India: The Aam Aadmi Party, neoliberalism and the working class
In April 2022, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) demolished several homes in the slums of Jahangirpuri. Corporation bulldozers received some media attention, which displayed devastating visuals of people’s homes being razed to dust. Various mainstream media outlets portrayed the slum’s inhabitants, women and children included, in a dehumanising way. The demolitions continued even after a Supreme Court order against them. That certain left party leaders showed up at the demolitions and stood steadfastly in front of bulldozers is to their credit.1
The locality in question was inhabited by residents resettled there by the state after being evicted elsewhere. A significant portion were informal sector workers who work as kabaadi (a form of waste picking and recycling). The population is overwhelmingly Muslims who migrated from regions of West Bengal. They are systematically demonised and branded as illegal immigrants, foreigners, Bangladeshi or Rohingya (Naqvi and Singh, 2022).
In this particular demolition drive, the label “encroachers” was used to describe the people living in the slums. This phraseology has been used on various occasions across India to lend legitimacy to the rampant process of dispossession of working people (Kalia, 2022). It is crucial to recognise that these people are not encroachers, but rather the victims of systematic encroachment by private capitalists and the state.
It came as no surprise to anyone that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People’s Party) leaders were jubilant about the slum demolitions. BJP-sympathetic media channels openly celebrated the brutality. The demolitions perpetuated their anti-Muslim and anti-working class agenda and fascistic rhetoric of “teaching Muslims a lesson.” The Congress party was conspicuously silent during the demolition, offering little more than lip-service in the form of a formal condemnation after the fact.
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, expressed some grievances about the incidents. However, party spokespersons preferred to play petty blame-games. AAP leaders made statements holding the BJP responsible for communal violence and alleging a conspiracy by the BJP to resettle “illegal immigrants” in the area. The AAP and its volunteers did absolutely nothing to stop the violence meted out against slum residents in a state where the party has an overwhelming majority in the Legislative Assembly. Moreover, its leaders engaged in a virtual competition of communal rhetoric with the far-right BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Organisation). They seemed eager to prove to a majoritarian voter base that they too hated slum dwellers, making a point of referring to them as illegal immigrants and infiltrators not deserving of the right to housing (Chakravarty, 2022).
The AAP’s neoliberal credentials were evident to many observers, activists and organisations on the left. But when the party mimicked BJP-RSS rhetoric at its peak, it must have shattered the illusions of those who view the AAP as genuinely secular and democratic and an alternative to the status quo. As Hindutva politics embodied by the BJP gain more power and influence in India, it is important to examine the growth of the AAP and how it relates to these developments. By studying AAP’s policies and actions, we can evaluate its role in the current political landscape and understand its impact on the working class.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s rise
The AAP’s electoral victory, obtaining an overwhelming majority in the 2015 Delhi Legislative Assembly elections, was preceded by the anti-corruption movement that took off in 2011. The anti-corruption movement mobilised anti-incumbent public sentiment against the Congress party, the main ruling party of the centre and then-ruling party in Delhi. The movement echoed the mood of various sections of society, giving it a cross-class participation, although the dominant narrative was one that resonated mainly with an upper caste, urban middle-class base. The narrative was informed by a Gandhian conception of Swaraj (self rule), which in this context explained politics not in terms of power structures, political economy and the contradictions therein, but a form of moralistic battle between right and wrong. Opposition to “corruption” ranged across various agendas, including disdain among the upwardly mobile middle-classes towards state-owned sectors of the economy, and a general repulsion from politics, viewed as “dirty” (also reflecting an upper caste angst about the rise of various Bahujan parties in Indian politics.) Various AAP volunteers and supporters share a disdain for reservations2 (Sagar, 2019). The figurehead of the anti-corruption movement was Anna Hazare, branded a modern day Gandhi.
