Friday, May 22, 2015

India after AAP

The year 2014 was, perhaps, the second major watershed in post-independence India’s political history after 1977. For many political scribes of the current generation it will probably remain as the most memorable year of their career. That many of them would, therefore,  feel the urge to chronicle it as ‘instant history’ – spawning a new “Read My Book’’ genre of Indian journalism – is quite understandable. Both Ashutosh’ and Saba Naqvi’s books can be broadly classified under this category.

The first, by Ashutosh – the journalist turned activist-politician and AAP leader - has a wider sweep covering Narendra Modi’s incredible run to the Prime Minister’s office and the parallel narrative on the rise of AAP and Arvind Kejriwal. It is a flash-back or recap of events as they unfolded over 15 odd months – filling in the missing bits from his reporter’s diary supplemented with insights of an experienced political journalist.

Ashutosh is candid in admitting, he conceived the book as a journalist but by the time he finished it he had became a politician. Not surprisingly, the lines do get blurred in-between.  Thus, in a way, it is also Ashutosh’ own journey from the sets of TV Studios to the amphitheatre of politics. To his credit, Ashutosh doesn’t try to hide his political leanings and the fact that he became personally close to Arvind Kejriwal and some of his colleagues much before he joined AAP. On occasions he would even advise them on how to tackle tricky media issues (revealing Kejriwal’s high degree of dependence on and feeling of vulnerability to media). This, of course, raises the question of how Ashutosh was able to maintain his objectivity and the troubling issue of journalists consciously or unconsciously crossing the professional line and becoming a part of the political game.
Ashutosh’ description and analysis of the transformation Chief Minister Modi to Prime Minister Modi is riveting. Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect a totally balanced perspective once he takes the plunge into real politics – but it is for us readers to take it with, as they say in recipe books, a measure of salt as per one’s (political) taste.

Ashutosh clearly believes the outcome of the 2014 elections could have been very different hadn’t Kejriwal scored a ‘self-goal’ by resigning as Chief Minister. Indeed, as Ashutosh points out, many thought had Kejriwal continued as CM of Delhi – AAP might have garnered enough seats in the Lok Sabha to play ‘King-Maker’ after the elections.
Ashutosh’ explanation of why he chose to leave journalism to join AAP is not very convincing, He too repeats AAP’s favourite allegation about Modi’s nexus with big business. But, by his own admission, there was no overt pressure from the owners of the network he worked for to toe any particular political line. Therefore, one cannot quite fathom why he was apprehensive about loss of editorial freedom (any more or less than what he enjoyed through his career till then).

If Ashutosh’ was an ‘inside-out’ account of how AAP evolved within the larger political churn in the country - Saba Naqvi could have easily named her book “The Short Official History of AAP” or, by a stretch ‘’The Authorised Political Biography of Arvind Kejriwal’’.  Right from the start it is abundantly clear that the ‘idea of AAP’ had captured her imagination as did the charismatic (what some others may have found ‘enigmatic’’) leadership of Arvind Kejriwal. At the same time, she makes no secret of her deep distaste for whatever BJP under Narendra Modi stood for. The Congress in any case had lost steam and direction. Even fringe parties like BSP no longer had even a marginal utility in Delhi circa 2015. Therefore, for her AAP was not just the best choice – but, perhaps, the only choice. Therein lies the rub.

Ms Naqvi calls it a ‘’Reporter’s Book’’ and no doubt she assiduously followed AAP’s evolution at every stage and each step – right from the days of Anna and IAC (Indian Against Corruption)  Rally in Jantar Mantar.  Through this journey she developed strong links with members of AAP’s core-team –  from whom she could glean intimate details of the party’s inner workings.  But, in doing so it might appear – she dropped her guard and has been too uncritical and unquestioning in her assessment. Outside, of AAP she plays-back very few voices of other political denominations – certainly none which are critical of AAP or Kejriwal. She does quote a few anonymous sources (mostly) of BJP but only to buttress her own views.

Ms Naqvi’s original proposition at the beginning of the book is ‘’AAP...moved on principle of income groups, its focus clearly on class and not castes or communities’’. Such a strategy is not borne out by AAP’s subsequent electoral tactics. She attributes BJP’s success to getting ‘’first past the post’’ – appealing to the middle class, richer sections of society and ‘’then getting a small section of the poor’’ to vote for it – while AAP worked with a bottom up the pyramid approach. However, many analysts felt AAP’s resounding success in the 2015 Delhi Polls – at least partly - came from their mastering the electoral arithmetic well.

Like many – Ms Naqvi was impressed by AAP’s initial promise of ‘’No Lal Batti (VIP)’’ culture. However, she doesn’t comment on the subtle change in position - in their second term – when AAP Ministers are not averse to accepting the frills and perks of office. She is easily touched by tokenism such as Kejriwal breaking out into a song at his ‘swearing in’ or bringing his wife to the AAP HQ, but is silent about Arvind Kejriwal’s perceived shift in style from being ‘’consultative’’ and ‘first among equals’ to the unquestioned leader (perhaps, not ‘autocratic’ or a ‘supremo’ as some of his detractors accuse him of) leader. In talking of AAP’s various innovative ideas of governance – such as ‘Participative Budget’ she doesn’t mention how Kejriwal went through the motions of ‘Moholla Referendums’ before forming government in Delhi but forgot to have similar public consultations before resigning.

Ms Naqvi is happy to accept AAP is a ‘volunteer’ based party (not very different from the cadres of Left parties or RSS Pracharaks) but workers also need to be paid. One would have expected a conscientious reporter to dig a little deeper into the controversies surrounding the funding of AAP. Equally, like Ashutosh, her  accusations of collusion between big business (alleged to own half of India media) and BJP/Modi are a bit sweeping. She talks about Kejriwal taking on the rich and the powerful (read Ambani and Adani) but is silent about the lack of follow-through, which gives the impression of a ‘shoot and scoot’ strategy.

Ms Naqvi very discerning in observing how Kejriwal changed the backdrop from Bharat Mata to Gandhi between Jantar Mantar and Ram Lila Maidan – as he began to distance himself from Anna. However, does not see a pattern (of using people as props and then discarding them) in which Kejriwal jettisons Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan as dead-weight. On the latter show-down, Ms Naqvi clearly sides with Kejriwal, though to be fair she produces verbatim the exchange of correspondence between the 2 camps. In her judgement – “Kejriwal’s critics within the party would have been comfortable with..” a narrower win or even a defeat as ‘’that would have given them greater leverage’. Ms Naqvi believes it will be a minor blip in the history of AAP. She may well be correct.
Though a tad bit too generous in saying Kejriwal combines ‘Gandhian piety’ with ‘pragmatic solutions’, she concludes - not having an ideological baggage (and intellectual arrogance) liberates Arvind Kejriwal. She reminds us of the dialogue from Sholay - ‘Loha lohe ko kaatta hai’ Only time will tell if AAP, which she says is still ‘Work in Progress’ can redeem its promise of alternative politics. – just like Ashutosh’ question, with a little bit of temerity, which very few would dare ask – ‘how long will Modi last in his Chair ?’

PS: The review would be incomplete without commenting about the brilliant writing style of both the authors and excellent editing. In particular, Ashutosh’ book makes a very gripping and racy read – showing he’s perhaps more comfortable with long-form writing than 140 character tweets.

#Kejriwal #Aam Aadmi party #AAP #Saba Naqvi #Ashutosh #Modi #Narendra Modi

 First Published in Business Today India @BT_India *