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AAP is a lazy and guilt-free version of the BJP

For all its talk of honesty, the Kejriwal-led party’s identity-free identity is anything but authentic.

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A decade after the all-out media love affair with it, the Aam Aadmi Party continues to occupy an outsized position in India’s headlines. Although the Gujarat assembly elections are yet to be announced, excited pollsters have already begun to project upward curves for Arvind Kejriwal and his prospects there. Tied indelibly to the Indian National Congress, since its inception and to date, AAP is projected as the good cop to the bad cop of the Congress. If Punjab and Delhi assembly elections are anything to go by, then as the latest pretender to the national crown, AAP is forcing the grand old party into a mortal conflict with it. Precisely because of the media excitement and adulation, it is much harder to discover what the AAP and its ardent fans stand for.

The standard explanation for the rise of the AAP is accounted for in three ways: One, that it is not the Congress and therefore offers novelty. Two and relatedly, it is not perceived to be corrupt. Three, it is only interested in governance. All this somehow has amounted to the celebration of Kejriwal as an ace and astute politician. This is not only inadequate but entirely misleading. If you don’t want to read further, my main point is that AAP is primarily a lazy and guilt-free version of the BJP.

Also read: In Modi vs Kejriwal match, it’s hard to keep the scoreboard. One-upmanship is constant

Corruption and the Aam Aadmi

For all the multiplicity that India’s 50-plus political parties might represent, the map of political ideas is rather simple. With the capture of a popular mandate because of its ideology and leader, the BJP under Narendra Modi has overwhelmed the national storyline. In three words, the BJP script as it stands is: Strongman, Hindu First.

By contrast, Kejriwal’s carefully cultivated image of victimhood, modesty and, above all, ordinariness seeks to cloak his aggressive pursuit of power. If Modi is meant to be the saviour of the nation, then the aam aadmi is cast as the nation’s sufferer. The so-called ‘aam aadmi’ is meant to be the counter-cult figure to Modi. If Hindutva defines Modi, then the clarion call against corruption has charted Kejriwal’s rise to power.

But really, who is this aam aadmi? Kejriwal’s party painstakingly projects the common man as a populist victim. Stripped of his social inheritance, be it caste or religion, to say nothing of its open appeal to the Indian male, the aam aadmi could be your low-income salariat or business magnate. Either way, rich or poor, the point of their bond is their common grind against a powerful and bureaucratised State defined by corruption. This makes it all too appealing. After all, who has not suffered at the hands of Indian bureaucracy? But the moot question is, how is it that very different kinds of Indians—wealthy, middle class and the low-incomed—can all vouch to be ordinary and oppressed?

Unlike many other countries, India’s corruption is both vertical and horizontal. It is not that the Indian State is uniquely or pathologically corrupt. But its form of corruption is distinctive. Advanced and wealthy economies, as the insightful scholarship on corruption tells us, are marked by horizontal corruption in the form of kickbacks and cuts for big deals and that takes place between equals, as typified in the interface between corporates and government lobbyists elsewhere. Poorer countries with big bureaucracy have a vertical relationship whereby disempowered citizens must pay from their meagre pockets to access public goods. If in any doubt, do read Akhil Gupta’s brilliant book Red Tape, which provides a thick description of everyday corruption in the working of India’s public distribution system. India is unique in that it has extensive vertical and horizontal corruption thus binding its citizenship in a fake similarity.

This common enemy of vague but pervasive corruption has allowed AAP to become populist and in its classic textbook definition: The AAP has cut across traditional Left and Right directions or even class that marks party affiliation. This gives the AAP the aura of a popular if superficial unity. Crucially, by focusing on corruption as a victim narrative, the party has abdicated responsibility to do anything substantial about corruption. Look no further than the fate of the Lokpal Bill that had catapulted it into power in Delhi.

Shorn of a political project barring the capture of power, AAP has further created an effective sameness between different demands and issues. Corruption, energy and household bills, education, and now the media, all incite the same kind of rage and sanctimony from Kejriwal.

AAP is a sign of our 21st century times where the lingo of governance, efficiency, and transparency trumps more traditional political concerns. AAP’s political utopia seems to be administrators, both low and high, as political agents. If you mention political virtues or even values such as equality, freedom, or justice to the party’s many urban and voluble fans you would be accused of being ‘ideological’ or worse ‘privileged’.

Also read: Arvind Kejriwal is shrewd. Congress is wrong on Sisodia raid. And BJP is pushing its luck

Identity-free identity?

The idea of the aam seeks to project ordinariness as common cause and identity. This has allowed Kejriwal’s party to strategically skip and shy away from the big social questions of caste and religion. It is as though there is no such thing as society for the Aam Aadmi Party. Just pure civic consumerism. ‘Give me free electricity, as I live in X city and will vote for you in turn!’ seems the bottom line of political association. BR Ambedkar who finds favour in AAP’s symbolics, would not only baulk but also despair at this dangerous absence of society.

In an age of ascendant Hindutva and resurgent riots, only the deliberately ignorant can declare this phenomenon as the end of identity politics. Kejriwal’s strategic silence on reservations and lack of clear steer on the Delhi riots of 2020 makes this all too apparent. Yet it would be a fundamental mistake to interpret this as a lofty ideal that seeks to transcend conflict or distinction.

Instead, the AAP smacks of malevolent hypocrisy as it avoids being openly Hindu. Simply put, the party’s increasing appeal is also owed to those who are too squeamish to openly own up to the Hindu First drift of India’s democracy. Arguably, the call on identity can be burdensome and even extractive of passions and loyalties. To this extent, the AAP offers an easy, and lazy option out of the relentless calls of Hindutva, without having to own or abandon any of its principles. For all its talk of honesty, this ordinary identity-free identity is anything but authentic.

Perhaps, voters will want their politicians to be jumped-up civil servants while they continue to remain ordinary consumers of free electricity and whatnot in a bid to depoliticise the country. I seriously doubt, not least because India remains a most political society.

Gujarat, as the prized state of Hindutva, will not only test loyalties and attachments. It may also force the Aam Aadmi Party to openly own and embrace its true identity.

Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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