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The Perils of Dead Certainty

The spectacular rise of the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party to power after last December’s assembly elections in the Indian capital Delhi, and its fall after just 49 days in office, inform us about India’s turbulent politics. These events are consequences of the Indian electorate’s anger and frustration at the established parties, and a strong desire to break away from the past. They have also created a good deal of confusion and polarisation among the people as the country heads for general elections in April and May 2014.

The AAP’s appeal as an anti-corruption phenomenon was responsible for the largest number of seats it won in the capital’s assembly, though still well short of a majority. To form a minority government, the AAP chose to accept outside support from the Congress Party which it had defeated, yet continued its crusade against Congress. For the AAP’s leadership, all other parties were legitimate targets, to be attacked in the most strident terms. Political leaders, businessmen, even fellow party members who disagreed were routinely accused of corruption or insubordination.

Now that the short-lived administration of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is no longer in power, central rule has been imposed in Delhi, and battles are being fought in courts. Kejriwal’s party has mounted a challenge in the Indian Supreme Court against the imposition of central rule in the capital after its defeat in a crucial vote. The former chief minister and his colleagues are themselves threatened with law suits – so unsubstantiated were their allegations against specific individuals.

The AAP has attracted some support from sections of the population eager to punish the Congress-led coalition for corruption, mismanagement or failure to maintain law and order. However, the Kejriwal band remains a one-issue party, and its suitability as a serious force in advance of the next general elections must be in question. The AAP’s popular support nationwide is yet to be tested.

Nevertheless, the AAP has been quick to move from governing Delhi to launching a national campaign for the next parliamentary elections. It claims to have prepared a list of the “most corrupt people” and has begun to announce its candidates against them. In the process, the party seems to have bid farewell to its earlier promise to hold American-style primaries for selection of candidates. The odd mix of populism and authoritarianism has added to the confusion about what the “ordinary man’s party” is really up to.

After a brief period in power in a mini-state, the AAP faces a critical reassessment by its supporters, and the wider electorate. Its image as a party of lawful and clean governance has taken a battering as a result of vigilante tactics of its members. The AAP’s rise was mainly due to the loss of public confidence in India’s established parties, but its subsequent conduct has raised questions about the alternative it offers, and what it means for the Indian democracy.

Unusual tactics

Leading jurists and civil society activists had been expressing disapproval of the AAP’s polarising tactics from the outset. In one astonishing act, Chief Minister Kejriwal, his cabinet colleagues and leading supporters broke through police barricades and violated a prohibition order against political gatherings near the Indian Parliament and administrative district. Another polarising action was to cut by half the electricity bills of Delhi residents who had refused to pay their bills for several months in protest against increased charges, but not of residents who had paid despite financial difficulties.

The Supreme Court of India issued notices to the Kejriwal administration and the central government, asking them to explain how the extraordinary protest took place in the capital. The issue, according to the court, was of constitutional importance, raising questions about whether a chief minister could resort to agitation in violation of the law in his own state. As well as the decision to charge his predecessor Sheila Dikshit with corruption, the Kejriwal administration had plans to strip magistrates in Delhi of their responsibility to issue marriage certificates, and to give the authority to issue licenses for building projects and local services to “people’s gatherings” to be held from time to time.

A meandering journey

An offspring of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption reformist movement, a group led by 45-year-old Kejriwal, a former Income Tax official, broke away to become the Aam Aadmi Party in 2012. The party won the largest number of seats, though not a majority, in the Delhi assembly elections, and formed a minority government when the defeated Congress Party offered its external support in December 2013.

The AAP’s ambition for power was undisguised, but the scope of its political appetite and future tactics were far from clear. Hazare would have nothing to do with Kejriwal and his associates. While Hazare’s initiative remained a loose social movement, Kejriwal’s newly founded party began to attract attention of people hungry for action against corruption and government inertia. A number of highly publicised attacks on women and young people fuelled the discontent already there.

Systemic failures of this kind can make a situation explosive, offering fertile ground for populist groups with good intentions, as well as opportunists. It is sometimes not easy to distinguish between the two. Weak or inept government risks anarchy, and vigilantes determined to enforce laws of their own take over.

Vigilante groups may lack unity, so they seek an external target to maintain a semblance of unity. The spectacle witnessed following the governing Congress Party’s heavy defeat in the Delhi assembly elections was extraordinary. Lack of certainty was replaced by politics of dead certainty.

Self-righteous behaviour and delivery of direct justice by Chief Minister Kejriwal, his ministers and party members were on display from day one. When Law Minister Somnath Bharti led a midnight raid with his supporters on a house of African women in South Delhi, there was a crisis. The minister summoned local police, and proceeded to order the officers who had come to the scene to arrest the women, accusing them of prostitution and drug offences.

Confrontation with police

The police officers refused to obey the minister, because they said they did not have a magistrate’s warrant for arrest. The women, said to be from Uganda, were then taken to the All India Medical Institute, where the law minister also turned up, and the women were forced to give urine samples. No traces of drugs were found. The women have since accused the AAP supporters of harassing, beating and threatening them.

In an era of globalised 24-hour news, it was an instant national and international story, generating alarm and negative reaction. India’s ministry of external affairs intervened to assure foreigners that they were safe and welcome in the country, and that relations with Africa were important and unaffected.

Criticisms of the treatment of foreign women in their own home in Delhi grew, and the confrontation took a more ugly turn. Kejriwal’s battle became one of capturing control of the Delhi Police force from the central government. As the chief minister, with his supporters, marched towards the Indian Parliament, they were prevented, because there was a ban on public gatherings. So they began an “indefinite” sit-in, demanding that five police officers be suspended, and India’s home ministry hand over control of the police to the Delhi state government.  

Kejriwal and his followers overran the police barricades. Clashes broke out in which dozens of people were injured on both sides. The chief minister held meetings of his cabinet in his vehicle at the protest venue. Official files were doing rounds of the streets of Delhi. Metro stations serving the capital’s administrative district were closed, and the chief minister threatened to disrupt India’s Republic Day celebrations which foreign guests were to attend.

Exactly what long-term impact this style of politics will have across the country is not certain. However, judging from reactions of India’s middle classes and the media, the APP’s image has suffered.

The AAP represents a phenomenon whose causes can be explained, but its effects are disturbing. The phenomenon is not unprecedented. In other places across the world, we have seen anger and discontent, and the emergence of populist forces challenging the established authority that is corrupt and inept. However, alternatives offered by populist politics are hardly the answer, because they can lead to unpredictable consequences, the worst of which were seen before and during World War II in Europe. The events in Europe during the turmoil between the two wars should serve as a warning to India’s electorate against going down that path.

The Congress Party-led coalition which has governed India in recent years faces a tough challenge in the coming general elections, at a time when the leadership of Congress and some of the other parties is in transition. India’s democracy finds itself at a crossroads, and the choice is going to be either constitutional politics and rule of law, or rule by populist impulses.

Deepak Tripathi, fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, is a British historian of South Asia, the Middle East, the Cold War and America in the world. His works can be found at: http://deepaktripathi.wordpress.com and he can be reached at: deepak.tripathi.writer@gmail.com.

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Deepak Tripathi is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. His works can be found at: http://deepaktripathi.wordpress.com and he can be reached at deepak.tripathi.writer@gmail.com.

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