India’s Post-Ideological Politician

The catch-all populism of Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party has proven politically expedient in India.

Arvind Kejriwal is not a socialist. He’ll be the first one to say this. In interview after interview, Kejriwal, a rising political star in India, consciously distances himself from any left-wing associations.

Yet the website (clearly run by a fan of Kejriwal, not the man himself) proudly proclaims that Kejriwal is a “popular socialist.” And while the Delhi manifesto of Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party is far from revolutionary, it is filled with proposals that tilt leftward: fighting the privatization of water in Delhi, building more government schools and imposing an upper limit for private school fees, breaking the stranglehold of monopoly capital in the electricity sector, replacing contract labor with permanent labor as much as possible, and empowering workers in the unorganized sector.

This manifesto was prepared for the Delhi Assembly elections, the first big test for the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (commonly known as the AAP). The election results, announced on December 8, stunned the political class, though they came as no surprise to the party’s supporters. In an impressive showing for such a young party, the AAP won 28 of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly (the equivalent of a state legislature, except that as the national capital, Delhi, much like Washington, DC, is not quite a full state).

Delhi’s ruling party — the dynastic, dithering Congress — got walloped, winning a measly 8 seats, as voters expressed their discontent with rising food prices and a series of embarrassing political scandals. Congress’s perennial opponent, the business-friendly, upper caste-dominated, Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gained the most from the anti-incumbency mood, taking 31 seats.

But Kejriwal himself scored the most telling victory, soundly defeating Congress’s Sheila Dikshit, who has served as Delhi’s Chief Minister (the state-level equivalent of Prime Minister) for the past fifteen years. Dikshit and Kejriwal were fighting to represent New Delhi, home to the nation’s top politicians. The lopsided nature of the contest was stunning: Kejriwal won by more than 30 percent. Post-election analysis revealed that much of Kejriwal’s support came from slums in the area; the working class residents of these slums, many of whom work in the service sector that supports the lavish lifestyles of politicians, had come to recognize the hollowness of Congress’s promises.

With this kind of support base, why does Kejriwal eschew the leftist label? After all, in India, unlike the United States, the words “communist” and “socialist” are not merely epithets used to tar political opponents. But perhaps “left” is becoming a dirty word among India’s political class. While communist parties have dominated the politics of two important Indian states and played key roles in others, they hold little sway nationwide after twenty years of neoliberalism. The country’s largest left party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), is communist in name only — the demands and capitulations of parliamentary politics have long drained it of any truly transformative potential.

While the “mainstream” left in India is largely moribund, the Maoist rural insurgency in central India grinds on. There is significant debate within the Indian left on the efficacy and implications of this guerrilla warfare, but those in power are happy to label dissidents of any kind as “Maoists” in order to crack down on them with the full force of the state. Between the Maoists and the parliamentarians, there are many active, inspiring left movements, but these have less of a hold in the country’s political imagination.

Perhaps it is CPI(M)’s failures or the connotations of dangerous Maoists that led Kejriwal to reject any association with the Left. For a man trying to build a political career, this may be a wise tactical move. Despite the gendered name, Kejriwal’s party of the common man claims to speak out for the masses who have been the victims of corruption and state-industry collusion. A key player in the anti-corruption protests that erupted in India in 2011, Kejriwal parted ways with that movement’s leader to try to turn the inchoate anti-corruption agitation into an organized political force. His platform calls for embracing direct democracy and fighting the power of big corporations in bed with top politicians.

But, on closer inspection, Kejriwal’s rhetoric suggests that he is not just coyly rejecting the leftist label while building a left-wing movement. His is a catch-all populism, capitalizing on popular discontent and welcoming all comers. In reaching out to the businesses classes, he has sung the praises of commerce and industry, and has insisted that “99 percent” of businesspeople are the victims, not the perpetrators, of corruption. Although opposed to some particular cases of privatization or corporate malfeasance, he sees the root cause of India’s problems as the corruption of the country’s political class — ignoring the much wider net of economic and political forces that entrap the “common man.”

