As the summer kicks in, people's representatives are often seen scurrying for their cool drawing rooms. A wicked theory about the daily demands for the immediate resignation of the prime minister is that most MPs desire a salubrious October election this year rather than face a sweaty trawl through Real India in mid-May 2014. Yet Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are doing what most
mainstream politicians no longer want to do: risk the summer heat.
So far the AAP has an angry, anarchist, urban Naxalite image. Think of the AAP and you think of unruly folk on the streets staging dharnas outside the power bungalows of Lutyensland, or tearing up electricity bills, or voicing the kind of strident anti-corporate anti-growth sentiments that strike fear in the heart of the middle class. But whether it's in taking up the issue of inflated electricity bills, taking up the child rape case in East Delhi, supporting Sikh protesters like Nirpreet Kaur and staging agitations against Delhi's VIP culture, the AAP is playing daily street level politics and communicating with the people directly, the way mainstream politicians have singularly failed or neglected to do.
Civil disobedience Kejriwal-style has limited relevance in a democracy. While the AAP insists on an Independence-era vocabulary in naming its protests 'satyagrahas' and staging 'Gandhian' fasts against what it considers 'illegal' laws, the fact is that a democracy is constantly in the throes of elections, with a myriad forms of redressal available, with law courts and public interest litigations. A highly aware citizenry is simply not a colony governed by an imperialist. Anyone suggesting otherwise is doing an injustice to the republic's daily existence.
Thus, tearing up electricity bills or pledging not to pay them is not the answer. Instead the AAP would have been better advised to look for solutions, find ways in which cheaper electricity can be made available from distributor companies, encourage more competition. In short, press for more reforms in the electricity sector. Yet whatever the rights and wrongs of the AAP's intervention, the fact is Kejriwal remained in Sundar Nagri in North-east Delhi, fasting for approximately two weeks against inflated bills and in the end producing 10 lakh signed letters which Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit was forced to accept. Which elite politician today will go to the home of an individual afflicted with high power and water bills? Which elite politician today will bother to even explain to voters why prices of water and power have to be raised?
When a five-year-old was raped in Gandhinagar in a working class colony in East Delhi, AAP volunteers arrived almost instantly, helping the family file an FIR. The AAP was criticised for politicising the subsequent protests and for creating a ruckus outside hospitals, but which mainstream politician today bothers to visit the home of a poor family whose child has been raped? When Nirpreet Kaur, a victim of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots decided to fast against the acquittal of riots accused Sajjan Kumar, Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia fasted for a day in solidarity. If the AAP persists in its energetic espousal of peoples issues on a daily basis, as it is currently doing, it could well be on its way to establishing itself as the regional party of Delhi, a Dilli ki awaaz.
An articulate citizenry is growing across India and disenchantment with mainstream politicians - seen either stalling Parliament or facing graft charges - has never been higher. Across metros, public spirited citizens are banding together to campaign for causes from urban governance to noise pollution. Mainstream politics, dominated by land sharks, liquor barons and dynasties is a closed shop for those eager to join. The Congress remains tethered to the dynastic principle, the BJP to the Sangh Parivar's view of the world, the regional parties more often than not are dominated by single families and their coteries. Author Patrick French writes that if the trend of hereditary MPs continues, most of the Lok Sabha will be made up of dynasts in the next decade, and Lok Sabha will have to be re-named Vansh Sabha.
In this predicament, parties like the AAP remind the political class what politics should be about - a 24X7 vocation of self-made individuals, ceaseless mass contact with voters, constant communication of messages, constructive use of social media and taking up bread-and-butter issues. Pawan Kumar Bansal's nephew being allegedly bribed R90 lakh for a Railway Board post is only yet another illustration of the privileged class that most politicians now inhabit - their Gulfstream jets standing at the ready for easy getaways, their security convoys and vast bungalows cocooning them in a heady world of big influence and bigger money. Added to this is the deadening effect of gerontocracy, party leaderships are 60+ and 70+ in a country where 66% of the populace is under the age of 35. Arvind Kejriwal is still 44.
The AAP is a noisy gate-crasher in an interrelated darbar, a party that aspires to be everything that the typical 'neta' is not. In fact, the AAP are the 'anti-neta' netas, openly declaring they will never live in bungalows or use the notorious lal batti cars. Kejriwal's persona is still too angry and too subversive to perhaps attract the middle class and many feel that the AAP's tactics are one step removed from goondaism. Also, however high the disillusionment with the Congress and the BJP, it is by no means clear that the AAP is as yet a bankable political alternative.
But the AAP and Kejriwal are a wake-up call for mainstream politicians simply because of their call to ceaseless vocational participatory politics. When was the last time you saw a mainstream politician put up a list of donors on his party website or dare to speak out against VIP culture? Symbolism only perhaps, but a symbolism that connects instantly with the aam aadmi.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal