Thursday, April 17, 2014

The future and AAP: Shiv Visvanathan

One of the most magical moments of this election, the moment when people saw politics once again as an act of faith and hope, was the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party. The story of AAP is not just its story, it is the story of these people reinventing politics and themselves

I want to begin with a story. Last night, I received a phone call from a friend of mine. She told me that she was on a truck heading for the Kolar Gold Fields to campaign for a friend who had joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). She hinted that AAP there spoke a different dialect from AAP in Bangalore or Varanasi.
AAP, she claimed, was a collection of dialects, a set of murmurings, whispers and silences. She did not use the word voice claiming that social scientists had wrecked the meaning of voice, divorcing it from speech. AAP, she claimed could be an amplifier of murmurings, little fragments of protest scattered across the landscape. Her candidate, Ramiah would not get the attention that a Nandan Nilekani commands but it is precisely why the former is important. AAP, she and others claim, is not a taproot like the Congress, or the CPI(M) or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); it is like a rhizome ready to spring anywhere and connect to anything. In an organisational sense, AAP is not a hierarchical party, with a centralised voice. In recreating the idea of empowerment as an enabling exercise, AAP has to continue to be inventive. Murmurings were her label for the new politics. She referred to it as the politics of humility because it captures the power of small protests. Empowerment, she said, begins with the marginal, or the forgotten; it has to entice the music of politics out of the silences of our time. Politics takes storytelling to realms beyond the formal by translating the “murmurings” of our age, the still inarticulate protests of our time. The beauty of AAP is that it is full of surprises. It realises that the conscience of politics will come from these people.
I realise my friend was right. One of the most magical moments of this election was the rise of AAP. I am not referring to Mr. Kejriwal only but the AAP effect, that magical moment when people saw politics once again as an act of faith and hope. Thousands of people including students, retired professionals, journalists and housewives saw in AAP a new phenomenon which renewed their faith in citizenship. In fact, the story of AAP is not just AAP’s story, it is the story of these people reinventing politics and themselves. AAP may not win many seats but it is an exemplary exercise. It will continue to reinvent itself long after this election is over. It is a chrysalis for the future.
This essay asks itself what the directions in which an AAP can create new worlds and possibilities could be.
Incompleteness of citizenship
In reworking politics, it questions old classifications. It realises that citizenship is not a fully hatched word like a large ostrich egg. It is a growth, a promise, a hypothesis which has to be tested. Citizenship is not a guarantee of entitlements but a promissory note. What AAP has to emphasise is the incompleteness of citizenship. It is the recognition of the fact that the refugee, the scavenger, the nomad, the subsistence farmer, the pastoral group, the fisherman and others in the informal economy constitute over 70 per cent of India and lack rights or even a temporary claim to citizenship. To reinvent democracy, AAP has to retain the mnemonic of the informal. In challenging the temporariness of citizenship, AAP creates a durability, a competence around the fragility of the informal threatened by clerks, police and goons. Empowerment is a way of going beyond these obstacles to rework cities, offices, hospitals, villages and technologies.
Learning from Gandhi
The history of AAP begins with the politics of body because the body is the real site for politics. In claiming the body as a vehicle of being and protest, students discover the violence of the state and vulnerability of their bodies facing water cannons, stones or lathi charges. The body gives politics an immediacy which fine-tunes protest. It is a site for struggle. The body also prevents politics from straying into the abstractions of ideology or policy. It is a statement of presence, of sensing politics and suffering as part of a sensorium of sounds, smells, touch, taste and memory. In this world, poverty can never be a statistic, but a way of experiencing the world. Poverty can never be reduced to Rs.32 a day when it is lived through the body. The body keeps politics concrete, tangible, and personal and creates a space for ethics. This much the AAP generation learnt from Gandhiji.
An experiment in politics as truth begins with the body. It is the tuning fork for understanding poverty, well-being, torture, communication and time. It gives politics the depth of everydayness as it understands pain, joy or stigma. When Mr. Kejriwal was stoned and slapped repeatedly he realised that there were other messages beyond coercion. When he communes with Gandhiji at Rajghat, he articulates a new strength and vulnerability that is profound by moving. Language then becomes critical because language is not mere text but speech and dialect. AAP realises the world of manifesto as text comes alive in speech, in orality, in gossip and rumour as the nukhad and mohalla embrace and debate an idea. Because language is playful, politics can be playful, allowing for humour, ambiguity, translation. In being playful with language, AAP can liberate politics from its pomposity, its ideological heaviness, and the hypocritical impasses it has got into. AAP has to return magic to old tired words like secularism, development, security, participation, and nation state. It is more open to mistakes as it is constantly rereads its own politics. It creates a new language of error which liberates it from pomposity. What makes AAP refreshing is the ease with which it owns up to mistakes. AAP has a more relaxed view of its role in history so it can see the comedy of politics.
An experimental party
The politics of AAP cannot be an act of storytelling in linear time as history and most U.N. and World Bank reports are. The obscenity of development is that it has no sense of defeated or obsolescent time. One needs a plurality of time to dream of diversity. Tribal time, body time, peasant time, displaced time of refugee, the obsolescent time of a craftsmen need space, voice and articulation. They cannot be confined to indifference. The nation state seeks to create a uniformity of time while AAP politics should seek to pluralise time. One cannot think of an ethics of memory or an ethics of sustainability without it. In this sense, AAP is creating a link between the ethical and the political, pointing out to the lost times in each word. History eats up myth, development destroys nomadic time, and innovation hides obsolescence. Forces like globalisation only understand speed and instantaneity. AAP, by creating a commons of time, allows for memories, silence, new tales of suffering, and new kinds of ecology. AAP in that sense is not a specific timetable but an act of storytelling, which unfolds terms of its own rhythms. This variety of time allows for little experiments all over India. Instead of a million mutinies, AAP becomes the politics of a million inventions, many of which are life sustaining. Democracy without that diversity of experiments in technology and livelihood is doomed.
Finally, AAP is experimental. As a result, it is not inflexibly tied to any ideology or any charter of the future. AAP wants politics to be full of surprises. In that sense, it is not a planned rocket but a wager. It does not need the mass leader in a fascist sense but insists that citizenship, when it is no longer passive, is a form of leadership. It takes problem-solving in a modest way realising that solutions to work are contextual and local. AAP requires a million exemplars to sustain itself as a paradigm. In doing this, it breaks the fossilisation of democracy as a fetish of rights, elections and governance. It is the democratisation of democracy that makes AAP the party of the future. I think this is why we have to look at AAP differently, expect more but expect the less predictable from it. This is what makes it the party of the future and a party with a future. 

The Hindu
April 16, 2014

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