The unfolding politics of the city is teaching the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) an ironical lesson: that there while crowds are indicative of mass support, there is no such thing as a mass of people with undifferentiated wants and interests. The crowd comes to a rally with individualised dreams and desires, and the excitement of the moment cannot erase its contradictions: a crowd is a collection of people with hostile interests. Meaningful politics — that which allows the conversion of power into improved human welfare — lies in understanding the contradictions of mass support. As the initial euphoria of AAP’s debut in Delhi subsides, these contradictions become more clearly visible.
A large number of AAP supporters want freedom from the petty corruption they encounter at the hands of the government and bureaucracies. There is a seemingly endless list of sectors controlled by the state — transport, water, health, food distribution, etc — that terrorise citizens. Clearly, AAP must address the everyday corruption that makes lives miserable. And yet, might it also not be true that a great number of employees of such bureaucracies are also part of AAP rallies? Might they also not be AAP supporters? Perhaps the employee of the water body seeks relief from the excesses of the housing board. So, an AAP rally may consists of those who condemn petty state corruption as well as those who stand accused of making life miserable for the aam aadmi. The excitement of being in a crowd masks such differences, but the task of effective politics is what comes after.
While mass support is garnered through simplifying the problem that a political party promises to solve (corruption for example), real life problems cannot be so easily reduced and simplified. Because in real life there is a never-ending chain that connects one social context to another. Consider for example, the autodrivers of Delhi who formed a significant block of supporters of AAP in the run up to the elections. Media reports suggest that the party may move to take police powers to fine autorickshaw drivers in case they refuse to carry passengers, are out of uniform or do not go by the meter. It is certainly true that the aam autorickshaw driver is subjected to a variety of arbitrary police actions. However, even before we can say ‘Arvind Kejriwal’, the hydra-headed nature of a seemingly simple problem has already become obvious: there is an even larger AAP constituency of autorickshaw passengers that does not think that such powers should be taken away from the police (and given over to the transport department).
A similar quandary awaits AAP should it be able to replicate its success at the national level. How will it address the issue of reservations? A solid rump of AAP's support base (middle-class professionals) opposes reservations as going against the principle of ‘merit’. However, there may be an equally large group of supporters — the Dalits — who may believe that ‘merit’ is a smokescreen for privileges of birth. Such privilege, it will say, cannot be wiped out by electing a larger number of engineers and IT professionals to political positions.
Genuinely effective politics is driven by a combination of out-of-the-box thinking and bureaucratic banality. If it is primarily dependent on the former, it runs the risk of becoming mob rule and gimmickry, whereas exclusive recourse to the latter entrenches bureaucratic power. Political vision consists in hewing a path between the two. Much more importantly, political vision entails the belief that a society as complex as ours cannot be justly and effectively governed by single-point slogans. Social problems cannot be solved through call centre technology and require an understanding of the contradictions that characterise the crowds that lie at the heart of mainstream politics.
Sanjay Srivastava is professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University. The views expressed by the author are personal.