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Aam Aadmi Party’s Controversial Rail Bhavan Dharna

India: The balance-sheet the day after, with some caveats

by Praful Bidwai, 24 January 2014

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The Aam Aadmi Party’s maverick ways, especially its 36-hour-long Rail Bhavan dharna led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal himself, have drawn unprecedented flak from its political opponents, the middle class, and the media: “utterly irresponsible”, “political posturing”, “descent into anarchy”, “anti-constitutional”, “holding Delhi to ransom”, “threat to the Republic”… Some commentators believe AAP has either “lost it” altogether, or has larger, devious plans for the national elections.

AAP’s supporters however see the dharna as an audacious means of citizen mobilisation to change the rules of India’s political game and bring governance down to earth (literally!)—a confrontation from which AAP has emerged a “clear winner”.

The truth is more complex. The protest’s root-cause shows AAP in poor light, but the way Kejriwal framed it and wove larger issues around it has resulted in gains for AAP. If this sounds paradoxical, recall that the demand that sparked the dharna was for the suspension of police officers who refused to arrest certain African women allegedly involved in drug-peddling and prostitution—although “ordered” to do so by AAP law minister Somnath Bharti citing neighbours’ complaints. The women were racially profiled, abused, manhandled and subjected to humiliating medical tests. Numerous women’s organisations rightly condemned Bharti’s conduct.

Yet, Kejriwal defended Bharti’s racist-male-chauvinist approach, and himself outrageously identified drugs and prostitution as the “cause” of rapes. Worse, AAP dismissed the policemen’s reasonable plea that they carried no arrest warrant, and vilified them for being complicit in criminal rackets. It must make amends for this.

That said, the dharna wasn’t remotely “anarchic”, only an unusual way of re-appropriating a public space long denied to peaceful protesters, who have been wrongly consigned for years to Jantar Mantar—and to invisibility. New Delhi must be the only capital of a democracy where public protest is so censored and invisibilised. This must change.

Nor is the “posturing” charge justified. Most leaders posture through intimidating Z-plus security, vast bungalows, red beacons and practised inaccessibility. It’s more democratic that a Chief Minister takes to the streets, works on his files, and sleeps there. AAP’s agitational methods are doubtless unusual, but so is the party itself. The middle class applauded AAP for its participatory-democracy promises. Logically, it shouldn’t now condemn it for agitating in the public interest.

Kejriwal raised two other issues: making Delhi’s police accountable to its elected government; and rooting out widespread corruption in the police. True, these were meant to divert attention from the original demand. But they are both intrinsically worthy. The second greatly appealed to the poor who are the worst victims of police corruption, and will expand AAP’s base among them.

The dharna was called off after two policemen were sent on leave, one probably for no fault of his. AAP should now magnanimously reinstate both. More important, it should reprimand Bharti for his racist prejudice and imperious misconduct, and dissociate itself from him. Showing that it isn’t overly self-righteous but open to correction will enhance AAP’s stature.

Many public-spirited citizens are backing AAP because they think it, not the Congress, can effectively obstruct Narendra Modi’s bid for power. AAP still has a long way to go: a CSDS-Lokniti-CNN-IBN poll shows its national vote is only 4 percent. A key to raising it will be AAP’s economic policies, which must be Left-of-centre and staunchly pro-poor. But the composition of its policy advisory team, with an over-representation of pro-business individuals, is at odds with this. The sooner AAP corrects this, the better.

Praful Bidwai is a writer, columnist, and a professor at the Council for Social Development, Delhi.