Politics is a play of opposites, encircling each other, in constant tension. Every once in a while, they come into collision, or even come to reside in the other. The apostle of non-violence died by the bullet. On a much lesser scale of irony, decades later, a prime minister who presented the 'total disarmament' doctrine to a Cold War-ridden world at the UN faced his political demise in the wake of a defence scam. History is replete with examples of personalities getting consumed by the conflict of opposing ideas. Sometimes falling to the adversary, sometimes themselves mutating, perhaps falling prey to tendencies already present—but at all times guilty of not having entirely thought through or allowed for unresolvable contradictions in the body politic.
Mahatma Gandhi's assassination stood out because of his messianic stature. But at that juncture, as an applied doctrine, his path of righteous non-violence was already in tatters before he himself fell. The smoke of Partition violence was still in the air, with bloodshed and forced migration on an epic scale. Independence for many began with a profound sense of loss, followed by dependence on the new-born state's benevolence and terms of accommodation. The proposal for a universal, non-discriminatory disarmament, of course, had a quieter death—forgotten if not discredited, in the lengthy trials around the Bofors scandal. Plenty of political journeys have traced the same graph—from idealism and the cogency of a new vision, whose full implications were perhaps unexamined in the initial euphoria, to decline and disarray in the face of complex, shifting realities.
The meteoric rise of the Aam Aadmi Party and its torch-bearer Arvind Kejriwal on the national stage on the back of an anti-corruption movement and their noticeable free fall amid the familiar bad odour of corruption allegations marks no new phenomenon, therefore. (The allegations are unproven yet—but there’s not much scope for complaining about rules you yourself have followed. What matters is the public’s willingness to invest in the image you have created.)
The world over, popular movements or new ideas of collective governance have fizzled out without reaching their declared goal. More often than not, if you aspire to change the system from within, the system subsumes you. Or the fight over who gets to dictate the terms of the new order often leads to fractures. The Indian National Congress, from its inception to its current avatar, has seen multiple stages of splintering and attrition—to such an extent that it often served as the nursery for Indian politics. Despite deep loyalties and a cadre structure, arcane ideological conflicts saw the Communist Party of India getting split into two. That is without counting a part of it morphing into the far-left as a reaction to what it saw as compromises of the parliamentary mainstream. To map further splits on that side, of course, one needs a microscope.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is the only major political-ideological formation that has not undergone any significant division in the ranks despite the usual vagaries of internal strife. Narendra Modi and the emergence of the next generation nearly brought it to the brink in the months running up to the summer of 2014. But like the old communists, front-ranking saffronites never recanted from the ranks. Simply put, their amalgamation in any other ideological formation is nearly impossible. Also their party structures have an ideologically cohesive and partly insulated from real politics that wielded the whip, honed the doctrines and operated as the moral-political certification authority—the Politbureau for the commies and the RSS for the saffronites.
These brought a measure of stability. But the AAP, just like the Congress, came about through a movement where it was a disparate collection of individuals who got together to set right a specific wrong—they came from diverse persuasions, and were not groomed through indoctrination. In more immediate terms, Kejriwal seems to have played out the Congress story— fast-forward. The speed with which he converted the apolitical activism of a disillusioned, disenfranchised middle class—centred exclusively around the push for the anti-corruption/Lokpal legislation—into a political formation came almost in response to the call of power.
Initially, he invoked a Gandhian iconography, Anna Hazare, then neatly erased it from the equation when close to power.
Then he conveniently consolidated power by going from collectivism in decision-making towards a linear, monolithic control structure, pushing away anyone who could have an appeal, style of articulation or contrarian views—Yogendra Yadav, Prashant Bhushan, Kiran Bedi or even the likes of Shazia Ilmi. By converting an amorphous rights movement into a fan-club, where Kejriwal himself became AAP, the individual assumed a position above the party and the people it represented. The elimination of any possibility of cross-cultivation of ideas at a higher level—or at the practical level, of cross-verification of the credentials of new entrants or candidates—automatically led to the drying up of the base which was yet to be entirely consolidated. The creeping up of corruption charges against the AAP began during the Punjab elections—where a seemingly youthful, energetic bunch could catch the people’s imagination but not votes.
A deeply disillusioned electorate was looking for a genuine alternative, but the alternative began looking more chaotic than the existing options—the Congress or the Akalis. Taking on high-profile targets with insufficient evidence, one could say, was an outcome of enthusiasm and lack of pragmatism. But one former loyalist having to be mollified with lollipops, another doing a Kejriwal on Kejriwal invites that old adage ...plus ca change.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express