It’s the time to party, people!
Government caught the imagination of an electorate who thought that there would be only incorruptible men in politics. In all subsequent general elections, it has been a story of alliances and coalition governments in India. Interestingly, 24 years hence, in the capital of politics the very talk of a coalition possibility has failed to get off the block. Of course, it is no general election, still the assembly election for the state of Delhi could be taken as an important signifier of a changed state of affairs of the Indian polity.
After some six decades of India becoming a sovereign country we are dealing with an electorate with a bulging percentage made up of those who attained the voting age since the time the Bofors ‘corrupted’ India in 1980s. In a quick succession of events, within a span of two years or so it witnessed a Rajput swearing to redeem the ‘other backwardness’ of castes from their historical predicament, it saw the capital city along with some other metro cities and towns writhing in an uneasy convoluted state contemplating an uncertain future. And, to peak it all, an entire nation witnessed possibly the first televised politic with a tall man of modern India riding a motor-driven air-conditioned chariot, on a journey that culminated in 1992 fostering a fractured sense of citizenship.
The ebbs and flows of politics on a pan-Indian scale created, since those years, ever-enclosing circles of loyalty, identity and communality. The broadening of the reservation net and the rhetoric of temple-nationalism succeeded in creating enclaves of electoral constituencies. Ironically, the same period is marked by an increasing liberalisation of the economy. By the 1990s the old constituencies entangled in the idioms of Bharat-village-poverty, as tailor made for electoral success were left redundant. It was not just a changed scenario for the dominant Congress party who used to thrive in the bygone model of electoral consolidation. The relevance of Left politics as an opposition came under severe stress as the very premise of classical left mobilisation of agrarian classes became few and far between. The gradual extinction of the real landless labourers, or share-croppers was evident from the demographic pressure on land holding pattern and their near absence from exclusive agricultural work. They moved periodically to urban centres, towns and cities, spread out through various networks embedded in communitarian relations that hardly left the rural as insulated from the urban.
Two opposite tendencies prospered for two decades since the 1990s. On one hand a primordial identity based politics found anchorage among a large section of backward castes, along with competing religious fundamentalist forces carving out its electoral enclosures for aggressive political posturing. Both resting on a call to fall back upon pre-modern communitarian identities. While on the other hand, a mobile aspiring class formation steadily took shape, an assemblage from heterogeneous backgrounds- a floating mass of aspiring class. The majority of them readily left behind their uneconomic rural engagements and set themselves free from village entrenchment. The emergence of this class was intimately connected with the unleashing of a new economy, an economy that in turn is intimately connected to global economy. Hereon, the urban-rural divide became almost a matter of a bygone era. Romancing behind the mud walls become more of a literary fallback. Inequality did not in turn become a matter of a bygone era, but poverty was made more of a contested issue. At least a dream not so distant could circulate amongst the aspiring mobile population that poverty could be beaten. A growing information technology inspired communication system and the mass media could insert the Bharat inside India, while India travelled to Bharat. The aspiring new generation were more urban-bound as the accelerated pace of urbanisation followed as a corollary to the only revolution of the last century that impacted the mass in India in the widest terms, and for the first time. The heightened network based society premised on knowledge- information , at least could offer a tangible prospect to come out of the close-enclosures. The world of consumption democratized the signifiers for which this new class could compete for. As a good consumer in this new era one can enter into a relationship with one another not irrespective of their will !
The social capital of this new class of people is quite different from the hitherto urban class, who by and large constituted the civil society. The social capital is now a derivative of a much spread-out information- knowledge system. The common minimum denominator of which is to acquire the verbal skills of critical argumentation. The lack of a real democratic revolution in India essentially kept its civil society apathetic to the institutions and the political processes of the sovereign state of India, so far. But the information technology backed communication revolution compensated for such an absence. A new sense of participatory civil society one could sense emerging over the last few years. The best exemplar of which was Anna Hazare’s 2011 Ramlila Maidan gathering for days in the very heart of the capital city. No doubt, the fledging Jan Lokpal movement of Anna Hazare, his resolute satyagraha as a mode of struggle and the subsequent arrest actually enthused Arvind Kejriwal to float Aam Admi Party (AAP) as a political outfit. Quite logically it has to take off its political journey from the city of Delhi only. With an endearing election symbol it performed in the assembly election much to the surprise of the entrenched lot. It is no surprise that the critics aimed their first salvo at AAP by calling it an urban middle-class based formation, if not just a passing fad. The new social movement in new India ostensibly will have to be urban. As the rural is largely juxtaposed with the urban. India has metamorphosed. There is no marked rural population insulated into a world of landlessness, neither poverty is an exclusive matter of agrarian employment/involvement. The employable rural section is more a part of the accelerated urbanisation of India over the last couple of decades.
