[First published in Cafe Dissensus.]
On 5 February, 2010, Rahul Gandhi visited Mumbai and traveled in a local train. A newspaper reported, “He boarded a fast local at Andheri at 1pm to Dadar and walked across the foot overbridge to come to the central line to take another train to Ghatkopar.” While Rahul’s visit was intended to send a strong message regarding Shiv Sena’s divisive rhetoric between the Marathis and the migrants (read, Biharis), his gesture was interestingly interpreted, by one of the fellow-commuters, as: “He was just like anyone of us.” Another nationally respected newspaper reported this event as, “Rahul commutes like an “aam aadmi””. It is possible to read Rahul’s symbolic gesture as the arrival of the aam aadmi (common man) as a political subject. This was well before Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party was born.
About a year later, on 5 April, 2011, Anna Hazare, along with members of other civil society groups, embarked on a lengthy hunger-strike at Jantar Mantar, Delhi. Their demand was the passing of Jan Lokpal Bill for eradication of corruption among the political class and government officials. Modeled on the Arab Spring, Hazare’s movement, despite its middle class slant, was dubbed, as a struggle between ‘corruption and common man’. As if, Rahul’s symbolic act in Mumbai gained a substantive sinew in Delhi.
While Rahul made a gesture on behalf of the political class, Anna Hazare’s movement showcased the potential of aam aadmi in bringing about change at the grassroots level. Of course, Anna’s civil movement would acquire the shape of an aam aadmi political movement, led by the ‘anarchist’ Arvind Kejriwal, in the next couple of years.
The stupendous success of Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has made the concept of aam aadmisynonymous with his political endeavors. Yet, as we see, the aam aadmi has never been far away from the imaginary of our politicians.
Let’s travel back further in history to another defining figure in Indian politics, Indira Gandhi. In the 1971 elections, Indira Gandhi coined the slogan of ‘garibi hatao’ (remove poverty), targeted at the rural and the urban poor: “Woh kehte hain Indira hatao aur mein kehti hoon ki garibi hatao” (“They say, remove Indira; I say, remove poverty”). One of Gandhi’s aims in initiating poverty alleviation programs was to subvert the influence of dominant castes in the rural areas and the commercial class in the urban areas. More explicitly, it was aimed at creating a new political base among the poor or the original aam aadmi. That only 4% of the funds reached the actual aam aadmi is a different debate altogether. But a politics of aam aadmi was born. In fact, on her 25th death anniversary in 2009, a newspaper report flashed the headline, “The original aam aadmi leader”.
To this day, the Congress party has adhered religiously to this concept of aam aadmi. In the 2004 election campaign, Congress gave the slogan, “Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath” (Congress’ hand with the common man). Interestingly, it modified the earlier Congress slogan, “Congress ka haath, garib ke saath” (Congress’ hand with the poor man). In the process, Congress redefined and expanded the ambit of the aam aadmi in Indian politics in the post-economic liberalization moment, when a sizeable urban middle class has been clamoring for a space in the political decision-making.
While the change of slogan from “Congress ka haath, garib ke saath” to “Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath” might have been an attempt to blunt BJP’s appeal among the urban middle class, Congress never quite left its original constituency of the aam aadmi, the rural and the urban poor. And in 2006, it brought back Indira Gandhi’s original slogan, ‘garibi hatao’ and introduced several welfare schemes, which, in fact, became the backbone of their electoral success in the 2009 election. In 2012, in the run-up to the UP Assembly elections, Rahul Gandhi evoked the slogan of ‘garibi hatao’ once more. This time, he categorically mentioned “the poor, dalits, backward communities, farmers and labourers beyond caste lines” as the aam aadmi.
As it stands now, there are three distinct concepts of aam aadmi in Indian politics. I have already sketched in brief the genealogy of the original aam aadmi politics of Indira Gandhi and its later continuation by the Congress.
However, has the notion of aam aadmi changed over the course of Indian electoral politics? While Congress’ original aam aadmi politics stands discredited today, we have (at least) two new versions of the aam aadmi: that of Arvind Kejriwal (explained in detail in his Delhi Assembly speech) and Narendra Modi (mentioned in his Mumbai election speech).
In his Delhi Assembly speech, Kejriwal expanded on what he meant by the aam aadmi. In fact, this speech was his most comprehensive elaboration of the term. Kejriwal moved beyond the traditional notion of the aam aadmi, expounded by the Congress, when he claimed that the aam aadmi is one, who wants an honest system in the country. Contrary to the notion of the aam aadmi, he further introduced the concept of khaas aadmi (special man), which denotes anyone who wants the dishonest system (read corrupt) to continue. The aam aadmi and the khaas aadmi could be both rich and poor, belonging to both the upper and lower class of society, living either in Greater Kailash or in a jhuggi.
Kejriwal has managed to move the term from the realm of pure economics and has added a moral slant to it. Aam aadmi does not merely mean being economically poor (in the sense of the Congress) but one who fights corruption. Kejriwal’s speech also makes clear that a grassroots level politics must be an organic endeavor in which the aam aadmi will contest elections in order to improve on the existing system. It is no longer the privileged bourgeois political classes doling out favors to the pooraam aadmi. Instead, the aam aadmi will determine his/her own fate and of others through electoral politics.
While the BJP has been traditionally known to be a party of the urban middle class, the recent redefinition of the aam aadmi has forced it to rethink its own position on the aam aadmi. In his Mumbai speech, Narendra Modi indirectly referred to the aam aadmi: “I assure you that in the days to come, every poor person will be a VVIP, regardless of whether he is a chaiwallah or not.” Modi seems to be aiming at restoring the dignity of the common man. He intends to achieve this is by doing away with Congress’ policy of doling out money through the social welfare schemes and making the poor earn an honest living through enterprise. By flaunting his own humble background as a tea-seller, Modi appears to be producing an idea of an Indian Dream (similar to the American Dream), where the aam aadmi can aspire to rise above the ordinariness of his/her existence.
In the General Elections 2014, we are confronted with at least three distinct notions of the aam aadmi: Congress’ traditional aam aadmi, the economically poor; Kerjiwal’s new aam aadmi, who demands an honest system as his/her right; and Modi’s aspirational aam aadmi, who aspires to reach the pinnacle through enterprise.
This election will be a test-case for finding out which idea of the aam aadmi emerges winner on 16 May, 2014.