Some in the anti-corruption movement were open about their sympathies for the RSS and far-right Hindutva politics. This was embodied by the initial ties forged by Kejriwal with communalist godmen such as Baba Ramdev and RSS ideologues. However, movement leaders realised that to succeed they had to forge ties with various social movements and the left. The movement was able to attract important figures from the National Alliance for People’s Movements, which had grown out of social movements, environmental struggles and campaigns against the dispossession of land belonging to peasants and small proprietors by big capitalist interests. This included activists Medha Patkar and Christina Swamy (Steur, 2018: 187-207).
The AAP was formed in 2012, following a split between Hazare, who wished to follow the path of spirituality and hunger strikes to free society from the evils of corruption, and Kejriwal, who wanted to enter electoral politics to repair it from within. After the 2013 Delhi Legislative Assembly elections, the AAP formed a government with support from members of the Congress and with Kerjiwal as Chief Minister. Kejriwal resigned after 49 days due to his failure to pass the Jan Lokpal bill (an Ombudsman bill), a core rallying point of the anti-corruption movement that had brought him to power.
Despite attracting people with left-leaning credentials, the movement’s middle-class composition did not change. The internal dynamics of the party grew exceedingly authoritarian, with some critical and left-leaning voices being removed, leading others to resign. There was a concerted effort to appeal to the working class by promising policies such as affordable water supply and an audit of Delhi’s electricity distribution companies (Steur, 2018: 187-207). An important section of workers supported the AAP, as did a section of Dalits. The policies it passed however carried little material weight in the lives of working people and were mainly populist rhetoric. Praful Bidwai (2014) observes:
More than one-third of Delhi’s households, typically poor, don’t have piped-water connections, and will be effectively excluded. Little will be done to improve supply to water-deprived areas or break the water-tanker mafia’s stranglehold. But 54 percent of Delhi’s water will continue to be wasted. A person only needs 50-60 litres daily. Giving 140 litres free to all will increase waste.
Take electricity. Private distribution companies (discoms) have been overcharging consumers through metre-tampering, cost-padding, etc. AAP should have ordered an audit, and then proceeded towards tariff reduction. Instead, it raised subsidies to discoms! Poor and middle-class people don’t need 400 monthly units. Even an un-airconditioned three-bedroom home with a refrigerator uses 200 units. Halving tariffs for 400 units means subsidising the rich, but leaving 8 lakh poor families unconnected.
The AAP had a strong majority after the 2020 Delhi Legislative Assembly elections, and again after the 2022 Punjab Legislative Assembly elections. Presently, the party runs both the Delhi and Punjab state governments.
Theorising neoliberalism in India
2011 marked the completion of two decades of neoliberal policies regulating the Indian labour market.3 Analyst Bidwai (2011) wrote:
The fruits of growth have accrued largely to the top 10-15% of India’s population. Growth hasn't raised the incomes of the majority, nor reduced income poverty. On optimistic official estimates, rural poverty fell from 50.1% in 1993-94 to 41.8% in 2004-05, and in cities, from 32.6% to 25.7%. These numbers are considered far too low by many capable economists. But even assuming they're correct, the poverty decline was modest. It still leaves nearly 400 million Indians living at or below an animal level of subsistence, consuming fewer calories than needed to keep body and soul together. So, at the end of the two highest-growth decades in recent history, India still has the highest number of dirt-poor people of any country in the world.
These numbers hide non-income forms of poverty and deprivation, including dispossession from land, ecological destruction, widespread malnutrition, social bondage, gender-related poverty, compulsion to drink unsafe water and live in unhygienic conditions, etc.
