New Kid On The Block
There is a fresh force out to upset the lucrative gravy train that has become the lot of Tamil Nadu politics. Out of the second floor of a nondescript building in Kilpauk, a motley crew of civil society activists, stockbrokers, rickshawwallahs, teachers, are preparing a roadmap for political revolution in Tamil Nadu from scratch. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a primarily North Indian party with a Hindi title, has entered the alien political terrain of Tamil Nadu on an anti-corruption plank with the 2014 General Elections in its crosshairs. Their numbers are rapidly multiplying. The movement is adding a thousand members to its rolls each day. Within two months of its inaugration, AAP Tamil Nadu has acquired a staggering 1,00,000 members, according to party sources.
A poster stuck on the entrance pillar informs the visitor that the office is open all days of the week from 10 am to 7 pm. The office notice board is plastered with newspaper clippings of the party’s historic election victory in Delhi and of the crusading ways of its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, both before and after winning the election. There is a palpable buzz going around and one can overhear volunteers grumbling about sleepless nights spent printing pamphlets and chalking up agenda points for the next day. There is a stream of people pouring in and out of the office, college students interested in becoming members, somber activists poring over documents on their laptops.
A small queue has formed near the membership counter. A lady volunteer is patiently taking down contact details and categorizing would-be members depending on their place of residence in Chennai. These will be the AAP foot-soldiers when electoral war is declared within a few months: distributing pamphlets, sticking posters and shouting slogans.
This overwhelming response towards a political greenhorn in the deep south partly stems from the culture of massive corruption that has emerged around the leading parties in Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazahagam (AIADMK). Both Jayalalithaa and M.Karunanidhi, leaders of AIADMK and DMK respectively, and their extended families have a veritable galaxy of corruption cases pending against them.
“The traditional parties are losing their voter base. Religious minorities, youngsters and people above 50 who have seen the decay of Dravidian politics are losing faith in Amma and DMK. AAP is not a political party, it is a political movement that will alter the face of Indian politics,” says one AAP volunteer, a financial advisor who is his lending his professional skills to the cause.
Like his comrades in the office and around the country, the volunteer spoke on the condition that he remain anonymous. “Just attribute the quote to an AAP volunteer”, one of them said. “And remember to add that this is a personal view and not the party line.” This suspicion of reporters and their ability to take down accurate quotes springs from a party-wide awareness of intense media scrutiny and the possible damage to the party’s image caused by any negative publicity. The attitude is also congruous with the party ideology, that of selfless service and depersonalized politics. Arvind Kejriwal himself endorsed this suspicion in a prime-time interview with Rajdeep Sardesai when he said: “AAP is in power not because of the media, but in spite of it.”
A hostile media is only one of AAP’s roadblocks in TN. It faces almost insurmountable challenges. The anti-Hindi protests that rocked Tamil Nadu in the 1950s has left in its wake a bitter attitude towards the North Indian domination of Indian politics and their patronizing ways towards South India. Some volunteers fear that the people of Tamil Nadu will dismiss AAP as just another North Indian party that has scant respect for the Tamil language and customs. The party will have to adapt itself to circumstance and tactfully tread on the slippery slope of Tamil pride.
“Another challenge that the AAP faces in Tamil Nadu is the kind of personality politics that is entrenched here.”, said a volunteer. The presence of a solid cult of personality is evident from the DMK and AIADMK posters that are plastered on every inch of available public space with flattering old photos of Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha looming large. In a state formerly led by a movie star accorded supernatural status by constituents, a movement built upon the needs of millions of nameless men and women may not catch on.
The oligopoly of DMK and AIADMK in the ownership of Tamil media can be a worrying factor if they choose to launch a mudslinging campaign against AAP. However, this has not been the case so far. “The Tamil edition of The Hindu gives prominent coverage to AAP activities. Even other regional newspapers including those owned by DMK and AIADMK have covered AAP’s election victory in Delhi favourably.”, said a volunteer.
Another volunteer, a bespectacled middle-aged man clad in a khadi kurta, runs a not-for-profit organization that finds sellers for the produce of small farmers in 5 districts of Tamil Nadu. “I have personally met with Arvind and Prashant at Gandhi Ashram, Sevagram and discussed the implementation of decentralization in India.” One of the main focus areas of the party is retaining community control of natural resources and safeguarding them from the predatory actions of a polity tainted by the scepter of crony capitalism, according to him.
In addition to well-meaning activists, AAP is also attracting people nursing political wounds and those who want to push their agenda forward but lack the political representation to do so. R.Somasundaram, a journalist with the Tamil monthly Namadhu Arasu, had travelled 400 kilometres from Puddukottai district for an interview with AAP committee members. A lean man dressed in a white shirt and sporting a pencil moustache, he carried with him a manifesto in Tamil outlining his vision for the district. His wishlist included construction of a mini-airport at Karaikudi, elimination of caste discrimination, abolishing harassment of street vendors and securing low-interest loans for farmers.
“I have no wish to acquire fame or money. I am completely selfless. I just want common people to prosper,” he said. In addition, he also claimed to be a poet, petitioner, story-teller and an intrepid jack of all trades. “My sister always taunts me saying that so many people become MPs, why can’t you? That is why I came here. I know that if I start a political party tomorrow, 27 lakh people will join it.” When questioned about how he arrived at that exact figure, he muttered an unsatisfactory explanation. The conversation sped downhill when he claimed to have relatives in the Tamil film industry who could give him a break as a hero if he desired and even a relative who held the imaginary post of an IPS officer in Karachi.
This isn’t the first time the flame of idealism has arisen from the ashes in Tamil Nadu. In the 1930s, it was the Dravidian anti-caste ‘self-respect’ movement led by Periyar EV Ramaswamy that drew the masses, mainly among the lower-castes. The movement succeeded spectacularly and gave birth to DMK which later split to form AIADMK. The ruling Congress was routed, never to be elected by popular mandate again in Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile once in power, the noble intentions and lofty ideals of the Dravidian movement degenerated into a populist policy of ridiculous proportions and a culture of pervasive corruption.
Except with the AAP, it’s not a solitary flame. Idealism is now a bonfire, a response to widespread institutional corruption and an apathetic elite. And as bonfires go, many a passerby is eager to warm his calloused hands. It will be a tremendous challenge for the party to weed out the kooks and the crooks, those using the party to climb economic and social ladders. But it will be essential if the party is to beat popular wisdom and ensure history does not repeat itself. Because this time, we won’t get fooled again!