There is a lesson that both BJP and Congress needs to learn: AAP may not have the numbers, but Kejriwal has the ideological platform that the vast masses of India crave
Pictures: Kejriwal with Narendra Modi; AAP Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh with Yashwant Sinha/Mamata Banerjee
After three years of relentless effort, India’s democracy has finally succeeded in breaking Arvind Kejriwal’s back.
Last month, the Aam Aadmi Party leader apologized to former Punjab minister Bikram Singh Majithia for having called him the state’s drug lord. He followed this with apologies to the son of former Congress minister Kapil Sibal, and BJP ministers Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari. With each apology, his stock among the ordinary people has sunk lower. And unfortunately, he has several more apologies to go. Kejriwal’s detractors are openly jubilant. And they are not confined to the BJP, but are spread across all party lines.
Narendra Modi’s onslaught on AAP is well documented. It began in April 2015 with his pliant lieutenant governor, Najeeb Jung’s physical seizure of the offices of Delhi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau, and the ejection of police officers serving in it. The move was designed to pre-empt the investigation of 70 cases of corruption and extortion in the Delhi administration, nine-tenths of which involved policemen and officials of the three municipal corporations.
In the months that followed, armed with a notification issued by his own home ministry, and a judgment given by a one-judge bench of the Delhi high court that despite article 295(a) of the constitution, Delhi state was no different from the Andamans, the LG rejected bill after bill passed by the Vidhan Sabha. He took away the chief minister’s right to choose his own officers; transferred those who worked closely with him, or carried out their duties diligently without even warning, let alone consulting, him; got the CBI to ‘bring in for questioning’ no fewer than 150 junior officials and left them in no doubt that their future depended upon their diligence in reporting all the plans and decisions of their ministers to the Central home ministry.
When this cut the government off from feedback on the implementation of its policies and decisions – and forced Kejriwal to delegate the task of information gathering to his MLAs by appointing them as unpaid parliamentary secretaries to his ministers – the Election Commission, suddenly found them guilty of holding offices of profit and disqualified them.
AAP THREAT TO BJP
Modi’s sustained assault on Kejriwal and the AAP shows that the RSS has taken the party’s challenge seriously. The opposition could have profited from the presence of AAP but lacks the far-sighted leadership that can do so. AAP’s most unforgiving detractor has been the Congress. The Congress has never forgiven it for first defeating, and then annihilating it in two successive elections in Delhi.
Two recent interactions highlight how deep the animosity runs. When a pall of smoke from burning paddy straw descended upon Delhi from Punjab and Haryana in October, Kejriwal tried to contact Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh to set up a meeting. He received only stony silence. Kejriwal tried to contact Rahul Gandhi repeatedly to cement an alliance in Gujarat offering to set up candidates in a number of constituencies to divide the BJP’s vote and allow the Congress to win. How costly this proved became apparent when the BJP won 18 out of its 99 seats by a margin of 5,000 or fewer votes, and 9 of them with a margin of less than 2,000.
Kejriwal and his party members had made innumerable allegations of corruption and criminality against political parties, and specific persons. But their purpose had been to highlight the corruption and criminalization of politics, and not specifically the individuals alleged to have benefited from it. In doing this, they had voiced what has become a virtual truism.
The Association for Democratic Rights regularly publishes lists of the assets declared by candidates for political office, and of the criminal indictments standing against their names. Both in the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabhas, around one third of the members and a larger proportion of the candidates, have criminal records or cases pending against them. A disturbing proportion – amounting to a majority in many state legislatures – are indicted for one of the six most serious crimes in the Indian Penal Code, i.e. murder, rape, kidnapping, arson, armed robbery and the illegal possession of arms. By the same token, the declared assets of the majority of candidates bear no relationship to their earning capability, or education. And no one has any idea how much individuals and political parties spend on elections or day-to-day expenditure and how they raise this money.
Ordinary Indians do not need these statistics to understand just how completely their democratic system has disempowered them. This is the disempowerment that the movement against corruption that Kejriwal first joined was committed to fighting.
Our common sense tells us that if we separate the individuals who have been allegedly defamed from the systems that they have propped up and prospered under, then taking their names can be considered defamatory. But if they are part of a corrupt and criminalized political system – and a political party refers to them in order to draw the public’s attention to the extortion and corruption that has hollowed out the democratic system – then defamation of the individual cannot be considered the main purpose of taking his or her name. In doing so, therefore, AAP’s leaders may have been technically at fault, but not morally so, for their purpose was not to impugn and punish the individual but reform the political system.
Arvind Kejriwal is not facing 33 defamation cases because he defamed 33 persons, but because there are cases filed against him in 33 courts. Kejriwal’s decision to apologies marks a tactical withdrawal from a field of battle in which he could not win. But the dismay provoked by his announcement shows that the disempowered millions have seen it as a defeat. His opponents are jubilant, but in the long run there is nothing to rejoice about, for Kejriwal’s defeat is democracy’s defeat.
The lesson that the poor have learned from this is that they cannot end their disempowerment by democratic means. From this, it is a short step to concluding that Indian democracy is itself a sham. And from there it is only a slightly longer step to violence. The Aam Aadmi party rocketed to success in Delhi because it offered an alternative to bandhs, gheraos, processions, hunger strikes and attacks on public buildings as ways of forcing the state to accede to their wishes.
There is a lesson that the opposition needs to learn: AAP may not have the numbers, but Kejriwal has the ideological platform that the vast masses of India crave. Its appeal is to the youth and the growing professional class of the country. In this respect, Kejriwal’s personal appeal is similar to that of Bernie Saunders during the US primaries in 2016. To defeat Modi and the BJP’s brand of ‘Hindutva’, the opposition needs to work with AAP, not try relentlessly to isolate it.