Can AAP respond to the concerns of India's Northeast?

At the launch of the Aam Aadmi Party's symbol, the broom, in New Delhi. The AAP's focus on civic issues and corruption, and absence of a larger ideology based on a larger political canvas may be inadequate to respond to the issues and concerns of Northeast India. Photo: PTI
Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader Akhil Gogoi at a rally in Guwahati early in 2011. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar
KMSS protesters attack city buses in June, 2011 in Guwahati. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar
Arvind Kejriwal offers juice to Gogoi to break his fast in Guwahati in 2012. Gogoi was on an indefinite fast demanding scrapping of proposed mega dams in the northeast. Photo: PTI
With the Aam Aadmi (AAP) Party aspiring for a larger role in national politics, Kaustubh Deka turns the spotlight on India's Northeast. The seven sister States throw up significant and unique challenges, which are concerns that have existed in a problematic engagement with the Indian political system. Will the vision of the AAP be imaginative enough to respond to these concerns, he asks, as the party makes its entry into the region, which faces a significant lack of political choices and alternatives.

I was in Aizwal, the capital of the tiny hill state of Mizoram in India’s Northeast, when Arvind Kejriwal took oath as the Chief Minister of Delhi on December 28, 2013. It was a cold morning and the national media was in a near frenzy covering the grand finale of the political saga that was the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The entire nation has been swept under a wave of political change and is stirred up by new possibilities. This is what sections of the television and print media told us. However, sitting in the peripheries of the nation state, in the hills of Aizawl, Kohima, Shillong and few other cities, the predominant mood one could sense was one of apathy and indifference to the AAP phenomenon. Has the media once again generalised, centralised and simplified matters? And does this initial nonchalance in most of the northeastern States towards this much talked about phenomenon signal some formidable challenges glaring at the party’s claim and quest to be a national factor? As I argue, probing these issues throws up some vital critiques of the dominant party system and electoral culture in India.

The Paradoxes and Contradictions of Nationalism and Other Identities

The essence of federalism in India is strongly rooted in its Constitutional vision, an understanding that has significant appeal among the regional units, especially in the States in the periphery of the nation. In fact, many argue that the multinational character of Indian polity with this crucial thrust on federalism has been a cardinal feature holding the union together. Thus, for any party with a national aspiration (let alone a nationalist agenda), the first challenge is to formulate a vision that can speak to the entire nation spanning across its diverse units. The facelessness of the aam aadmi (common man) in India that is being projected and celebrated by the AAP is then bound to confront the projection and conception of the aam aadmi in many states of Northeast India — a region that is burdened with an overpowering sense of history and identity. The nationalist rhetoric of the AAP then runs into some blind spots when it comes to questions of the nature of the nationalism. Ethnic politics in Northeast India has, after all, problematically co-existed with Indian nationalism, not outside it. It is a symptom within and not without. A critique of such politics and a vision for an alternative, therefore, will have to address the prevalence of a certain kind of State-led nationalism across the region and the way the nation state has been operating here.

As Hiren Gohain, a social commentator and critic from Assam, reflects: “Apart from commercialisation of their resources, most struggles in the Northeast are in reaction to the homogenising trend of the dominant ‘one state, one nation’ thinking of the Indian state and the tendency to take the degree of Aryanisation as the measure of Indianisation.” 1 Regions that had complained about their positions in the Indian political system have often pointed out the inconvenient truth about their experience of the nation building process in India — the presence of the State is considered to prove the presence of the nation and not the other way round. 2 AAP, as it enters the Northeast, promises to establish participatory democracy in the region. Though in the face of existing criticism and wariness, the first and foremost task should be to sort out the terms, conditions and nature of that participation.

Going by the initial press release of the newly formed district committee of the AAP in Assam, one can see that the party has taken up the agenda of development-oriented change right away by calling for measures like opposition to the proposed power tariff hike and hike in the load charge in Assam. 3 Support of the peasant body, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), in the elections would give them some mass base, borne out of recent social movements in the region. The KMSS has been at the forefront of the anti-big dam agitation in Assam for some time. However, gradually, the KMSS has distanced itself from the AAP describing its election support to the party’s Lok Sabha candidate as conditional and of providing moral support from outside. The bone of contention seemed to be the alleged lack of clarity of the AAP leadership on issues pertaining to ideology, bereft of which, KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi warned that the AAP would go down the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) way in Assam. 4 The AGP is a regional political party that commanded sweeping electoral victory as newcomers, amidst a lot of mass euphoria in Assam in the mid 1980s, but had subsequently gone on an electoral downslide. Critics attribute lack of ideological clarity and poor vision as the main contributing factors.

