Guest post by SHANKAR GOPALAKRISHNAN
Over the last few weeks, the blizzard of news about the Aam Aadmi Party – and the move of many independent intellectuals and some activists into the party – has seemed like a roller coaster ride. One week we were told the world had changed, the following week that it had collapsed, and now we have no idea what next week is going to bring. But the roller coaster should not blind us to the deeper dynamics at work. In particular, there’s one that is uncannily familiar – the role being played by the English media. Those rushing to endorse and celebrate AAP should pause to consider recent events before they do so.
A good place to start is the India Against Corruption protests, which were clearly a media mobilisation. It was the media – particularly the English and Hindi electronic media – that called people on to the streets, that announced the locations and demands of the protests, and that consistently described the movement as being “universal” and about “ordinary people” (for examples, see the paragraph in this article on Times Now’s role in April 2011; or The Hoot’s analysis of TV coverage). Social media, the Sangh Parivar and the IAC’s local committees did so too, but they all jumped in after the mainstream media did, and they continued to rely on it. No other mass mobilisation of recent times, except the anti-rape protests, has received this kind of treatment at the hands of the media.
After the protests ended, IAC leaders continued to try to draw the media back, both before and after the formation of AAP. This continued until the November 2012 press conference against Mukesh Ambani, after which the media simply blacked out IAC/AAP and Kejriwal entirely. If anyone believes that the Hazare protests were covered because the media had ‘no choice’, this should be enough evidence that more was at work. The AAP leadership then set about building their organisation on the base created by the IAC protests. It appears that while they built very effectively on that base, they did not transcend it, a point that we’ll return to below.
In late 2013, as it became apparent that the AAP was growing, the English media reluctantly returned to cover it. To understand what happened next, it’s important to understand the character of the English media in India. Every class in a class divided society, and particularly the ruling class, requires an intelligentsia who helps it ‘make sense’ of the world. This group frames issues, provides narratives, engages in analysis, and otherwise provides the ideological framework within which rational action becomes possible (as opposed to just being lost in a sea of events). In India and in most of the world, the mainstream media fulfills that intellectual function for the ruling class. But in India, the fact that the most powerful elements of the ruling class operate in English – a language not spoken by the majority – gives the English media a very distinct character. On the one hand, it means that it can play its function in a more open manner since, by definition, the majority of its audience are members of the most dominant segments of society. Thus the English media can be host to brazenly blunt debates on whether and how the powerful can continue to stay powerful (such as in the recent Devyani Khobragade episode). It also means that clever political leaders can engage in mutually contradictory discourses, one for the dominant section and one for the rest, as the Sangh Parivar has done so effectively.
But this advantage is accompanied by a major disadvantage. Since the media’s function is to ‘make sense’ of the world for its audience, it has a serious problem: both literally and figuratively, most of its members do not speak the same language as the majority. Hence the English press regularly gets caught up in fake “bubbles.” Media outlets carry on mutually repeating fantasies about how “Indians” are thinking – and then get tripped up when events take a markedly different course. Elections are a particularly fertile ground for this to happen, with “India Shining” being the classic example.
The same phenomenon repeated itself on December 8th. No one in the English media expected AAP to do so well. Having been taken by surprise, the media immediately switched into its standard mode of response. As AAP came into power and started increasing subsidies, barring FDI in retail and carrying out their manifesto, editorial after editorial ‘advised’ them that this was not what they were voted to power for, that they should focus on ‘governance’ and ‘reducing corruption’, not on ‘populism.’ On the face of it, this is completely illogical. A party is presumably voted to power based on its promises. How does it make sense to say that it was voted to power for something else, and then demand that it should explicitly discard its own agenda?
But this, of course, is exactly what the media did in 2004 as well. The response is rooted in two dynamics. First, the need to reestablish intellectual leadership among its audience: “we had no idea this was going to happen, but now that it’s happened, it’s actually what we were saying all along, and now we know what needs to be done.” Second, and more deeply, the fact that the English media is after all a ruling class media: one whose owners, editors and most other professional staff originate in and operate among that class. After 1991, that class is completely dominated by some segments of big business. This does not mean that every media professional has a naked self-interest in corporate India, though many do; merely being in the same social circle is enough to create a shared ideology. If you move in a particular circle for long enough, you start to believe that its interests are universal. This then dictated the tenor of the media’s response, for, at a time when easy foreign finance has dried up, any effort to increase state spending (or, more generally, to address the needs of the majority) is a threat to the interests of big business. This threat was being tackled through the projection of Modi, who became the centrepiece of an intense campaign to take all discussion of these issues off the table. Just when success seemed close, the whole effort seemed like it was about to be derailed by the rise of AAP. So the message to the AAP leadership was clear: first we promoted you, then we ignored you, and now, if you don’t toe the line, we’re going to attack you.
