By Dr Satish C Aikant
With the Aam Adami Party sweeping the Delhi polls Arvind Kejrival is firmly in the saddle for the third consecutive term in office as the Chief Minister. One should read a larger message in it. It is perhaps for the first time in the history of state elections in India that the voter has voted as a citizen and not as someone circumscribed by ascribed identities of region, class, religion or ideological inflection. Delhi is not yet fully a state and to a large extent it is the decree of the central government that runs it, but it is also a cosmopolitan city harbouring people from various regions of India making it a cultural melange mixing tradition and modernity. It is a microcosm of India where the voter preferences demonstrate a pan Indian outlook. It is this outlook which mediates the pressures of local factors as well as the entrenched political formations.
Kejriwal and his party reached out to voters on the basis of their performance and delivery in the last five years, and were suitably rewarded with their votes. But let us not forget that these elections also took place in the backdrop of the anti-CAA/NRC agitations, with Shaheen Bagh as their epicentre. In fact Shaheen Bagh as the extension of public sphere became the space for contestation of opposite ideologies even though such contestations were played out in various other places across the country. It came as a handy tactic for the BJP to run down the opposition with its trademark Hindu/Muslim, India/Pakistan, national/anti-national binaries. The BJP leaders found a good opportunity to let loose their toxic rhetoric on the public at large. Their storm troopers intensified their attacks with provocative slogans like ‘goli maro’. The ever belligerent Yogi Adityanath presented his own template of retaliatory violence to the BJP workers and added vitriol to the election campaign to create communal division. The voter, of course, proved wiser and did not buy such rhetoric. What mattered with her was not animosity but the performance of the Kejriwal Government and trust in the promise held forth.
One should not be misled by the impression that the voter was lured solely by the freebies offered by Kejrival, since even those who wouldn’t care for the freebies, the denizens of New Delhi and the so-called Lutyens Zone voted overwhelmingly for AAP as they felt repulsed by the constant refrain of polarising slogans, divisive politics and exhortations of spurious nationalism. The BJP now must realise that its juggernaut proved ineffective in swaying the voters in its favour despite its all too powerful national leadership, the assorted contingent of its two hundred odd members of parliament, cabinet ministers, and chief ministers rushed from the BJP ruled states. Their shrill rhetoric failed to resonate with the masses who wanted to hear about what mattered most in their daily lives. The vitriolic campaign proved to be self-defeating.
There are lessons to be learnt for the three major parties in the poll fray. The AAP should not become complacent as it faces the challenges of governance of a city state with its complex problems, the environmental issues, urgency of revamping the education and health services further, building up the transport infrastructure and so on. It may have to, sooner or later, move out of the cycle of granting freebies which might become a habit with the people. The social welfare measures (condescendingly termed freebies by the upper class) should only be targeted to benefit the lowest strata to bring them up to respectable living standards. Good economics does not always make for good politics; one cannot indulge in populism all the time. The Congress needs to do a lot of introspection and revamp its strategy and organisational structure if it wants to stay in the game. There is a leadership crisis in Congress. With Sonia Gandhi’s failing health, and as her prime time of heading the Congress is behind her, the party should select a dynamic leader steeped in Congress culture if it wants to revive its fortunes. The sooner Rahul Gandhi exits party leadership the better it will be for the party. He is only proving to be a liability for his party and an asset for Narendra Modi. The BJP in the national interest needs to shed its stringent and radical postures and should come around to the realisation that the voters have rejected its divisive politics. Leaders like Anurag Thakur, Giriraj Singh and Pragya Thakur need to be tamed by the top leadership. Whether it would really happen or not, if their pronouncements have the tacit approval of the BJP leadership, is a moot question.
What is heartening about the Delhi election is that the people voted as citizens, and as responsible, well informed, members of civil society. This bodes well for civil society in India since the participants in such social space acquire the ability to use reason in a disciplined manner. As well informed citizens, the members of civil society have access to social domains which have the reservoirs to empower them. In this shared social space there can be no privileged consideration for religious or other identities, and the rulers are guided by constitutional morality. Individuals are able to relate to each other open-endedly, without exclusion on grounds of religion, gender, and so forth. The decision making under such conditions remains free from coercive pressures of the state or the ruling party. Civil society generates the shared ground on which the state may then act. The expectation is that, through public debate, the space of civil society can generate shared public preferences which may then be turned into legislation and public law. The underlying assumption is that public life is shaped through the play of reason, rather than through displays of emotion, inherited identities, recourse to violence or uncritical submission to authority. Above all, civil society nurtures the idea of the free-standing individual, one who is assumed to have acquired the capacity to make whatever decisions and choices face her without heeding the dictates of an authoritarian regime. One hopes that the decisive victory of the Aam Adami Party will result in enabling conditions for this to happen. It may be premature to believe that AAP has actually charted a new trajectory of alternative politics and that it has ceased to look like any other political party. But one hopes it reaches there and proposes to the citizens an alternative political imagination.
(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, HNB Garhwal University)