"Aam Aadmi Pareshan!" screamed the media. "The common man is distressed!"
This was an unkind take on the AAP - the Aam Aadmi Party or the Common Man’s Party - that the media was so enamoured with just a month ago. The AAP has just completed its first month in power. And practically everything has changed since that misty-eyed day when the media whooped in amazed delight as this bunch of young enthusiasts in caps declaring, "I am the common man!" took their oaths as ministers in the Delhi government, in a massive open air swearing-in ceremony.
Practically everything has changed, except the party’s own attitude towards politics, and chosen method of ushering in change.
The starry-eyed media’s disillusionment with AAP and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal may have begun sooner, but it came to a head when the media was confronted with this unlikely hero in muffler and AAP cap, coughing in the cold as he lay wrapped in a blanket in the freezing streets of a rainy Delhi winter, surrounded by his cabinet colleagues. Was this really the best chief minister and cabinet of ministers Delhi could hope for? Was blocking the road in protest right before the Republic Day parade the best path to governance?
"Raj dharna!" screamed the media, highlighting the irony of the ruler being on hunger strike. "Dharna drama!" they declared unkindly; the protest was just theatrics.
Media relationship endangered
The media demanded that the hot-blooded activist calling for change needed to first change his own attitude and method, now that he was chief minister (CM) of a state. And when Kejriwal sat in protest demanding that the federal Home Ministry take action against police officers whom his party perceived to be out of line, he must have been aware that he was endangering a close relationship with the media; the media that has largely supported him from 2011, when his mentor Anna Hazare launched the India Against Corruption movement.
Then in November 2012, the AAP peeled away as a political party, inheriting the media goodwill generated by the politics of protest. But when Kejriwal did as a CM what he had been doing for the last three years with great media success, the same media accused him of anarchism.
By taking the issue to the streets in a protest which turned unwieldy, [AAP leader and Delhi chief minister] Kejriwal created an impossible situation.
The CM’s protest was triggered by the fact that the Delhi Police seemed reluctant to follow the orders of the AAP ministers. Unlike other states, Delhi’s chief minister has no control over the police, which is answerable to the federal Home Ministry. A solution has been sought for decades but an activist chief minister was never an option.
The issue cropped up again this month when Law Minister Somnath Bharti launched a made-for-TV midnight raid on Ugandan women whom he accused of running a drugs and prostitution racket, but the police refused to play ball, insisting on the technicality of a search warrant. Meanwhile, the police apparently had also failed to arrest those suspected of burning a woman to death in spite of AAP’s Rakhi Birla, minister for Woman and Child Welfare, urging the police to do so.
By taking the issue to the streets in a protest which turned unwieldy, Kejriwal created an impossible situation. There would be a constitutional crisis if he was arrested, and governance would languish if he was allowed to persist. That insupportable standoff robbed the AAP of a lot of media backing.
See how they fall, guffawed some in the Indian media. A creation of the media, they are now being destroyed by the very same media, they laughed.
Sadly, those who deride the AAP as a media creation are those who had not seen the AAP-quake coming. They belong to sections of the media that had missed the new wave. Of course, the AAP greatly benefited from the enormous interest and affection of the media, but it was never a media creation. It was fated.
Urban origins of AAP
Business as usual had become impossible after a string of big-ticket scams, large constituencies cutting across traditional interest groups had become restive, and disruptive politics was obviously inevitable. Anna Hazare provided the lightning conductor in 2011, launching the protest movement from which the AAP broke away later.
The media had been an innocent bystander until then, but it soon entered into a symbiotic relationship with the movement. The core constituency of the AAP and the protest movement it sprang from was urban. They read the news, watched TV and used text messages to organise flashmobs on an epic scale. They saw media as a mirror held up to their world, chronicling history as they made it.
And that history in the making - protests, fasts, sit-ins - served as free programming in bulk to broadcast media. Even in a country as lively and unpredictable as India, it is hard work to run news 24x7. An ongoing urban movement, which is taking on the system, can be a comfort - all producers have to do on a lean day is to park OB vans at protest sites, and they have endless programming on tap.
|The rise of the AAP has created more than a flutter in the establishment [File: Reuters]
In politics, the Indian media instinctively roots for the outsider and the powerless. Both the professedly Gandhian Anna Hazare and his former manager Arvind Kejriwal, whose middle class car and positively plebeian sweater and muffler are familiar sights on TV even after he was elected chief minister of Delhi, fitted the bill. Especially since, according to the script, they were engaged in a principled David and Goliath battle against the entrenched interests of the political class which rules Delhi, which is perceived to pervert democracy, colluding across party lines to run the nation from behind closed doors.
