Indian society has an unpredictable way of jumping classificatory frames. As experts are sitting down to their favourite theories, warming their hands over their favourite hypothesis, the people have a way of surprising them, often quirkily and rudely. This essay examines the varieties of the political we have seen over the last two years.
Two years ago, with liberalisation on everyone’s lips, experts talked about the decline of the political. It is time that liberalisation blunted the edge of the old social movements. The battle for biotechnology has hit an impasse; the struggle over Narmada is treated like yesterday’s newspaper. There was a feeling that consumerism had accelerated desire but blunted politics.
Consumerism was seen as indifferent to citizenship. Experts forget the consumer of the socialist era was an alien creature, passive to the core, content with leftovers as entitlements. The ration card era blunted the consumer’s sense of expectations; he was fatalistic in the way he waited for landlines, scooters or food.
The new consumer as a young person had few memories of State socialism. Liberalisation had blunted the State as an encompassing imagination. The body had drifted from the body politic and malls full of brand names made brands and the body a legitimate word. The corporation was seen as sacred and Narayana Murthy, Ambani and Tatas almost formed an informal trinity of the sacred. In such a world, politics was seen as unnecessary for the new middle class. Ironically, the roots of the new politics emerged from this very bundle of desire.
For the new consumer, the body was the site for agency. The body not only determined desire but the integrity of the self. An attack on the body was seen as an attack on the integrity of the self. In this context if the body anchored consumerism, rape threatened the freedom of the body.
A second threat emerged with corruption. Corruption delayed the fulfilment of desire. In an age of speeded up desire, corruption slowed time and threatened the very cosmology of expectations. The new battles of politics emerged out of the battles against rape and corruption. Young people protesting against rape and battling water cannons realized that they were vulnerable both to the violence and indifference of the State. They became the breeding ground for Anna Hazare’s politics.
A new generation, nostalgic for nationalism, saw in Anna an avatar of nationalism and its patently ascetic style. Kejriwal was a side show, a lesser form of history, as Anna’s deputy. He, however, realized a Hazare-like battle had a low shelf life. An act of politics which refused to be seen as politics was fated to be an oxymoron. Kejriwal, realising the end of Hazare, decided to transform the social movement into a party. This decision created new excitement and a new expectation about the political. People now felt they were no longer hypothecated to the party and the State. The old idea that the people let the legislatures treat them as a rubber stamp electorate was over. Congress and BJP became passé.
The BJP acquired a new gloss through Modi and Kejriwal created a new party called AAP. Both emerged from the thirst for a new politics. Modi offered the efficiency of a technocrat, Kejriwal, the effervescence of an empowered people. Both spelt the end of Congress as one definition of the political, a once great politics which had degenerated into family servitude or sycophancy. There was a magic to Kejriwal’s politics.
Here is a man who came out of nowhere and defeated Sheila Dixit in her constituency. He showed money power does not always define politics but ideas and idealism made a difference.
For Kejriwal, the old parliamentary politics was a corset which provided the framework of corporate corruption. He knew the legislature would not pass a Bill with teeth. He realised that the elite found his peoples’ durbar threatening and that governance was becoming a stick with which to beat his style of politics. A two-month-old party was asked to produce miracles which the Congress and BJP could not achieve in decades. In fact, his very style of protest showed that the BJP and Congress were political siblings under the skin. Both wanted the people to be passive.
Kejriwal’s protest challenged the Congress-BJP hyphen. He showed that neither party wanted to empower the people. They preferred words like participation, consultation, which made people an occasional force. By joining people’s protest, Kejriwal was seen as creating an anti-politics, ie, a politics not approved by the establishment. AAP also understood the uses of disorder, of instability which broke paradigms.
They showed that democracy was suffering from rigor mortis and, in galvanizing the people, he frightened the elite.
One realized it was not just his style of politics but the choice of issues. AAP threatened the conspiracy of silence that underlay liberalized politics. The corporate don coated with CSR was suddenly seen as threatening the politics. The Ambanis re-emerged as a bad-smell, polluting democracy, and Kejriwal showed up the connivance of BJP, a nationalist party which was less than nationalist when it came to gas prices.
It was the prospect of the new politics that united the establishment. The old politics of waiting was no longer acceptable. Cynicism was old fashioned. Protest was not a fringe activity but was central to the new politics. The Aam Aadmi was no longer a false token with which to manipulate the masses. He was now a real creature who wanted to alter the lifeblood of politics. Democracy was reinventing itself and the old elite felt threatened by the sheer enterprise, the bumbling confidence and the ease with power the new party showed.
The contempt with which media treated Kejriwal’s resignation showed it was not ready for this new version of the political. Some TV anchors substituted their hysteria for the new history Kejriwal was creating. What stunned them was that Kejriwal was not afraid to be vulnerable, to suffer for his ideas. It was this vulnerable faith in the new politics that stumped Jaitley and Sheila Dixit. One celebrated that Delhi’s worst case of misgovernance was over when Kejriwal resigned. It showed that a predictable intelligence is a blinded intelligence that cannot see the new diversity of the political that AAP was creating.
Democracy in India had dulled out till Kejriwal emerged. His grassroots politics is, in fact, a style of invention. His creativity lies in making the political inventive, in showing any community can kick-start a new politics. It is this very playfulness that is dubbed as irresponsible. In rescuing politics from the dullness of the old parties, Kejriwal and AAP are reinventing the citizenship for the future. Whatever their mistakes, one has to be grateful and excited for this creative agenda for a new India.
The writer is a social nomad