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India: Violence of piety hurts AAP

by Shiv Visvanathan, 19 January 2014

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Mail Today, 19 January 2014

WHEN Aam Aadmi Party ( AAP) first arrived on the scene in Delhi, our elites suffered from anxiety.

Here was a party defying conventional expectations, and the elite felt belittled and threatened. AAP was violating its “ red beacon” norms, its internalised sense of hierarchy, its clear idea of life style and the messages of superiority it conveyed.

There was a sense of the new, the naive, the unexpected, about the party. One felt AAP was offering not just a new politics with all its possibilities but an ethical style, an ascetic style without the dogma of socialism. The first few weeks of AAP in Delhi were one of celebration, a festival of the unexpected. AAP, instead of portraying the violence and irrationality of mob and crowd was projecting the effervescence and the normativeness of the community.

When doubts crept in, they still conveyed a sense of pluralism. They functioned within the limits of disorder. An example could be Yogendra Yadav’s plea for reservation. One wondered why AAP was suddenly talking of an issue it had not flagged or debated earlier. Yadav retracted his original quote, explaining he was looking for a wider theory of justice and caring, which combined caste and class and which reached beyond current notions of inequality and marginality.


The next uneasy blip on the radar was the report on Kumar Vishwas. Rumours of Kumar’s picturesque opinions on gender and deviancy were already circulating on YouTube. His ode to Modi revealed either a past loyalty or a mercenary poet whose metaphors were for hire. Vishwas obviously was colourful in his praise of Modi. Folklore heralded him as a Modi bard.

The attack on Vishwas became more colourful as Mallika Sarabhai, a recent entrant to AAP, synthesised Kumar’s performances and the emerging picture was of an erratic, jingoistic performer, hardly the promised antidote to Rahul Gandhi at Amethi. One must add that Vishwas seemed unfazed by the attack, continuing to play the bard and activist at large. Even Vishwas could be seen as an aberration, an eccentric with colourful but questionable opinions.

By that time, deeper questions were rife. The sense of disorder that AAP conveyed projected the sense of a firecracker shooting off in all directions, creating bits of anarchy that its critics immediately complained off.

The Durbar was a disaster in crowd management and AAP opted to root its complaints through a call centre like tactic. The telephone became the technological medium between AAP and the citizen. Critics saw it as a disaster but citizens enjoyed AAP’s readiness and willingness to meet and listen to the people. Many, in fact, commented that such an encounter was unimaginable with earlier chief ministers who maintained power and the sense of distance that power evoked. AAP conveyed a conviviality of power very different from crony capitalism.

The optimism of the fortnight, however, became strained as the details of the Somnath Bharati case emerged. As a member of AAP, as a minister of law, Bharati was supposed to uphold the rule of law. Bharati however seems to behave like a local dada , an Old Testament player taking the law in his own hands, threatening to clean his area of drugs, crime and sex. Bharati and AAP seemed to be battling both the red beacon and the red light cultures of Delhi.

There is a danger here, a danger compounded by the fact that Somnath Bharati is minister of law in the Delhi Cabinet. Bharati behaved like a vigilante playing judge, jury and hangman convinced by his heady sense of righteousness.

Bharati allegedly accosted four Ugandan nationals along with a crowd and accused them of running a prostitution racket of dealing in drugs. The minister playing the local Savanarola detained them illegally, prevented them from going to the toilet and humiliated them by forcing them to urinate in public. The women in their complaints claimed they were groped, beaten, and even forced to undergo a medical examination for drug abuse. The tests were in fact negative.


What is interesting is Bharati claimed he was acting on “received information” about a house which was serving as a den of vice. What is appalling is the vigilantism, and the dense web of stereotypes that surround it. Bharati’s behaviour indicated that he felt that suspects had no right to a due process. Secondly, the stereotype about blacks and black women was obvious. Black becomes instantly suspicious to Bharati. Third, the minister seems to be convinced that the police had to unthinkingly follow his orders. When they reminded him of the procedures required even of a minister, Bharati felt insulted and accused the police of insubordination.


What added fuel to the fire was Kejriwal’s support of his ministers.

Quick to their defence, Kejriwal claimed that the Delhi Police should immediately suspend the police officers involved and he immediately threatened to conduct a dharna in front of the Police Headquarters.

Immediately, one saw two aspects of the Aam Aadmit Party that could haunt it in the future. One is a sickening sense of piety about their idealism, their sense that campaigning for the good gives them a hygienic sense of superiority. If power created a sense of distance for the Congress, piety seems to create that same sense of violence for AAP. Secondly, AAP has to be clear that corruption must be fought within the law. AAP as a vigilante crowd would be a horror.

These shadow frames haunt AAP today. As a group, the AAP Cabinet, party and fraternity of supporters needs to confront this problem. A referendum on AAP’s misbehaviour would not hurt AAP or its future.

The writer is a social science nomad


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