This set the political context for the AAP’s rise. The party’s political project successfully captured the imagination of various progressive urban middle class intellectuals, including academics of a secular and centre-left orientation (Raina, 2020; Ketan, 2016). Those on the Communist left tended to steer clear of wholehearted endorsements, even though their parliamentary parties said some positive things about the party’s supposedly democratic potential.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Prakash Karat critiqued the AAP for not providing any alternatives to the dominant neoliberalism policies (Karat, 2014). Karat’s critique of the “neoliberal model” came with a defence of various reform measures legislated by parliamentary left parties when in power in West Bengal and Kerala. Anand Teltumbde, a notable scholar and activist of a very different fold than Karat, referred to the AAP as a “neoliberal start-up”, critiquing the party’s post-ideological pretensions and rhetoric, which depoliticised systematic social problems by claiming they could be solved through minor policy tweaks and a change in attitude. While scathing in their attack, many of these left critics failed to provide a coherent explanation of the AAP phenomenon and its tryst with neoliberalism. This is in part due to their reliance on a paradigm that fails to adequately explain and critique the phenomenon of neoliberalism.
That the AAP’s program of reforms was not entirely a sham (at least in its own terms) is something we can acknowledge with hindsight. The Left Front government, in its 34 years of rule in West Bengal, failed to build a single public hospital in the capital city of Kolkata and privatised the existing ones through PPPs (public-private partnerships) (Chattopadhyay, 2015). In contrast, the AAP administers its model of decentralised public healthcare through Mohalla Clinics, which retain popularity among people from lower economic classes, irrespective of how piecemeal and unsustainable this may prove in the long run. For all practical purposes, the party of neoliberalism has been able to offer various kinds of welfare measures, in contrast to the parliamentary left’s failure to do so on important occasions. This illustrates one of the weaknesses of theorising along the lines of contrasting neoliberal policies with welfarist reform measures and presenting the latter as a long-term solution.
Theorisation about neoliberalism on the left has been mired with ambiguities that compromise the explanatory strength of their theories and render them unhelpful in providing direction to the labour movement in its struggle against capital. This includes the propensity among various scholars to incorrectly presume the existence of successful and stable Keynesian welfarist states (or developmentalist states in the Global South), which were supposedly able to eradicate crises prior to the neoliberal turn. This leads to the conclusion that a return to the Golden Age of welfare states would be a meaningful way to fight neoliberalism. However, the ability of the Keynesian variety of welfare, or demand-side spending in general, to ameliorate the periodic crises of capitalism has been contended by a significant section of left scholarship. Those who characterise the neoliberal turn as a restoration of capitalist class power fail to recognise that this power was never lost in the first place.
In India, the Nehruvian period is often ascribed with progressive characteristics and sometimes even referred to as a variant of socialism. In the formative years of the post-colonial Indian republic, Indian capitalists favoured state intervention, nationalisation of parts of the economy and protectionist policies to ensure they were not outcompeted by foreign capital investment. These requirements of the Indian capitalist class were articulated in the Bombay Plan 1944 (put forward by big industrialists such as Tata and Birla) and reflected in industrial policy (Chattopadhyay, 2009). The capitalist class showed no interest in laissez faire policies and benefited from subsidies, cheap credit and protection from competitors in the international market (Chibber and Usmani, 2013, 204-210).
The ushering in of neoliberalism significantly weakened the trade union movement in the country and began the process of privatising state-owned institutions. For the working class, this involved an assault on basic safety nets, including minimum wages and maximum hours, overtime pay, cost of living adjustments, occupational safety, job security, and organising and collective bargaining rights. This was a setback for that very small minority of workers that had formal employment status. For the majority of workers who never enjoyed the benefits of formalisation, this was merely a continuation of what had always been (Crane, 2017). Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where general labour laws did not apply mushroomed across the country and attracted global investment. The development of SEZs involved the dispossession of peasants and small proprietors (some of the dispossessed peasants joined the labourforce) and super-exploitation of workers employed in those zones (Das, 2020: 296-297). While recognising the unique features of dispossession under neoliberalism, one must account for the significant scholarship on this area that critiques the notion that “accumulation by dispossession” has substituted for the exploitation of surplus at the site of production.
