The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is riding a wave. Ever since it hurled the Congress out of power in Delhi and chipped away a sizable chunk of the BJP’S vote, it has been making headlines every single day.
To its leaders nothing seems impossible — they are confident of enrolling one crore members throughout the country and talk openly of replacing the Congress as the second tent pole of Indian politics. To the millions of ordinary people, living increasingly harsh lives in our congested cities, who are queueing up to join it, it has become a beacon that promises to guide them to a better future.
But to say that victory has caught the party unprepared would be an understatement. For, every statement, every action, by its leaders in the past two weeks shows that they not only have no inkling of what the country desperately needs, but also no understanding of what the voters who brought them to power want from them.
One episode reflects just how unfit the party is, at least at this moment, to govern a city, let alone a country. Late in the night of January 21, the AAP’s new law minister Somnath Bharti led a mob that broke into a house in south Delhi inhabited by some Ugandan women, accused them of running a drugs and prostitution racket, forced them to provide samples of their urine, stormed to a police station and demanded their arrest without a warrant.
Bharti’s attack could have been dismissed as an aberration, but for the fact that after careful deliberation the entire leadership of the AAP not only backed his action, but also dismissed the need to follow due legal process, and went on a 10-day dharna demanding that the control of Delhi’s police be handed over forthwith by the Central government. What is more, Kejriwal treated India to the spectacle of a Chief Minister, sworn to uphold the law, taking the lead in breaking it in a manner calculated to disrupt the Republic Day parade. When asked why his party was bent upon doing so, one of his lieutenants retorted “parade ko goli maro” (to hell with the parade). He only took his remark back when he remembered that TV viewers do not have a sense of humour.
These shenanigans have become the centre-piece of puzzled speculation. Why is Kejriwal continuing to use the language of street protest when he has already won the election, proved his point, and become the Chief Minister of Delhi? Explanations range from “because he does not know what else to do” to “he is cleverly keeping alive the party’s revolutionary image for the general elections”. But for the country Kejriwal’s motives are far less important than the damage his actions will do to India’s future.
What Kejriwal is doing is to hold up not just a corrupt ruling class, but the entire democratic system to contempt. In this lies a profound danger for the country, for he is doing this when India is at the point in its transformation from a traditional to a capitalist market economy at which it is most vulnerable to the appeal of extremism. The most salient feature of the change is that it creates a profound sense of insecurity that arises from the dissolution of the social bonds and relationships of traditional society. In India this process is visible in the inexorable dissolution of the joint family system, and of the network of caste and community obligations that provided the social safety net for people in the past. While this change has physically impoverished only the bottom 10 per cent of Indian society, the insecurity it has created now permeates its entire spectrum.
The acceleration of growth in the Nineties and 2000s increased the pace of dissolution and, therefore, heightened the insecurity of the masses, but in the rapidly growing urban areas the resulting feeling of helplessness was held in check by the plenitude of jobs and market opportunities that the growth created.
However, when growth stalled in 2008, and Manmohan Singh and his advisers deliberately sacrificed growth for the next six years as they chased the will-o-the-wisp of inflation, this urban, very recently empowered, population saw its businesses failing and jobs disappearing and realised that it had been robbed of its future. This is why the corruption, cronyism and lack of accountability that the people lived with for decades, has suddenly become unbearable and unacceptable.
This is the anger that the Aam Aadmi Party has been able to tap into. If Indian democracy is to survive it has to be assuaged and the feeling of helplessness it breeds, removed. The AAP recognises this, but only in a dim sort of way. And not knowing what to do about it, it is buying time with knee-jerk populist-anarchist action that is designed to feed this anger.
If the AAP does not pull itself together and offer a doable programme of political and economic reform that both restores their future and makes it more secure, the disillusionment that will follow will make huge swathes of people lose faith in democracy altogether. History is full of examples of rebellions arising from economic distress — the most recent being the chaos unleashed by the so-called Arab Spring. But the precedent that Indians should consider most closely is the death of the Weimar republic in Germany.
World War I destroyed most of German industry and the German hyperinflation of 1923-24 destroyed the purchasing power of the old German middle class. By 1928, however, Germany had begun to struggle back on its feet with the help of a new class of small entrepreneurs — the Mittelstand — when it was struck, like a bolt from the blue, by the Great Depression. In less than three years, industrial production fell by 42 per cent and unemployment rose from 8.5 to 30 per cent. This second collapse destroyed the Mittelstand and caused armies of small bourgeoisie and workers to flock to the Nazi party. Between May 1928 and March 1933 its share of the vote rose from 2.6 per cent to 43.9 per cent and Hitler came to power.
The AAP is bent upon inflaming the expectations of the people. But the more it does so, the more surely will disillusionment follow. Should that happen, voters will have only one place left to go.
And Narendra Modi, who is promising an industrial renaissance and a culturally homogeneous Hindu India, will be waiting.
The writer is a political commentator