Home >Opinion >The populist reason of the AAP

Political commentators have been divided over the ideological stripes of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The AAP’s massive mandate in the Delhi assembly polls has been seen by some, bizarrely enough, as heralding the rise of Communism (or the radical Left) in Delhi. On the other hand, the Communists themselves have been none too impressed. Though the Communist Party of India (Marxist) supported the AAP in the Delhi polls, other sections of the Left have expressed reservations hingeing on the AAP’s non-confrontationist stance vis-à-vis capitalist development and Hindu majoritarianism.

To be sure, these opinions do not represent the currently dominant consensus around the AAP. Especially now, when democracy, as it were, has spoken loud and clear, even dyed-in-the-wool AAP sceptics have had no option but to mute their criticism and adopt a pose of cautious optimism.

And yet, there is this irrepressible urge all around to decipher the ideological DNA of the AAP and plot its future trajectory from it: Will the AAP stay put in Delhi for the next five years, or will it become a national phenomenon? If the latter, how soon will it contest in other states? How serious is it about its welfarist agenda? Is it really going to adopt uncompromising positions on its demands, or will it play ball with the central government?

So far, the AAP has resisted all attempts at pigeon-holing. Its spokespersons have emphasized time and again that they are neither of the left nor of the right; that they are neither anti-capitalist, nor anti-socialist; that they are pro-business but not anti-labour. In saying all this, they are not being evasive or coy, or trying to be all things to all people—they are simply being in character.

If there is one political label that fits the AAP better than any other, it is “populist"—and I mean this not in the facile sense used by free market evangelists. The AAP’s populism shares DNA fragments with other populist mobilizations in Latin America and in Europe, especially the Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.

While the Podemos and Syriza have been branded by liberal commentators as “left wing populist", their ideological composition is too heterogeneous to merit such a label. If they have some sort of a political godfather, it is the Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau.

We do not know if the strategists of the AAP actively borrowed from Laclau’s theory of populist politics. But the birth and development of the AAP follows rather closely the logic laid out by Laclau in his influential 2005 book, On Populist Reason.

Laclau is a post-Marxist who doesn’t believe in economic determinism or in the orthodox Marxist dogma that class antagonism is the defining antagonism of society. Rather, he believes that multiple antagonisms are at play and at certain historical moments, people are impelled to assume a new identity in order to become political actors. This new identity, which may or may not have something to do with class consciousness, he terms ‘empty signifier’ or ‘floating signifier’. It is when people identify with this empty signifier, thereby filling it with political content, that we have a distinctly populist (as opposed to revolutionary) political mobilization.

For Laclau, populism, by definition, is not an ideology. Its link to any given ideology is contingent. Rather, he understands populism as “a form of construction of the political" that dichotomizes society into two levels: the bottom, and the top. Once the social space is divided into two, the stage is set for “populist rapture" in the form of the bottom mobilizing against the top.

According to Laclau, the driver of populist mobilization is the “logic of equivalence", a term he deploys to describe a phenomenon wherein a number of disparate demands—such as security, health care, education, water, housing, etc, which earlier would get articulated and/or channeled to the state administration independent of each other—now achieve universal significance through a collective realization of their mutual equivalence.

When the people’s multiple demands keep rebounding off the government machinery and remain unfulfilled for long, the competing demands assume the shared equivalence of denial by the state. This equivalence, when it finds political articulation, enables the coalescence of a new identity that mobilizes the people as a collective agent. In the populist paradigm, this new identity is formed in opposition to a common enemy or a common demand whose fulfilment is deemed to be blocked by a common enemy.

In the case of Syriza and Podemos, the common enemy is the banker-politician nexus, and the common demand is the elimination of austerity economics. In the case of the AAP, the empty signifier of the ‘aam aadmi’ was invoked to construct a new identity for the bottom of the social pyramid – the identity of a citizen who will no longer be a passive victim of a corrupt elite.

The social dichotomy that Laclau considers central to populism was in full evidence in the AAP’s poll campaign—as also in its pre-history as an anti-corruption movement—where the aam aadmi, whose interests were not finding adequate representation among the political establishment, was mobilized against a political elite that was designated as a symbol of its common enemy, corruption.

This is a very different reading of the AAP phenomenon from the one that sees only a class antagonism at play, for it understands the AAP as a political formation that taps into the class divide without activating class politics. This is precisely the reason why the AAP enjoys support across classes; and also the reason why it has evoked ambivalent responses from both the Left and the Right.

There is a strong reason for Laclau’s deployment of the terms ‘empty signifier’ or ‘floating signifier’. If we take, for instance, the identity denoted by the signifier ‘aam aadmi’, a daily wage labourer can easily identify as one. So can a banker, or a Bollywood celebrity. This is because the identity of the ‘people-as-aam aadmi’ is essentially empty, or you could say that its content ‘floats’.

At one level, the term aam aadmi denotes the ‘people’ defined in terms of the ‘bottom’ of the pyramid. At another, ‘the people’ also denotes a country’s population as a whole. Every Indian, even the richest and the most powerful, is a member of the set ‘Indian people’. This double articulation is the condition of possibility for both populism in general, and also specifically, the AAP’s populism as articulated through the identity of ‘aam aadmi’. Its floating nature becomes apparent when we compare it to a concurrent identity such as ‘working class’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Dalit’—of course, these identities are not totally fixed either, but clearly their content is less contingent, and more explicitly stained by a pre-determined socio-historical matrix.

A key takeaway, especially for India, that follows from Laclau’s theorization of populist reason is his contention that while populism has no ideology in itself, any ideology, including totalitarian ones, can don populist garb in order to gain power. Hitler and Mussolini are obvious historical precedents.

Coming to the big question on everyone’s lips, whether or not the AAP finds traction in the rest of India will depend largely on whether or not it is able to activate a social dichotomy the way it did in Delhi. Caste, ethnicity, and religion are clearly impediments that splinter the political space along multiple identities and different modes of political articulation (what Laclau calls the “logic of difference"), making it that much more difficult to mobilize the logic of equivalence.

And yet, a deepening polarization along socio-economic lines may make it easier for an increasing majority of Indians to see themselves as the ‘aam aadmi’ taken for granted by an elite that controls their lives from afar.

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