The withering away of the ‘rural’ is best reflected in the distinct absence of left- wing orthodox agrarian struggles which propelled the various left groups in the earlier decades. The conflict and contests pertaining to the village life are no longer to be addressed within the village boundaries. The contests are on the questions of subsidy, irrigation/power, fertiliser and support price, where the ‘enemy’ is not within the village-local but to be negotiated with the supra-local state. Of course, beyond the macro picture there are micro domains of peoples’ struggles. The sustenance of such struggles is primarily due to the disconnect of such realms with the changes of the encapsulating larger society. It is curious to see that such disconnects are socially-politically reproduced by variants of militant struggles as well. The leftist penchant for a working-class movement still inspires a lot many intellectual pursuits, but the domain of industry related production has not remained the same as it used to be during the nation-building decades. The industry-production realm has contracted since then and rendered the working-class not as the primary, sole agent of social change. The new social movement draws its sustenance from this new formation of social forces, as well as new modalities of mobilisation. It is this macro understanding which can possibly capture the nuances of AAP at the present juncture. It is typically an outcome of a new social movement which episodically occupies the public space, led by an aspiring citizen elite backed by dense social networks and galvanised by culturally resonant, action oriented symbols. It will swell around the immediate feelings of powerlessness to engage with the power and authority, that may be.
Without an appreciation of such a macro shift in Indian polity, we may tend to seek convenience of picking on the disparate, yet every-day idioms of Bharat Mata Ki Jai, or Karvachauth greetings or likes (indulged in by some AAP participants as well as leaders) as quasi-religious symbolism which served as the rallying point of the AAP event. It is true that the release of the new social energy and momentum holds the promise of broadening the boundary of the erstwhile civil society with participation of the under-privileged as individuals, over and above their embedded identities in primordial communities. Yet we may remind ourselves that the myriad Indian society has so far proved to be the graveyard of received categories of modernity. The Indian story has always sought an escape into a self-expression through the embedded structures and its institutions. The challenges of an emergent civil society is not so farfetched. But for sure, AAP has challenged the earlier understanding of political society- the domain of favourable manipulation, negotiation and transaction with the State by a large majority. This political society is the one disadvantaged due to its disconnect with the society, and at the same time which makes up by utilising the various modes of extra-institutional mobilisation available to them. The coming of AAP signals a dwindling of such a domain of power relation. As a logical culmination of RTI and Jan Lokpal activism AAP leadership (by and large) serves as a catalyst to do away with the huge rupture between the hitherto elites and the masses. A sober attempt is being initiated at its behest to engage with the institutions, processes and norms that are supposed to enrich participatory democracy. It is the alternate language of doing politics. So far, the rupture between elites and masses facilitated the contention of variously placed social forces to mitigate and contend against each other primarily independent of the available institutional mechanisms.
AAP actually is signaling the arrival of a vibrant public space to be inhabited by rights-bearing individuals. As of now, it will be unlike the old format of a party with a stated cohesive manifesto. The leadership will expectedly come from an articulate section who have engaged themselves in various activism over the past decade or so. It will not be a monolith. The common minimum denominator which realistically galvanised a larger participation of activists and volunteers has to be on the question of corruption-which has a tangible empirical reference for the people, more than the abstract enemy of ‘neo-liberal’ economy. From the centre it can only radiate, in all likelihood, to engulf more constituencies of Indian polity. The local at a ‘distance’ from the centres of activism in all probability cannot continue for long as a closed site articulating only through the archetypes of identity, ideology or community striving to implode within its own confines.
Given the new demography, pace of urbanization and hybridisation fostered and energised by intensified networking of social relation, mediated by the new media- AAP is a public event and phenomenon of the new century. Couched in the idioms and structures of politics and political parties of the post-independent decades, one may be tempted to weigh the possibilities of AAP to emerge as an alternative to dominant national parties, but such an exercise would be self-defeating as the issue is to gauge the coming of a new era in Indian polity.
For the most simple and obvious agenda of AAP has been to roll out a new sensitivity in politics tuned to the pulse of a new era. That is the idea of participatory democracy, which might sound rhetorical, but to start on an electoral political journey without succumbing to the offer of coalition and alliances, it has put a bigger challenge onto itself. For the time being it has successfully survived the sneering and smug takes that greeted them in formal politics.
The author teaches sociology at
University of Delhi