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ALL THINGS TO ALL VOTERS
- The AAP and its experiments in populism

The Aam Aadmi Party’s poll figures show it running a dead heat with the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Delhi election next month. This isn’t just in terms of vote share; the poll shows the AAP translating electoral support into seats. Despite the widespread disaffection with the Congress, anti-incumbency doesn’t seem to be helping the BJP, whose vote share is projected to decline according to a CNN-IBN poll. The BJP, which used to be Delhi’s default party of governance in its earlier avatar as the Jan Sangh, is in some danger of being upstaged by an upstart.

The opinion poll is significant —it makes the AAP seem like a contender which is obviously good news just before an election — but we ought to be paying attention to the AAP for reasons other than its poll numbers. We should be paying attention because the AAP is experimenting with a new kind of populism.

Populist politics in India is of roughly three sorts: majoritarian, Mandalist and Congressite. Narendra Modi’s populism is clearly of the first sort. His appeal is founded on his ability to channel ‘Hindu’ grievance, his short way with minorities and his economic stewardship of Gujarat. Nitish Kumar is a good example of the Mandalist alternative, which promises affirmative action, redistributive State action to help deprived and marginal communities, and stability of law and order.

The Congress, once the grandmaster of a pluralist populism, finds its best lines stolen by the Mandalists. Weighed down by a dysfunctional dynasty and a clueless dauphin, it is an incoherent party with neither mass politicians nor an ideological position. One part of it wants the Chicago School to run the Indian economy even as the other part tries to legislate into being the right of Indians to education, work and food. Given its deserved reputation for corruption and incompetence, the Congress gets credit neither for economic reform nor economic welfare. Its political trump card, pluralism, is cast as the appeasement of minorities.

It is in this political context that the Aam Aadmi Party’s political evolution becomes significant. In its Anna Hazare protest phase, it bore a strong resemblance to the anti-Mandal agitation of the 1980s. The anti-Mandal agitation is best described as an upper-caste populism given legs by the aggrieved feeling that affirmative action was marginalizing the country’s meritocratic middle class. The leadership and following of the anti-Mandal movement was overwhelmingly savarna and Hindu.

At its apogee, during Anna Hazare’s famous Ram Lila Maidan fast, India Against Corruption seemed to appeal to the same social constituency. Bien pensant critics pointed to the lack of Dalit and Muslim participation in the movement, to Anna Hazare’s tendency to go on like the patriarchal karta of a Hindu Undivided Family and to the presence of religious entrepreneurs like Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar in the inner conclaves of the movement.

I remember thinking that Arvind Kejriwal with his holier-than-thou certainty and fierce self-righteousness was another Arun Shourie in the making: a moral-crusading chassis built on a majoritarian motor. But as India Against Corruption metamorphosed into the Aam Aadmi Party, as it changed from a single-issue campaign to a political party, something seemed to shift.

The AAP lost Anna Hazare along with his panchayati nostrums, kept Kiran Bedi but as a non-political mascot and purged itself of Hindu godmen. Its anti-corruption credentials, earned during the Anna Hazare phase, remained its political calling card, but this was now married to a managerial and pluralist populism.

The AAP’s managerial populism consists of its promises to supply 700 litres of water daily to every citizen of Delhi and to cut electricity bills by half across the board. The narrative is similar for both utilities: inefficient and/or corrupt private agencies and government departments have profited from Delhi’s burdened consumers but haven’t ploughed the profits back to them as subsidies. The AAP claims that books can be balanced, bills can be slashed and citizens can be succoured if you have honest men in government with the requisite political will.

In many ways this promise of rational, incorrupt, technocratic governance is similar to one half of Modi’s appeal, his claim to being an efficient economic manager who minimizes sarkari corruption. The difference is that the AAP isn’t lumbered with the communal baggage of the other, unverbalized half of Modi’s charisma: his credentials as a Hindu ‘heavy’ earned a decade and more ago in Gujarat.

With the anti-Mandal demographic in the bag, the AAP has begun to diversify its populist offerings to court an electorate much larger than the savarna middle class. It has done so by stealing pages from the Mandal and Congress playbooks. In an interview with Kejriwal, Rajdeep Sardesai suggested that the AAP was practising vote-bank politics when it explicitly addressed the needs of Dalit and Muslim communities.

‘Vote bank’ politics is pejorative shorthand for any appeal, initiative or policy that doesn’t principally benefit the Hindu middle class. Kejriwal’s response to this allegation was instructive. He said that there were interests that marginal or minority communities shared with everyone such as education and health care. At the same time, there were problems and vulnerabilities that afflicted these communities alone. Ninety per cent of Delhi’s sanitation workers came from one Dalit caste, the Valmikis. You can’t, he argued, speak of sanitary workers while ignoring the elephant in the room: the unwanted, caste-determined monopoly they have over their insanitary occupation.

Similarly Muslims had special disabilities and problems. He didn’t specify them but he could have cited the difficulty that Muslims of every class experienced while renting or buying property anywhere except in Muslim ghettos. Kejriwal spoke of visiting Bareilly to make offerings at a famous Sufi shrine. He defended his meeting with Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan, a controversial cleric accused of issuing a fatwa against Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer, arguing that no one had shown him any proof of this alleged fatwa. He said he believed that Maulana Tauqeer was a man of peace, committed to inter-faith harmony.

This is an explicitly pluralist populism which argues that while Indians have interests in common, one size doesn’t necessarily fit everyone in every circumstance. It is Congress populism without the embarrassment of dynastic politics, Mandalist minorityism minus the lumpen and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s concern for the worst off without the pharaonic excesses of Mayavati.

The reason these borrowings might work better for the AAP than the parties they stole them from is that Kejriwal & Co., being less than a year old as a political party, bring no disabling baggage, no disillusioning track record to the table. The AAP can massage Muslims without letting the charge of pandering stick because its anti-corruption antecedents are worlds removed from ‘vote bank’ politicking. It can court Dalits without consequences because its fundamentally middle-class following cancels out any suggestion that the AAP is inimical to Delhi’s white-collar elite.

The AAP’s great advantage is that its anti-corruption credentials give it a halo of political virtue that doesn’t have to be plugged into an ideological power source. The AAP is trying, as the Congress did, once upon a time, in a very different colonial world, to be all things to all men. The time will come when voters will judge it on its record and it will become harder to be a political quick-change artist. By the time that this window of opportunity closes, the AAP will have shown us whether it is a political chameleon or a durably pluralist political party. If it turns out to be the latter, Delhi’s assembly election of 2013 might well go down as a landmark in the history of India’s republican politics.