At this point, Somnath Bharti chose to carry out his racist, misogynistic (and illegal) raid. The presence of elements like Bharti in a party like AAP is only to be expected, for reasons discussed below. But the AAP leadership responded with a mix of reactionary politics, public confusion and tactical mistakes. They jumped straight into the fray, and gave their Chief Minister bronchitis to boot.
Whereupon the English media went berserk. As in all successful disinformation, truth – criticism of AAP’s reactionary stand – was mixed with falsehood, namely the idea of Kejriwal creating “anarchy.” Within two days (21st and 22nd January), The Hindu, DNA, Financial Times, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times, the Telegraph, and the Deccan Herald all ran editorials attacking AAP. While all mentioned Bharti, most focused on saying the party is “anarchist”, ignoring “governance”, and – greatest sin of all – interfering with traffic. Once again, this hysterical response to the mere fact of AAP holding a dharna is illogical. Kejriwal is not the first Chief Minister to sit on a protest; practically every major State witnesses this every few years. As for “disrupting” the city, so does every public gathering, including Anna’s own protests, religious processions and – as a friend pointed out – the Republic Day parade itself. It was particularly egregious to see Modi fans attacking Kejriwal on grounds of ‘anarchy’, when their chosen PM candidate presided over three months of mass slaughter and gangrape.
But once again the hysteria masked a deeper message. It was bad enough that this party had come to power and started doing things that the English media did not want to see. Now, not only has it increased subsidies, it’s going to mobilise protests too? Don’t these ungrateful bastards realise that they were built up by the “middle class”, the “idealistic youth”, those concerned with “governance” – all code words for the English media’s role in 2011-12? Hell hath no greater fury than a media scorned.
In short, a hostile English media environment is now likely to be a reality for AAP, perhaps intermittently, perhaps continuously. The question is what impact this will have on the party. For this, we have to go back to the party’s roots. IAC and the Hazare protests were always a contradictory mix of political forces, which can be grouped into two broad categories: those forces that portray ‘corruption’ as a betrayal by individuals of a basically good system, and those who react to ‘corruption’ as the most obvious symptom of a system that has completely failed. The former tendency was represented by the Jan Lokpal demand, and the latter by the repeated talk of (though as yet no real action on) greater direct democracy. It is also the latter that is the source of AAP’s progressive impulses. These contradictory tendencies were initially welded together by the media, not by any organisational process. This contradictory base then seems to have been built up into AAP.
At their heart, these two tendencies have a totally incompatible understanding of power: they have no common answer to the question, is the current distribution of power in Indian society a good thing or not? Since politics is essentially about power, this is the fundamental question for any political party, and this is also the fundamental question that divides progressives from conservatives and reactionaries. For this reason, it is a mistake to characterise AAP as either progressive or reactionary – at present, it is both. Contrary to what some (not least AAP’s leaders) have been arguing, this is not a good thing. It is one thing to not have a fully worked-out “ideology.” But, from the evidence that the rest of us have, since they have no agreement on the basic question of power, AAP’s members seem to have no collective, shared understanding on any issue at all– among themselves, leave alone for the outside world. If this is true, it is not surprising, for the party cannot develop any shared understanding without being forced to confront the basic internal contradiction at its heart. Instead, AAP seems to be relying on slogans and catchwords, since these can mean different things to different people. On the one hand this means that they have made an undoubtedly enormous contribution to opening space for discussion of basic needs and electoral reform. But it also means that there is then no way to deal with reactionary and autocratic elements like Bharti. There are no shared norms of politics which they can be held to. Instead, the party lurches from knee jerk response to knee jerk response. The roller coaster is real, but no one is at the controls, and no one knows what the controls are.
A number of left-leaning intellectuals and activists have claimed that they need to join AAP precisely to ‘resolve’ this, in order to “swing” the party towards a consistently progressive position. This does not seem likely to happen. A political party is not a sports tournament that can be swung one way or the other. In this case, the backbone of the party – the people who manage membership, handle recruitment and publicity, and mobilise actions – include a disproportionate number of middle class and elite professionals. The eventual fate of AAP is going to be determined by this backbone, not by the statements of the leadership. It is not clear how such people will respond to hostile media campaigns. After all, the media is not going to attack AAP through reasoned political debate. It will attack, and has already started attacking, with the claim that it is a bunch of fools, maniacs, power hungry leaders and naive idealists. In short, it will rob the party of the halo of being “good” in the eyes of the elite. If the party had an internal shared understanding of challenging social power – one that would allow it to build up a coherent mass base and respond unitedly to elite disapproval – it could fend off such an attack quite easily, as so many of India’s political forces have done.
But does it? And if it does not, what is going to happen to it? Is it going to swing rightwards (as certain indicators, such as the composition of its ‘economic policy committee’, already indicate it is)? Is it going to lose its key organisers? Is it going to split into multiple factions? People endorsing AAP, and rushing to join it, should think about these questions before they do so.