keep a critical eye on freedom.

The AAP thus seeks the tentative, the critical, even the disruptive in engaging with reform. At times, its attempts are made to look like poor man's drama. Yet there is a sense of the comic that sustains its everyday acts. Working in hybrid languages, it is looking for new terms with which to read history.

In a world beyond isms, it examines the scales of and works out solutions which revitalise social contracts.

One can understand why the AAP is a problem for other parties. They have not yet internalised the politics of empowerment which combines rights and the idea of the commons. The AAP might bumble as it takes the first steps but this promise of politics might help reinvent democracy beyond the tired shibboleths of conventional parties like the Congress, the BJP and the Communists. By doing this, it becomes a harbinger of the future.

Shiv Visvanathan