Revolutionary, anarchist, upstart, reactionary. These are just some of the labels slapped on to India’s youngest entrant to the political arena. After it was sworn in as the ruling party at Delhi’s Legislative Assembly in December, 2013 following a vote brimming with anti-incumbent sentiment and popular disenchantment with corrupt regimes, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has had nothing short of a roller coaster ride. That 49-day ride has come to an abrupt, yet temporary end on February 14, 2014 with party leader and anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal tendering his resignation from the post of Chief Minister.
Kejriwal’s resignation came as a reaction to the unwillingness of rival parties to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill for a citizen’s ombudsman to check corruption in the state legislature. But to observers this was a move that had been a while in the making. Plagued by controversy, infighting and lack of cohesion, the party has expanded, some would say, beyond control. Some party insiders confess that they had not foreseen a life for the party beyond December 2013. The grind of running a government without the requisite numbers may have kept party leaders and ideologues firefighting without time to organize party members and give shape to its own mandates.
The current standoff started to brew in late January in an incident that brought to the fore not just fissures within the party, but also the nature of Delhi as a city, the unaccountability of its law-enforcers and the key demographic that forms the AAP’s support base. At the centre of the controversy was a neighbourhood called Khirki extension - one of the many small, urban villages that form the capital city. Khirki had been a ghetto for African refugees and immigrants for the last three years. A decrepit area, it was promoted by the city’s notorious real estate mafia as a haven for African immigrants because of its cheap rents and hassle-free paper work due to Khirki’s unauthorized nature. But the same area is also home to many squatter colonies of migrant labourers.
The controversy was sparked over questions of moral corruption. The Africans, middle class Indian residents alleged, were peddling in drugs and sex and had turned Khirki into a racketeers den. What’s more, they also alleged the city police was hand in glove with them. The trouble started when Somnath Bharti, a lawyer turned politician and AAP representative from Delhi’s Malviya Nagar constituency, which encompasses Khirki, decided to take matters into his own hands. In a vigilante move, he raided the homes of African women who, neighbours claimed, were peddling in sex. His orders to the city police to make arrests were unheeded as latter correctly pointed out the lack of a warrant. This led to outrage and a massive two day protest by AAP members to reign in control over the police to the hands of the state government. Delhi’s unique status as capital and union territory allows that control to rest in the hands of the Central Government.
The incident, along with ill-advised, misogynistic statements made by certain other members, led many critics and party insiders to question the male dominated nature of the AAP and the seemingly xenophobic tendencies of some of its members and supporters, thus forcing some inner churning. It also brought out the anger that Delhi’s residents have long felt towards those charged with the responsibility to protect them. Most of all, it forced many of us to wrestle with ideas of a “people’s revolution”, about the need to find allies, and to constantly question the nature of those alliances.
And as it vacates the position of power it held for 49 days in the capital, the party is kicking in its heels for the political long haul – a fight for seats in the lower house of parliament at the centre. While there are worrying tendencies in some of its leaders, the pledging of support by a variety of civil society groups, labour unionists and environmental activists from across the country is a good sign that the open, pluralistic politics it professed to practice is still on its mandate, even if it proclaims that it is a “post-ideological” setup.
The following photographs offer a few glimpses of its rocky ride over the first two months of 2014.