A disturbing phenomenon

Print edition : January 24, 2014

An AAP supporter with a poster which reads this "time the vote is against corruption", at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi on December 28. Photo: Shahbaz Khan/PTI

The problem with the AAP’s political discourse is that it does not attack the structures of property and power underlying the problems in Indian society.

THE AAM AADMI PARTY (AAP), BY ALL accounts, is led by persons of probity and integrity who have managed to attract support not only from the newly affluent middle class, au fait with Facebook and Twitter, which has become so vocal and visible in Indian cities of late, but even from the poor. It has kept the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at bay in one of its strongholds, Delhi, which would have otherwise been voted to power at a time when the neoliberal policies of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government are causing havoc through inflation and unemployment. And yet, notwithstanding whatever instrumental usefulness the AAP may have in the short run, its emergence cannot but be a disturbing phenomenon for an obvious reason, namely that its appeal to the people is directed entirely to their sense of morality rather than to their intellect.

This is dangerous on two counts: first, such an appeal, entirely to a moral sense rather than to the intellect, is anti-democratic in itself because the essence of democracy is to make the electorate think about issues and take informed decisions; and second, it exempts morality itself from being susceptible to the exercise of the intellect, and hence makes it open to Talibanesque interpretations. Its basic opposition is to “corruption”, or bhrashtachar, a portmanteau term that can be interpreted in all kinds of ways, including in ways that can throttle individual freedom. You are liable to be called bhrasht if you lack piety, or if you display joie de vivre, or if you cohabit with a person of the opposite sex without getting married, or if you drink alcohol, and so on. I am not for a moment, of course, suggesting that this is what the AAP is saying, but the exclusive discourse of “morality” is fraught with serious problems. The AAP is inaugurating a discourse that is potentially dangerous. This was the misgiving that many had with regard to the movement of Anna Hazare, who was actually quite culpable on this score; the misgiving persists with the AAP.

Simple lifestyle

I must warn here against a possible misunderstanding of what I am saying. I am not arguing against a simple lifestyle for political leaders such as what the AAP, with its “moral” concern, is attempting to introduce among its Ministers. On the contrary, simple living that brings political leaders closer to the people is essential in a democracy. It has always been particularly valued by the Left: after the Bolshevik Revolution, for instance, it was decreed that no functionary could obtain a salary higher than that of a skilled worker; in India, notwithstanding occasional aberrations that may have crept in of late, Left leaders have been renowned for their unostentatious personal lifestyles. But such simplicity, or proximity to the people, is deemed necessary for the Left precisely for understanding their conditions of life, that is, precisely as an aid to intellect, not as a virtue to be prized per se, to the exclusion of any intellectual praxis.

The Left has never made a point of appealing to the people, even obliquely, to vote for it on the grounds that its leaders’ lifestyles are simple. It has always endeavoured to appeal on the basis of its theory. In fact, the Left would generally consider it duplicitous to obtain people’s support for its theoretical position on the basis of the simplicity of the lifestyles of its leaders. But since the AAP does not articulate any theoretical positions, it bases its appeal entirely by invoking such “moral” considerations; and that is a very different matter.

Secondly, there is also a case for a simple lifestyle of political leaders (and others) on purely economic grounds, that is, better deployment of public financial resources, and the promotion of an ethos of egalitarianism. But any party that believes in this argument must by the same token argue for increasing taxes on the rich, for ignoring the so-called “disincentive effect” that such progressivity in taxation may have on “investment” and “growth”, and for not caring about whether such taxes drive away foreign finance capital. It must, in other words, be a party that stands for all that the pursuit of egalitarianism in the realm of the economy demands; the AAP in public pronouncements has never gone into these questions. Its invoking of an unostentatious lifestyle, in short, has never been intellectually grounded, which only underscores the point that its appeal is to a sense of morality per se rather than to the intellect.

The contrast with Gandhi could not be sharper here. Gandhi meticulously provided arguments for all the practices relating to his personal lifestyle, including his use of the charkha. He did this inter alia, when he was challenged by Rabindranath Tagore, in his correspondence with the latter. But the point is that he had worked out an entire theoretical system of which even his personal lifestyle was an integral part, which is not true of those who claim to be his followers and have been active in the anti-corruption movement, and its sequel, the AAP.