The vital struggles of the dispossessed (very often Adivasis and Dalits) must go hand in hand with forms of class struggle at the site of production. The weakening of this form of class struggle has played an important role in strengthening the stranglehold of capital, as reflected in neoliberal reforms. Snehal Shinghavi (2017) writes:
Since an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the Indian workforce labours in the informal sector of the economy, it has led many to conclude that the driving engines of growth in India are not based on exploitation at the point of production but rather on extractive industries and financialization, or what in other contexts has been called accumulation by dispossession. While these critics have been quite right to focus on the egregious actions of the Indian state against tribal populations (who live on large mineral reserves), the creation of Special Economic Zones, and the privatisation of state-owned industries, they have largely ignored the way that the majority of the economy still depends on the exploitation of labour.
In fact, the only way to understand the history of neoliberalism in India and the current crisis that Indian capital faces is to understand the last forty years as a systematic attempt to reorganise the labour process to benefit Indian capital. (emphasis added)
Assessing the AAP and its complicity with neoliberalism requires us to look at the ways in which the party has taken part in this process of weakening organised labour and fracturing its strength to fight back in the class struggle.
The AAP and the working class
The COVID-19 pandemic and its mismanagement fatally harmed workers across the world. In India, this was coupled with an injudiciously imposed lockdown, with barely any assistance or aid given to workers during the crisis.
The AAP government in Delhi fared no better. Thousands of workers, including migrant workers, who were hired on contractual basis were fired at the start of the pandemic. The failure of the Public Distribution System in Delhi left workers without any proper food and nutrition. An e-coupon system for rationing food was announced, but it remained inaccessible to the majority. It should be noted that only 37% of Delhi’s population had ration cards (which are necessary to avail rations). Construction workers could not afford basic necessities during the lockdown as construction work was put on halt. The announced compensation of Rs.5000 remained inaccessible to most, since they were not registered with the welfare association. The pandemic exposed the terrible labour conditions that had been ignored or suppressed by the AAP government (De, 2022). While there are labour laws such as The Factories Act, Minimum Wages Act and Trade Union Act, they remain dead letter.
Workers from the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), an important feature of Delhi’s public transport system, broke out in mass protests in 2015. At least 12,000 DTC workers hired on contractual basis had not been made permanent employees. Workers became politicised, conducted sit-in protests and broke out into a flash protest when a fellow driver (Ashok Kumar) was murdered in a road rage attack in Mundka while on duty. Without any attempt to negotiate with workers, the AAP invoked the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) to suppress the protests (CPIML Liberation, 2015).
This law has been used countless times by the AAP, including recently to suppress protests by Anganwadi workers. Anganwadi workers are a part of India’s health workforce, working in government schemes relating to maternal welfare and childcare. This workforce consists entirely of women. They are also assigned additional duties, such as relief work and election duty. However, these workers are listed as “volunteers” and given an honorarium instead of a regular wage. Anganwadi workers in Delhi have been on strike since January 2022, demanding better pay, regular work and recognition as government employees rather than volunteers. In 2017, the AAP government promised to add Rs.500 to the remuneration of Anganwadi workers and Rs.250 for helpers in the form of an internet allowance. Workers claim this was soon reduced to Rs.200 and never paid (Hussain, 2022).
The AAP has introduced Mohalla Clinics in Delhi, which are localised healthcare centres that provide primary care at lower costs. They are located across the state with more than 500 in operation. Among their stated aims is to declutter government hospitals to allow them to focus on in-patient care. These clinics have been praised by many and are popular among the working classes, mainly for their accessibility, affordability and improved access to healthcare for women. That said, these institutions do not aim to challenge the sway of privatised healthcare, either implicitly or explicitly. The fall in quality of public health is directly linked to the privatisation and commodification of healthcare. Mohalla Clinics create an alternate platform that provide some basic amenities at lower costs, but are no long-term solution. It is important to note that doctors are hired in these clinics on a contractual basis without any fixed salary. They are paid Rs.40 per patient, resulting in a monthly income that is far less than a government employee. While pharmacists and multitask workers have fixed salaries, they are denied leave provisions (Yadav, 2022). It is difficult to see how institutions (however decentralised spatially) can be a sustainable solution to the problems of the working classes, as thousands of Delhi workers across various occupations fight for permanent and regularised jobs
Where do we go from here?
