The Telegraph
Sunday , January 5 , 2014
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- The slow, far away taste of freedom

The roof of the vehicle slides by, it seems almost under the height of my knees. I’m on one of those high sidewalks in Defence Colony market in Delhi. It’s a busy evening and the perpetual traffic jam usually provides an eyeline of irritated sedans punctuated by the surly hulks of shiny SUVs, and it takes me a moment to recognize this thing that’s suspended between two normal cars like a wide, white-painted metal carpet. It’s the new year of 2014, Delhi is a crazy town, and some lunatic is navigating his new-ish Lamborghini Aventador at 10kmph between the jagged edge of the sidewalk and the prows of the parked cars. As the car passes, I note with satisfaction that the super-designed slats of the rear window are grimy with the same Delhi traffic dirt that drapes auto-rickshas and tempos.

Conversation at the moment sticks closely to the first four letters of the English alphabet: AAP, BJP, Congress, Delhi. Like the slice of an assassin’s ether-dipped blade that the target feels only much later, the full effect of the Aam Aadmi Party’s election victory is only now beginning to bleed into the consciousness of the BJP and the Congress. Both victims are now feeling around their midriffs to gauge the extent of the damage, both are trying to walk straight, fighting to hide the pained grimace under a smile. “They didn’t actually get us, not really…well, yes, a small nick, but they didn’t really get us, not yet.”

What’s most startling is the euphoria which is exploding not just in Delhi but apparently all over north India. So desperate are people for an alternative to the Congress-BJP double-headed monster and the venal regional satrapies that this victory could suddenly translate into something much bigger. The elation also seems to be cutting across class. Intellectuals who’ve observed Indian politics for sixty years are tempted by hope —“This somehow feels like real change.” Activists, their scepticism hardened by decades of disappointment, are willing to be cautiously optimistic. The motley crew of people the AAP has pulled to themselves are naturally buoyant, many of them young, all of them with open smiles and frank answers. The auto-ricksha drivers, the street barbers and others of the non-destitute working class in Delhi are grinning from ear to ear — they see it very much as their victory but they are willing to share it with people better off than themselves.

At New Delhi railway station all the trains are late. The fog and rain have meant that all the long distance ones are coming in at the same time, around 11pm at night, everything from Asansol to Aurangabad rolling in at once. The traffic outside the station is madly knotted and one can sense that violence is about to break out at any moment. A sardarji stands near one of the exits, upholding a great, modern, Delhi tradition. His voice is clear even above the crashing of horns, gunning engines and squealing brakes. Centuries of invective fruit has distilled itself into his vocabulary and, listening to him, you understand that he’s disembowelling his driver via the cellphone network. “Yeh maan ley ki tu duniya ka sabsey badaa _____ hai! Just accept that you’re the biggest _____ in the world.” You’ve done yourself with charas now come here and get done by me. “Tu char janmo ka ______ hai. You are a _______ from four re-births…” Sardarji doesn’t raise his voice, he doesn’t change stance as he delivers the killer blow: “Ab _____, tu yeh maan ke chal ki teri naukri gayi. Now you _______, put it in your pipe that you’ve just lost your job.”

If Punjabi gaali-galauch is in rude good health here, so is pan-Indian scepticism. The old Bengali leftist historian is not so impressed by AAP. “There are some Socialists, sure, but it is essentially a bourgeois formation. Let’s see how long they last.” Others shudder that the provincial fascist spirit of the insupportable Anna Hazare still resides in too many of AAP’s members. Others are differently unimpressed: “Unko na caste dikhti hai na communalism, sirf corruption ka dhol piitney sey baat nahi banegi.” They see neither caste nor communalism, only beating the drum against corruption isn’t going to do it. The Bihari basti activist is un-moved by his friends’ enthusiasm. “I believe in letting food cook on slow heat,” he says, “so, I’m not going to be impressed by this honeymoon period where all his supporters think Kejriwal’s achieved all that he promised in the first four days. I’m going to let these people cook and see what they taste like in six months’ time.”

The Bengali NGO man who has dealt with Delhi ministers over three decades is more willing to cut Young-Uncle Kejriwal some slack. “Look, I’ve had interactions with both BJP and Congress ministers, several of them. Invariably they talk down to you, give you an ‘audience’ as if they are doing you a favour. My first meeting with the AAP minister was quite surprising. The man had done some homework, he treated us as equals, listened to us. His aides were also young people who knew some things. They all took notes. And, most encouraging, at the end of the meeting he asked us if we had any questions of him. This is how it should be but I’ve never seen anything like it.”

It’s too early to say if the bands of working class women and men moving through the streets waving their jhaadus have actually begun to bring about change. It’s too early to say if the AAP are indeed the ojhas who will rid us of the demonic spirits of the Congra-Bhaajapaa double-headed monster all over the country. But one thing that’s clear is that everything is now unclear, far more confused, complicated, open and full of possibilities than the simple rout of Rahuga Baba’s Cong-I by Namosis’ BJP. AAP’s victory was the capture of a small but highly visible electoral territory, of a small but critical organ of the body that makes up Indian electoral politics. This could lead to many outcomes. AAP itself could win an unprecedented number of seats, changing the maths for Fekulogists in both branches of the Congra-Bhaajapaa goliath; AAP could win a smallish number of seats, but spread widely in critical areas, enabling them to still influence the formation of the Central government; there could be copy-cat parties that come up between now and May, parties that could queer the pitch in different ways; various existing parties which don’t carry the baggage of corruption (either money corruption or other kinds of systemic moral and structural corruption) could maybe steal stuff out of AAP’s playbook and overturn previous logics; the possibilities are suddenly immense, the process suddenly much more democratic.

Furthermore, around and beyond the forthcoming elections, Aam Aadmi’s victory has opened other doors as well. It’s now possible to imagine that the municipalities of the big metros could be ruled by local AAP type parties who will primarily promise to look to the specific needs of India’s urban poor and lower-middle-class, even as they let the big state parties inhabit the capitals and control the surrounding rural areas of the state. The big parties may not want this but they may have no choice but to cut a deal when confronted with a popular city-based wave that threatens to damage their control over their rural zones. In this regard, one can easily imagine, Bombay, or Calcutta, say after four years of Trinamul mis-rule, rising to grab a certain municipal independence.

Whatever the case may be, the most recent wave of discussions has centred around the rumour that Kejriwal had accepted a ten bedroom duplex in central Delhi as his residence. The other thing the BJP have been shouting about is AAP’s ministers taking over eight Innovas previously used by Delhi’s Congress ministers. Both were absurd things to throw at Young Uncle and his band of newbies. The duplex business has now been handled, it seems, by the man saying he will take up smaller quarters somewhere central. The Innova non-controversy was also bounced when it was explained that the cars were a) not new and b) to be used only on official business. The thing is, when one looks at Delhi’s traffic mess, one knows this is something that’s going to come and ram into the young government soon. No matter whether it’s the normal cars, the Lamborghinis or the Innovas, no matter what happens in the Lok Sabha elections, the Delhi government is going to have to show India the way by culling its automobile population on an emergency basis. It may not be as exciting as supplying water or electricity but in the long run that may be the first great achievement for which AAP is remembered.