The AAP has adopted a pragmatic stance in emphasising in their press conference in Guwahati that “though [the] AAP is a national party, we believe in the federal system and decentralisation of power.” 5 Similarly, in their opening press statement while forming the Manipur committee, the party stressed that “AAP would also be involved in State issues, and it would relentlessly commit to work for the common issue of the Northeast”, besides emphasising its vow for power decentralisation. 6 Interestingly, similar pragmatics on the part of the AAP is on display in other parts of the country as well. When the AAP proposed an alliance with the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) in Tamil Nadu, the party reportedly conceded that Tamil nationalism can co-exist with Indian nationalism. 7

Thus the AAP is making an effort to strike a balance between giving up identity politics while retaining some relevance of regional/ethnic identity. The pressure is known and felt already. Ideologue and prominent member of the party, Yogendra Yadav, has been clear in stating that “though the AAP is a national party, we believe in the federal system and decentralisation of power”. Further, the so-called politics of nationalism is criticised. “On the one hand, we have politics of so-called nationalism, which refuses to see any distinction, which refuses to acknowledge and recognise that different communities have specific concerns, problems, deprivations and disadvantages. That politics of nationalism wants to homogenise the country and see any acknowledgment of specific problems of a community as a deviation from and betrayal of nationalism,” Dr. Yadav commented in an interview published on the Internet. 8

It is obvious that the anti-identity plank of the AAP is going to collide with the predominant identity politics in the north-eastern region. Hence, the effort is on to strike a fine balance. Yes, the AAP will come as a breath of fresh air to the sections in the region exasperated with politics based on identity but the overwhelming reach of identity politics will not be that easy to counter. What about places where ethnicity, not class, drives the political bandwagon? Moreover, some veterans involved with social movements and social mobilisation in India, like Sandeep Pandey, have questioned if real swarajya (self-rule) can be achieved by focusing only on the issue of corruption and by ignoring the fundamental inequality existing in our polity in terms of manifold discriminations based on caste, wealth, gender and so on. These are discriminations that a battle against corruption does not necessarily address. 9

Civic or Ethnic Nationalism: A Misconstrued Dichotomy

The pedigree of the AAP has emerged from civil society movements. It has gathered its core strength from various civil society movements in different regions of the country. Three States in the Northeast — Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have been associated with pan-Indian civil society movements and networks. The AAP is also connecting to these States through these mechanisms.

One observes that the AAP has built up its initial discourse and programmes primarily around a sense of civic nationalism 10, a vision that has a sweeping reach and also one that is against division of citizens into different identities. Who doesn’t want to actively participate in governance aimed at bringing clean water and efficient, affordable energy for all? An aam aadmi in Delhi suffers from the lack of these as much as an aam aadmi in the hills of Mizoram does. But can both these instances of groups of common people be redressed by a civic politics aimed at bringing participatory politics? After all, the party cannot seek referendums on some cases and draw away in some others. The answer, therefore, is a not an easy one. Politics is also hinged powerfully on shared memories, attachments, possibilities and many a times it has an ethnic and communitarian footing.

It is self-defeating for any political entity to focus on one narrative of change and mobilisation while debunking the other. The need is rather to spot the interconnections between multiple narratives, to understand them and then act on them. This is what the next section harnesses.

How Reachable are the Youth of the Northeast for the AAP?

In recent months, I visited several university campuses in Northeast India, meeting students and different groups and unions trying to understand how the young people in the region look at elections. What motivates them to vote or perhaps keeps them away? Conversations with youth organisations indicated that issues of resource control and autonomy hold topmost priority as key election issues for them. Interestingly, the issue of corruption in public life has come to occupy a priority in their agenda too and in this the organisations are explicit in their acknowledgement to the waves of consciousness created by the anti-corruption movement in certain bigger cities in India in recent times. Prominent student-youth groups in Assam, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), have been active participants in the India Against Corruption (IAC) initiative. However, the AAP is yet to gain similar legitimacy and currency.

Similarly, preliminary analysis of the data collected through 700 interviews with students across seven universities in the Northeast shows that corruption in public life is one amongst the many significant factors influencing their voting choice and a factor that comes only after other perceived electoral influences like issues of development, solution to the immigration problem and resolution to the insurgency and security crisis.