The AAP has been able to capture, and benefit from, the fascistic Hindu-centric rhetoric of the RSS just as flexibly as it earlier captured the discontent that various sections of the middle classes felt about corruption scandals in the Congress regime. The ideology of neoliberal think tanks, with quick-fix public policy solutions for every problem, fits perfectly with AAP rhetoric. It has portrayed immense resilience in its ability to attract volunteers, mobilise their energy and zest for a cleaner system, and use it in the service of capital. Meanwhile, the working class in AAP-governed Delhi, which includes workers from both the formal and informal sectors, continues to be exploited. In their daily struggles for survival, they do not receive any assistance from the AAP government. Labour demands continue to remain unmet and protests are vehemently suppressed by employing draconian laws such as ESMA.
This has important lessons for the labour movement, which includes Communist parties, their affiliate trade unions and the significant number of independent trade unions that organise urban workers across various sectors and occupations. It is misleading to try and look for a democratic character in the AAP; its high-sounding rhetoric against corruption and crony-capitalism means very little to the working class that faces its wrath. Its anti-corruption rhetoric perpetrates the myth that corruption only happens in the state-owned sector and that, therefore, the solution is privatising everything.
Some AAP policies, such as the creation of Mohalla Clinics, provide piecemeal fixes. However, they do not go an inch towards undermining the rule of capital, which has historically campaigned on the slogans of ‘roti, kapda, makaan’ (bread, clothing and land) and ‘sadak, bijli, paani’ (streets, electricity and water.) These concessions work to win the support of workers and toilers who continue to be exploited. The slogans are part of a dominant narrative of developmentalism, articulated in broad terms such as better roads and electricity, and not in terms of what class benefits.
The Indian state represents the interests of urban capitalists and rural landed elite. There is also a significant political elite, consisting of politicians whose interests are identical to the bourgeois state, irrespective of the centrist or right-wing ideology their parties may represent (Das, 2021: 129-133). Given the form the Indian state takes and its contradictory nature, it remains aloof and out of the reach of the working classes and toilers. Therefore, political movements towards genuine democratisation and decentralisation of power are important. However, the AAP’s depoliticised attempts at decentralisation (for instance, decentralised healthcare or decentralised governance via Resident Welfare Associations) are bound to have major limitations. The labour movement ought to put concerted effort into building decentralised institutions, be it schools, worker-run hospitals or community kitchens, but from a clearly defined class standpoint of aiding the fightback against capital. Some organisations are taking such initiatives.
One may argue that the overwhelming majority of votes that the AAP received in the 2020 Delhi Legislative Assembly Elections kept the fascistic BJP at bay. But this is only temporary and patently weak. Meanwhile, much of the communal rhetoric characteristic of the BJP and the RSS has been co-opted by the AAP. This has contributed to the process of communalisation of Indian polity, which prepared the ground for the rise of far-right forces such as the BJP. That the AAP appears as a legitimate alternative is also a sign of the failure of the mainstream left and its accommodation to the capitalist system. Das (2021: 185) writes, “An important question to ask is: while BJP was kept at bay, what was done to raise class consciousness of the masses and to mobilise them independently of bourgeois formations, in the sphere outside Parliament?”
A shorter version of this article was originally published in Workers Resistance, the monthly magazine of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU).
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- 1This included Brinda Karat, a leader from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Ravi Rai, a Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation Delhi state leader.
- 2Reservations refer to caste-based affirmative action. Although, Kejriwal later had to proclaim that reservations cannot be done away with, until the grievances of marginalised communities are redressed. Later the party took several token measures to illustrate its regard for Dalits.
- 3Neoliberal macroeconomic reforms were first implemented under Congress Party rule in 1984 and extended to labour market reforms in 1991.