But that changed on counting day after the state elections in Delhi, in which the AAP performed far better than expected and denied the mainstream Congress and the BJP the opportunity to form a majority government.
Led by Times Now and Headlines Today, the media were initially beside themselves with joy at the possibility of a third alternative, an AAP-led government. The fresh and new make great headlines but traditionally, the Indian press has been sceptical of power and government. Within hours, the party was facing hard questions even from friends in the media. Could an untried party govern? Could it deliver on improbable election promises like reductions in water and energy bills, in a country which is increasingly resource-hungry?
Now, a month after it took office, the AAP is being severely judged and found to be a bit of a failure. The media is now taking a dim view of Kejriwal’s inability to come to grips with intractable problems in Delhi, such as nursery admissions and the poor delivery of services. And his attempts at alternative governance in a culture of openness are being dismissed.
From 'activist' to 'anarchist'
The media is alarmed by the activist chief minister lying on the street. He has better access than the common man, better ways to get his demands heard. Why doesn’t he use all that? Besides, he does have to maintain the dignity of his office, they point out.
The Indian media fails to recognize that in the AAP age the concept of dignity of office may have changed. Perhaps now it has less to do with formalities and protocol and more to do with being true to your constituency and getting results. A month ago they would have hailed him as a reformist. Now they were calling him an anarchist. "Yes, I am an anarchist," retorted Kejriwal, and promised to spread this unrest further.
But the media appraisal misses the point, because seeking office was never the AAP’s priority. On the contrary, it was the last resort. In interviews to Headlines Today, Times Now and NDTV, Kejriwal has traced his rise from a man who set up a table outside public utility offices and offered to help people deal with corrupt officials. That was too small-scale; the need for a movement was felt.
Anna Hazare led that movement, which mainstreamed corruption as a political issue, established the urgent need for a Lokpal or anti-corruption ombudsman, but could not force legislation on the issue from outside the system. A split with Hazare made a foray into electoral politics possible. The party was extraordinarily successful in its very first election and is now preparing for the parliamentary elections.
The [AAP]’s critics seem to believe that protest is undemocratic, whereas it is a legitimate democratic tool.
While the media has withdrawn support and denounced the politics of the AAP in office as insupportable and anti-democratic, the party has actually achieved many of its own goals, as distinct from poll promises. The Congress, a closely held party which takes its decisions in meetings of the first family, small coteries and party bodies that are not exactly democratically operated, is producing an open election manifesto for the first time in its history. In a distinctly AAP-like move, it is even seeking comment from voters. And corruption, AAP’s focus area, was a key issue in Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s first interview since he joined politics a decade ago.
The BJP’s media campaign has taken a beating. When the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi launched his election campaign from the unlikely location of a Delhi commerce college a year ago, almost all media houses tacitly resolved to cover his every act until, presumably, he became prime minister. But before the general election, the BJP was supposed to win the Delhi state elections. To its enormous embarrassment, the AAP is in the driving seat, and days go by without any news of the sayings of Modi as screens and front pages are taken up with the doings of the AAP.
The media’s concern about the vigilante streak in the AAP, which is truly problematic and invites charges of fascism, is valid; as are concerns about racism, sexism and majoritarianism among AAP members. The rest of the media reservations seem puerile. The party’s critics seem to believe that protest is undemocratic, whereas it is a legitimate democratic tool.
And there is a general feeling, often visible on TV, that the AAP’s politics is improper because, er, it is improper. This tautology of disquiet arises out of mainstream media’s deep discomfort with any political method that falls outside of electoral politics. It calls it anti-democracy. Curiously, even as the media glamourises dissent, it cannot recognise protest as a valid tool of democracy. Unless it happens in recognised ways.
For example, opposition parties have been disrupting parliament for years, tremendously affecting governance and policy. The Indian media does not label these troublesome opposition leaders as anarchists.
The media’s suspicion of new political methods coupled with a tendency to evaluate the AAP on governance, which the party is not interested in, rather than on the achievement of the AAP’s own goals, gives the impression that the media has turned on the AAP. But the other side of the story is that the AAP’s job is already done: it has made corruption a huge issue in mainstream politics, it has changed the way big political parties look at voters, it has brought a certain amount of transparency in politics, and it has made social media an integral part of traditional politics.
And it has established itself squarely in the media spotlight. The love affair between the AAP and the media may have changed to a love-hate relationship, but it is still the strongest passion on public display in the run up to the parliamentary elections.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.