Lack of theory

The question that would obviously be raised here is why single out the AAP for its lack of theory? There are vast numbers of political parties in India whose leaders are not concerned with any theory, and are engaged exclusively in personal aggrandisement, and, even worse, criminal activities. Surely, compared with them the AAP’s insistence on public morality and an unostentatious lifestyle represents an enormous advance. But the AAP is singled out precisely because it claims to be a party with a difference, which is trying to rid Parliament and the political arena of the “rotten elements”. It is generating a hype just as Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption agitation had done. If the AAP was a mere empirical entity that happened to get 28 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly, then it would not be worth writing about. It deserves closer scrutiny precisely because its ambitions are larger, which is why we must examine the political discourse it is inaugurating. And that discourse is one where a certain manner of acting “morally” is not meant to spread a particular weltanschauung. It is not a medium through which a certain message is being spread. “Morality” itself, whatever it may mean, and in all its nebulousness, is the message. The medium is itself the message, which is precisely where the problem lies.

Almost trivially, every problem can be reduced to a problem of “immoral living”. Since “corruption” can be a hold-all explanation for every failing in our society, and since “corruption” can be identified with “immoral living”, every failing in our society can ipso facto be traced to “immoral living”. The prevalence of caste discrimination, for instance, can be explained in terms of the fact that the administration is too “corrupt” to implement measures against caste discrimination. The prevalence of hunger, likewise, can always be explained by the fact that the government is too “corrupt” to garner food stocks and feed the hungry, and so on. And what is more, these are not propositions that are in any sense obviously false. The problem with them is not that they are false but that they are banal. The underlying structures of property and power and the need to tackle them to overcome the problems in our society do not figure in this discourse. Just as nobody can quarrel with the enactment of anti-corruption laws, even though it is banal to believe that this is all we need to overcome corruption, likewise, nobody can dispute the role corruption plays in perpetuating our problems even though it is banal to believe that overcoming corruption is the panacea for our problems.

Such simpliste perceptions, however, are often very useful in uniting lots of people around the party that propounds them. This is so for at least two reasons: first, such perceptions correspond to the actually prevailing empirical understanding of the people, without in any way attempting to contest, challenge, alter or enrich that understanding; and second, they gloss over the underlying sources of conflict among the people whom they unite, precisely by glossing over the issues of property, power and privilege that divide them.

Whether one is a supporter of Narendra Modi or the Congress or even the Left, one would be opposed to “corruption” and hence readily vote for a party that is crusading against it, even though while doing so one may violently differ on every other issue from others who are also doing so. And this is exactly what has happened in Delhi: among those who voted for the AAP are not only some supporters of the Left and large numbers of former Congress voters, but a very substantial number of persons who are votaries of Narendra Modi and make no secret of their desire to vote for him in the parliamentary elections.

Blunting class contradictions

One can go further. Uniting diverse and even antagonistic elements under one umbrella by using a portmanteau slogan like “anti-corruption” has the effect of blunting class contradictions. Some would interject here that since the Left’s task is to sharpen class contradictions, any such blunting only shows that it has been unequal to its task; but the point here is a different one, namely, that AAP-type movements do have this role of blunting class contradictions, no matter what the circumstances that conduce to their playing this role.

Of course, it can be argued that since corruption is inextricably linked in today’s India to the ongoing process of primitive accumulation of capital unleashed by neoliberalism, a movement against corruption, even if it begins by blunting class contradictions, would, if it remains true to its purpose, inevitably take on an anti-capitalist character. This is certainly one possibility. Equally possible, however, is the fact that it may go in the very opposite direction: having run into a dead end in its pursuit of one particular trajectory, it may, instead of raising the pitch against capitalism, intensify its “moral” crusade, and raise the “moral bar”, as it were, in which case it may keep strengthening the bourgeois state and cause growing encroachments upon individual or even class rights. To be sure, such an adverse shift may not occur under the current leadership of the AAP, which appears rather Left-inclined; but the direction of a movement often develops a spontaneity beyond the control of its existing leadership.

Some would say that portmanteau slogans, such as “anti-corruption”, are precisely what are historically possible in today’s context since they are what attracts the youth; that appealing to a “moral sense” rather than to the intellect is a precondition for the success of any movement today, when the younger generation is disillusioned with “grand narratives” like Marxism that attracted their forefathers. But this only amounts to saying that what the Left wishes to do, and what the AAP has succeeded in doing are two very distinct things, that just as in a period of rising communal tensions the Left does not become communal in order to become “successful”, likewise in a period of indifference to Marxism, the Left does not abandon Marxism, and appeal instead to “moral” concerns, rather than to the people’s intellect, around some hold-all category called “corruption”. It would be disastrous in short for the Left to consider the AAP to be the model of what it should be doing. It certainly has many things to do to set its house in order, but emulating the modus operandi of the AAP is not one of them.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor