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Dec 10, 2022

The Discrete Charms of Ideology (and Why AAP Needs One)

A party without an ideology is a party that is frankly instrumental. It can go this way or that.
Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convener Arvind Kejriwal with Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann, Delhi Deputy CM Manish Sisodia, Delhi Environment Minister Gopal Rai and other leaders during celebrations after AAP crossed the majority mark in the MCD polls, at the party headquarters in New Delhi, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. Photo: PTI

As far as ideology is concerned, Indian politics is caught between a rock and a hard place. We have a ruling party that is steeped in an ideology charted out for it in the opening decades of the 20th century.

The presumptions, objectives, and strategies of the ideology penetrate every policy announcement, every speech, every action, and indeed, every thought of the cadres of the party. The objective is clear. These cadres intend to rework every institution and practice in the country from marriage, to schools, to universities, to the renaming and restructuring of spaces, to the rewriting of history, and to the refashioning of the nationalist imagination.

The ideology of Hindutva is based upon a fairly simplistic, even naïve, set of principles. It permits no doubts, no questions, no hesitations. It has no notion of self-critique. It is not influenced by shifts in the philosophy of knowledge. It is not even remotely familiar with, let alone influenced by, grand debates in political theory: egalitarianism, freedom, rights justice, multiculturalism, and minority rights, all of which make for a substantive democracy.

Hindutva codifies one of the hardest, and certainly, one of the most unyielding set of principles that purport to understand human beings, and prescribe for the society in which they live. It has little to do with Hinduism, but that is the nature of politics based on religious identities. Religion as faith has hardly anything in common with religion as the rank pursuit of power.

Hindutva, arguably, is an extreme form of ideology. It is a straitjacket.

On the other hand, we have the Aam Aadmi Party which disdains ideology, and which would rather concentrate on pragmatic solutions to issues, such as schooling and health. Their argument on a post-ideological world is not new.

The ‘End of Ideology’ thesis, famously authored by Daniel Bell, dominated political theory debates post the World War II for years. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a number of Western thinkers, particularly Francis Fukuyama, announced an age of the end of ideology.

Of course, for him, Stalinism was ideology, capitalism was not. Till today, political philosophers continue to harp on the wrongful effects of ideology. Yet the end of ideology thesis has been exaggerated.

It reminds one of Mark Twain’s famous riposte in 1897 to his obituary published in a newspaper. “Reports of my death,” he said,
“are exaggerated.” He may have used other words, and commentators debate that he might have used the term ‘grossly’ before ‘exaggerated’, but this is not the point. The point is that he could demolish with one sentence an obituary that presumed he was dead.

The end of ideology thesis reflects the presumption that ideology is dead. It is grossly overblown. It is an exaggeration.

The notion that ideology is dead is not only hyperbolic, it is a bad idea. What would we do without ideology even though it might act as a shackle for those who use it to legitimise power? We have to be wary of this particular form of ideology. Yet without ideology we will have no idea what party A stands for, and what party B stands against.

Pragmatism has, after all, its limits.

AAP, for instance, deliberately concentrates on issues that are civic, rather than wholly political issues such as democracy. Its language is flawed. In a democracy, citizens have a right to basic goods such as healthcare and education. These social goods or what is called ‘service delivery’ are not given as an act of charity by a benevolent government. Citizens have a right to well-being, of which quality education, healthcare, employment, housing, and an income are essential components.

More significantly, citizens have a right to civil liberties, the right not to be imprisoned without due cause, the right to freedom of thought and expression, the right to protest, and the right not to be harmed by state functionaries, or by other members of society.

Delhi chief minister and AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal is greeted by supporters during a door-to-door election campaign for the upcoming MCD elections, at Chirag Delhi in New Delhi, November 29, 2022. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

What democracy means for AAP

AAP concentrates on service delivery, but it has been spectacularly silent on the violations of civil liberties of Delhi-wallahs. Whether it was the anti-CAA protests in 2019 and 2020, the brutal assault on the JNU faculty members and students by goons in January 2020, communal violence in Northeast Delhi in February 2020, the courageous protests in Shaheen Bagh, and the indiscriminate arrests of journalists, academics, civil society activists, and students, AAP has not uttered a word of condemnation.

Also read: Arvind Kejriwal’s Puzzling Silence in the Face of Anti-muslim Hate Mongering in Delhi

Not only is this stance of AAP violative of the responsibilities of a government to protect its people, it is supremely ideological insofar as it appears to ignore civil liberties as an intrinsic building block of democracy. This gives us an idea of what democracy means for AAP – service delivery alone.

It might not intend to do so, but acts of omission are as complicit with infringements of basic rights as acts of commission. As long as AAP shies away from taking a stand on basic democratic rights, the party will remain a service provider, which also fights elections. This is disappointing, for at one time we had great hopes of AAP.

The second point is that AAP remains under the shadow of one man – Arvind Kejriwal. This is not an ideology; this is cult worship. In this the party remains a clone of the BJP, which is in thrall to Narendra Modi.

Kejriwal is experienced in public affairs, he should know as long as the party concentrates only on him, it will never be able to spread its wings to the rest of the country. Democracy imposes responsibilities on political parties in many ways, but above all, a party cannot be democratic unless it practises inner-party democracy.

The results in Himachal Pradesh and in Gujarat show up the limits of a one-man party. A party needs cadres, but it also needs ideology so that its members know what they stand for and what they stand against.

The Congress is one party that hammered out its ideology of democracy, secularism, socialism, inclusiveness, and tolerance through political engagement during the freedom struggle. Over time this ideology fell into disuse. It is sad that when a number of Congressmen leave the party, not one of them said that this is because the party does not know today where it stands. Most of them left for other reasons. When patronage ties the leadership to the members and when a party becomes a durbar, ideology shrivels, and the party collapses.

Also read: Is There Any Ideology Left in Indian Politics?

The function of ideology

Finally a word on ideology.

The idea is not to defend ideology as a straitjacket that cripples political imaginations and forecloses solidarity and compassion. But before we vote for a political party we must know what its world view is. There are parties which stand for human liberation and which strive to create a world in which human beings can realise agency. No one can realise agency if the ruling party seeks to suppress solidarity, and consistently breaks the bonds of citizenship by categorising people according to their religion, and by pitting them against each other.

A democratic party should be conscious of the need of people to come together across religious and caste divides to form a citizenry which can make informed interventions in public life. Putting up of flags and buntings do not make a citizenry, though they certainly make for a spectacle. Citizen solidarity requires multiple communications between people, and between people and the state. It requires the bringing together of ethics and politics, and it requires the adoption of human emancipation from domination and oppression in the words of the famous critical theorist Horkheimer.

Political parties must listen to social movements when they speak, support them, object to arbitrary arrests, defend and protect minorities, expand the meaning of democracy beyond majoritarianism and aim for a good society. This is the function of ideology. Certain things must not be done to people.

The right to schools and healthcare is part of a set of basic rights that include civil liberties, the right to equality, the right to freedom and the right to justice. The focus on rights is political, provided we think of the political as a fine art which seeks to give to each human being justice.

At this point of the development of political ideas, we do not need to make elaborate arguments to establish that every human being is entitled to justice. It is by now a well-established belief that human beings ought to be treated in certain ways and that they are entitled not to be treated in ways that are inimical to human dignity, such as torture, or murder, or harm.

To argue that a political platform of a party intends to fix political predicaments through improving schools and hospitals – noble as these objectives might be – is to decontextualise the whole issue of what human beings are owed. We are owed healthcare and education but we are also owed rights. And rights come in packages, they are indivisible. We need education but we also need freedom of thought, action, and expression.

A party without an ideology is a party that is frankly instrumental. It can go this way or that.

We do not know its beliefs are, or whether it understands what should be done for citizens and what should not be done to them, what its understanding of human nature is, and above all how the party proposes to create a good life. The ideology of a political party must tell us what is wrong with our current predicament, how these predicaments can be overcome normatively, and what it aims to do in terms of protecting human dignity. It has to be critical and prescriptive at the same time.

AAP is a party most of us have invested in, but it must not stop at limiting its notions of the good life to schools and health clinics. These are components of a good life, but ultimately it is rights that defend the dignity of human beings. It is rights that mark out the agenda of a party from cynical power grabbing platforms. For these reasons, give us your world view, AAP, give us a sense of what you stand for, and stand against. You have been reduced to a service provider, restore your democratic credentials once again.

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