One of the AAP’s main ideologues, Yogendra Yadav, a socialist, is clearly trying hard to bring a more structural analysis into the AAP’s policies — insisting, for example, that “corruption” is actually a symptom of the country’s deeper structural flaws. But the rhetoric of corruption has more often relied on a middle-class moralism, with the suggestion that tough enforcement and moral rectitude will solve the problem.

So we should take Kejriwal at his word when he says he isn’t a leftist. But he also insists his political philosophy is grounded neither in the Right nor the center. In this, Kejriwal’s tone is reminiscent of 2008 Barack Obama. (In fact, he has cited Obama as an inspiration, and his campaign benefited from savvy use of social media, crowdsourced fundraising and a committed group of grassroots volunteers.) He is full of hope and change, ready to clean up the dirty political scene by focusing on solutions, not tired ideologies. Unlike Obama (wisely, given the current political climate in India), Kejriwal doesn’t promise to cross the divide and work with his opponents; he’s more of a pugilist, and delights in hurling accusations at Congress and the BJP alike. Still, his overall approach to governance seems Obama-esque: he wants to usher in a new era of post-ideological, pragmatic, transparent governance.

The concept of the post-ideological is, of course, fundamentally vacuous. The AAP says it is against rigid, unwavering doctrine, but this is mere common sense — an empty platitude with which almost no one could disagree.

But while the party’s “post-ideological” stance may be linguistically meaningless, it has certainly been politically expedient. While creating the facade of technocratic competence and reasoned good governance, post-ideological politics (along with its related phrase “the end of history”) has been used as its own ideology to suggest that there’s no need or possibility to question, much less attempt to restructure, the current socioeconomic system. We’ve seen how the ideology of post-political hope and change has worked in the United States: Obama’s “post-political” approach has been, in reality, a strong affirmation of the free market, in realms as disparate as healthcare, education and finance.

But the Obama-Kejriwal analogy can only be taken so far. Unlike Obama, Kejriwal is coming from outside his country’s dominant two parties, and India’s parliamentary political system means that third parties can make a significant impact on both regional and national politics. The success of the AAP in the Delhi Assembly elections has threatened the political mainstream in a way that Obama’s victory hardly could. Congress party officials, sheepish, have admitted that they have much to learn from the AAP. And commentators have made much of the AAP’s penchant for upending conventional political wisdom by refusing to give handouts like cash and booze before elections, and by largely eschewing identity politics.

The party has tapped into an idealism and a genuine desire to build a better political system, and it has shown that these altruistic feelings can translate into strong election results. But this momentum will likely result in a rapid rightward drift if the party continues to cling to its “post-ideological” approach.

The AAP is at a crossroads. The party’s initial support base skewed heavily towards the middle class, with significant support from well-off Indians living abroad. But recently, the party has mobilized considerable working class and lower-middle class support, mirroring its shift from a narrow focus on government corruption to a broader engagement with issues like corporate malfeasance, privatization of public services, and the prevalence of contract labor.

The party is looking to become viable nationwide. So far, it has succeeded by appearing to be all things to all people, promoting broadly popular measures and underplaying the many tensions and rifts in Indian society. Certainly this is preferable to narrow, cynical identity politics. But India’s very real conflicts, including heightened class conflicts in the neoliberal age, cannot be swept under the carpet indefinitely, no matter how much the rhetoric of post-ideology is invoked.

The immediate political future of Delhi is uncertain. Since no party won an outright majority in the Assembly elections, and since no party is willing to form a coalition, it seems likely Delhi will be placed under central government rule until a fresh election takes place. If this happens, and if the AAP can build on its strong start to win the next elections, its troubles will be far from over. Arvind Kejriwal and his party will be forced to confront the serious contradictions, both philosophical and practical, of post-ideological governance in a highly ideological world.