Whether you support or scoff at Arvind Kejriwal going “back to the people” to determine whether he should accept the Congress offer of support in Delhi, you have to admit that it is most certainly a wickedly innovative idea.
After all, India’s veteran party had played a hand of classic, old-style, Machiavellian strategy by declaring its “unconditional support” for a man its leader had just days ago dismissed as “the man from Ghaziabad.” The aim was clear: place the blame for a fresh election at the door of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or better still, gamble on them accepting the offer, so that they could be trapped into tripping on their own decision.
For an otherwise near-comatose party it was a pretty shrewd move. But it was vintage politics in an India that is so much more avant garde than retro. And the counter-move by the AAP — the declaration of a Delhi referendum — was typical of the status-quo smashing, disruptive energy it has come to symbolise.
I asked the soft-spoken, but always firm-minded Yogendra Yadav why the referendum should not be seen as a subversion of the electoral process. Wasn’t the vote an index of the will of the people? The candour of his answer — “Yes, we are being subversive to an extent. But we don’t care. Our aim is to make democracy more participative”— is a wake-up call for traditional netagiri. Democracy in India can no longer be measured only in spoons of voter-turnouts; it’s the meal you cook once all the ingredients are in place that will matter more and more.
On TV, Yadav was pounced on by both the major national parties for advocating an unrealistic form of participatory democracy. Some of the questions raised were valid. If in government, how often would the AAP take its policy-making back to the people? If it had to, for instance, settle the Cauvery waters dispute would it poll the people of Tamil Nadu or Karnakata and given the polarisation of views, how would it aggregate its findings? Wasn’t governance to be driven by principles of equality not assertions of popular majoritarianism? But as legitimate as the scepticism is, the sheer freshness of the idea makes conventional politics seem not just staid, but stale by comparison.
In many ways the churn in Indian politics and the pressure on established parties to re-adapt to an increasingly impatient electorate mirrors the struggle of mainstream media in an age of instant Internet opinion. Just as social networking sites are a powerful and disruptive force in the media space, the power of dissident political energy has inverted all old calculations. And just like mainline politicians have accused the Kejriwal school of politics of being near-anarchist in approach, old-world journalists have lamented the absence of editorial gate-keeping online. But in both cases, the protests are redundant. The ifs and buts, even when valid, miss the larger message- Indians, especially the contemporary generation, will cheer on the shaking up of the system and the dismantling of entrenched power structures, whether in media, or politics. Like it or lump it. That’s just how it is now.
We forget sometimes that only a couple of years separate Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal. They are both, by Indian standards, “young” leaders. So why has the Congress vice-president failed to capture the imagination of his own age group? Quite simply because, unlike Kejriwal, he hasn’t displayed any inclination for risk or innovation. Someone has clearly got through to him on the dissonance of his silence in an age of hyper-information. So, in the past week, we have heard more from Rahul Gandhi on issues and policy-making than we did in the whole year. But in itself, this is not enough.
As a symbol of the very power establishment, he claims he wants to dismantle, Rahul Gandhi must display evidence of disruptive thinking. Given that his outbursts against dynasty will always sound disingenuous as long as the top job in his party is blocked for someone from his own family, here’s the perfect opportunity to set the cat among the pigeons. Why doesn’t Rahul Gandhi rule himself out of the race for the top job at least for this election? Instead why doesn’t he say the party will conduct internal elections modelled on the US primaries to elect someone who is not a Nehru-Gandhi descendant? It has been pointed out repeatedly that till 1969 the Congress was a decentralised and democratic party. Now, even its state unit presidents are appointed by the ‘high command’. That this phrase still exists in the political lexicon of a 21st century party is in itself anathema to claims of modernity. It’s an incomplete claim to contemporariness if Rahul Gandhi takes a (welcome) position on decriminalising homosexuality without moving simultaneously on the most antediluvian political principle of all – the idea that power is inherited, not earned.
For the AAP too this could be a learning curve. Rahul Gandhi definitely needs to borrow from the new party’s anti-establishment vigour, but Arvind Kejriwal needs to understand that just like Gandhi cannot keep playing the disdainful ‘outsider’ with any credibility, a time will come when neither can the AAP. It can of course lay down a distinct set of rules for itself, but very soon, it will not be enough to be the force that brought down a wall of resistance to change. Sooner rather than later, the AAP will have to show us what its own design is for building the house of democracy.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.