Moreover, both for the organisations as well as individual students, the influence exercised by the family and wider community is found as one paramount influencer of voting. Here ethnic considerations seem to have an edge over civic associational life.

Thus, politics and political choices of the youth in the Northeast seem to be scripted in a certain language of synthesis between a politics of belonging and the politics of everyday life resulting in a mixed bag of potential influences. It is crucial to note this synthesis. It indicates that people make sense of their ethnic beings and identity through a process of everyday experiences as citizens of a particular region or State. It, therefore, gives a cue to political actors on the need to recognise the connections between these apparent dualities.

The Northeast remains the testing ground

When it comes to Northeast India, there are few univocal, unambiguous policy responses the party has to draft that would largely influence its reach in this part of the nation:

• A clear stand on the question of resource entitlement and land rights in the Northeast, especially in the light of proposed mega development projects;

• A clear stand on AFSPA and a larger security vision aimed at reducing violence;

• A clear position on the issue of illegal immigration.

As a political unit, the north-eastern region has never been a decisive factor in national politics. The total tally of Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha from all the north-eastern States combined comes to a meagre tally of 25, whereas for the Rajya Sabha, it is an even smaller strength of 14. Contrast this with the number of policy makers from bigger States like Uttar Pradesh, which has 80 MPs, followed by States like Maharashtra with 48 MPs, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh with 42, Bihar with 40 and so on. In the numbers game of electoral democracy, the region has been largely dispensable. However, the AAP promises to be a party with a difference. But will it also succumb to the numbers game?

Also, being a new party, the AAP would be extremely interested in capturing more State Assemblies. Small States in the Northeast can be an attractive proposition in this regard. One is not making a case here for why the AAP possesses an inability to make a dent in the electoral politics in India’s Northeast, nor is one claiming that the AAP would not be able to make inroads into the region. Rather, one is of the view that due to a significant lack of political choices and alternatives in the Northeast, as elsewhere, there is a tremendous political vacuum that a new party with enough political imagination and creativity can tap into. However, as discussed, the unique challenges that a region like the Northeast presents will test the very core of a national party’s vision and philosophy. The moot question is whether the nationalism championed by the AAP is inclusive enough to accommodate those concerns that have existed in a problematic engagement with aspects of the Indian political system? Can the vision of the AAP be imaginative enough to respond to these concerns? That will be the challenge for this new political entity as it seeks to enter India’s Northeast. It is a challenge worthwhile for any political entity that nurses ambitions of representing the nation.

End Notes:

1. Hiren Gohain, 'Reflection on Ethnicity and Ethnic Movement', p. 35, in K.N. Phukan and K.M. Deka Ed. Ethnicity in Assam, Centre for North- East Studies, Dibrugarh University, 2001

2. Samir Kumar Das, 'Assam: Insurgency and the Disintegration of the Civil Society' in Faultline, Vol.13., November, 2002; Manoranjan Mohanty, 'Resounding Symphony of Freedom', in Symphony of Freedom, papers on the nationality question. All India People’s Resistance Forum, 1996.

3. ' Aam Aadmi Party Forms Preparatory Committee in Assam', The Times of India, February 6, 2013 2. (Accessed on January 29th, 2014)

4. ' KMSS Decides Against Joining Aam Aadmi Party', The Assam Tribune, Guwahati, Saturday, January 18, 2014 (Accessed on January 29th, 2014)

5. ' Assam AAP Ready to Contest LS Polls', The Times of India, December 11, 2013, Accessed on January 29th, 2014)

6. ' AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) Manipur formed', E-Pao.net, Imphal, January 30, 2013 (Accessed on January 29th, 2014)

7. ' PMANE Sets "Tamil" Conditions for Joining AAP', The New Indian Express, January 9, 2014 (Accessed on January 29th, 2014)

8. ' AAP Trying to Move Beyond Pseudo-Nationalism and Completely Bankrupt Form of Secularism: Yogendra Yadav', twocircles.net, December 3, 2013 (Accessed on January 29th, 2014)

9. ' Why I’m Not A Part Of The Aam Aadmi Party', Sandeep Pandey, Tehelka.com, December 31, 2013 (Accessed on January 29th, 2014)

10. It is important to understand this vision. Because for a new political entity that tastes power in some rapid moves, their political visions can get heady and overpowering. The idea of civic nationalism has been influenced by thinkers from Jean Jacques Rousseau to John Stuart Mill, where nationalism entails that the state derives political legitimacy from the active participation of its citizenry.

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