AAP’s Referendum Good For Democracy
Dec 21, 2013
The shrill, sneering criticism of the Aam Aadmi Party’s decision to seek the opinion of Delhiites on whether or not it should take the support of the Congress to form the government is revealing of the slavish Indian mentality. We are, so to speak, servile to power, believe in the infallibility of those who wield it, inclined to entrust our fate in their hands, and accept their right to special privileges. Our notion of power is authoritarian, prompting us to tamely accept the propensity of the powerful to flout the principles they, and us, subscribe to.
Indeed, among the principles the AAP espoused before the assembly election was that it wouldn’t seek the support of either the Congress or the BJP to form a government. This principle the AAP leaders were initially steadfast upon until the two national parties offered their unconditional support to the debutant party to form the next Delhi government. Their offer was decidedly not altruistic – they believed the sheer inexperience of AAP leaders at governance would have them fumble and bumble, exposing them as a gaggle of activists not only ignorant to the mechanisms of state power, as against people’s power, but also prone to making promises impossible to fulfil.
Many AAP leaders were inclined to pick the gauntlet the entrenched political class had thrown. They believed to shun the Congress and BJP offer would bolster their charge, which the media was articulating, of the AAP being an irresponsible force, adept at criticism but disinclined to assume responsibilities. Yet almost all in the AAP were also acutely aware that to take the unconditional support of the Congress would entail deviating from the party’s avowed principle. This contradiction became sharper as the popular opinion in Delhi, because of media debates, began to shift to government formation.
Obviously, this wasn’t the first instance of a political party facing the prospect of forming a government with the assistance of its rivals, or having to tackle a situation not earlier envisaged. In almost all such cases in the past political bosses sat together, behind closed doors, to decide what would be beneficial for their outfits.
In 1995, for instance, the BJP supported Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) Mayawati as chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, and then withdrew support from her in just three months. The BJP, again, hitched its wagon of MLAs to Mayawati to form a year-long coalition in 2002-2003, disregarding the opinion of its upper caste voters who constituted its primary support base. It prompted them to shift their allegiance to the BSP in 2007, as the consequence of voting the BJP was creating precisely the situation they were opposed to: a BSP rule. In directly voting for it, they managed a share in power.
Some might even say that had the Left had taken the opinion of its voters it would have found them endorsing the suggestion of making Jyoti Basu the prime minister in 1996. However, the party bosses concluded that Basu’s shift to the Centre could prove inimical to their interests in Kerala and West Bengal. Yet, ironically, the Left took their voters for granted as they departed from their pro-peasant line and deployed state power to oust farmers from Singur and Nandrigram to establish the TATA Nano plant and a Special Economic Zone, sparking off a movement which swept them out of power. And though the General Election is still three months away, it seems the Congress is in for a debacle in Andhra Pradesh, not the least for its inability to elicit the opinion of people, and engage them creatively, on the most acceptable process for bifurcation of the state.
In this sense, the AAP’s decision to seek the opinion of people on government formation is a refreshing break from the past, of political parties mopping votes on principles they claim to represent and then mistaking the popular mandate as a licence to rule in the manner they wish for the next five years. In eliciting the popular opinion on government formation, the AAP is consciously legitimizing the decision it eventually takes.
Underlying the AAP’s decision are three other ideas. One, it is possible for people to reverse or alter their opinion already expressed on an issue, and that this change must get reflected in the party decision. Two, it is erroneous to assume that those who voted a party are in agreement with every decision it takes. Three, democracy demands constant participation from the people, and ought not to be confined to pressing the button on the electronic voting machine every five years. In fact, the ongoing seeking of opinion is the AAP’s curtain-raiser to its plans of nudging Delhiites into a participatory form of democracy.
Media analysts and politicians have greeted the AAP’s novel experiment with derision. The nub of the criticism is: Will the AAP seek the opinion of people every time it takes a decision? No, the AAP will not conduct an informal referendum unless a contemplated action deviates from its core principles, as the acceptance of Congress support decidedly is. And yes, it will elicit people’s opinion, through public meetings, on the kind of legislations they should enact, to serve certain collective goals. It also intends to devolve to the people the power to decide what development work they require.
The idea of having people participate constantly in governance is laudable. It has thrown us into confusion because we have become accustomed to vesting authority in the political class to decide on our fate, to also sit on the sidelines in the belief its members have the expertise to satisfy our aspirations, and then breaking out in fury and disgust at their failures. And because we accept their superiority, we believe they are entitled to special privileges, to power and pelf illegitimately acquired. Over the last six decades, we have seen democratic politics become the preserve of those who have exceptional wealth and command muscle-power or boast of family lineage.
This political culture has made us subservient not only to those whom we call public servants, but even in our own offices. Just what we have become was best encapsulated to me through a story the late Janata Dal general secretary Surendra Mohan narrated to me years ago. When the Janata Dal lost the vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha, Mohan returned the official car and took a bus to the party office. At the gate of the office, a recently deployed sentry stopped Mohan. “I am the general secretary,” he said. The sentry sneered and said, “You can’t be the general secretary. I just saw you get down the bus.”