Sunday, May 4, 2014

Reflections from Election Campaigning in Delhi

                                                                              --by Vipul Shaha, Baramati, Maharashtra
                                                                                                             vipulshaha [at]
(R)-Evolution of the Future

I have come to believe that the real revolution (rather evolution) required in current times of global socio-economic-ecological strife is the (r) evolution of human heart, a collective rise in human consciousness that sensitizes the core of our being, a shift from consumption to contribution, isolation to community, transaction to trust and scarcity to abundance  (in turn a shift from competition to cooperation) as Nipunbhai Mehta has very beautifully articulated from his journey in the space of service. 

Based on my own learning journey so far, I sense the inevitability of, in my own lifetime, a mass movement in the direction of re-ruralization of India…(or rurbanization as a friend conceived it)…a movement of voluntary simplicity and back-to (or forward to!) basics lifestyle, sustainable, holistic ways of being in harmony with the natural surroundings and the glocal (global + local) community.  While that radical movement does not appear to be round the corner as yet, what do we do in the interim term is the question. 

Do we lose all hope and submit to business-as-usual—clinging onto false hope that if only we could get more efficient playing with the current rules of the game, we’ll finally get there (the league of global superpowers maybe)? Do we continue to pretend and live under the illusion that the planet can support infinite GDP growth for the welfare of all its inhabitants—current and future?

The peak oil and climate change crisis are making it harder to ignore the inconvenient reality of the situation. The global economic and political superstructures built through the colonial-industrial era are gasping for final breaths, desperately trying to safeguard their control driven existence.  The change of humanity’s course is inevitable, and sooner it wakes up to it, the lesser painful the transition will be.  The only other alternative would mean accepting a total collapse, tremendous socio-ecological unrest and unprecedented violence.  Ample signs of mini-crashes are increasingly evident in our immediate surroundings as well as at national and global level.  Gross socio-economic inequity and injustice has only amplified over the last two decades of ‘economic liberalization’ in India as highlighted in this extensively researched paper by Kalpvriksh.

Advocating for a new socio-economic model based on trusteeship, Gandhiji writes: “The contrast between the palaces of New Delhi and the miserable hovels of the poor laboring class nearby cannot last one day in a free India in which the poor will enjoy the same power as the richest in the land.  A violent and bloody revolution is a certainty one day, unless there is a voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give and sharing them for the common good.”

Unfortunately, the grip of ‘modern civilization’ is so deeply entrenched in our thought and habit patterns that despite intuitively sensing the brewing unrest, it gets mostly ignored or suppressed with either deluded hope or even open ridicule.  Mere intellectual rhetoric or public debate won’t suffice in order to awaken the mind, it seems.  Something more direct and experiential that throws us ‘off-balance’ and challenges many of our pre-held assumptions and conditionings around the ideas of growth, development, progress, may be able to bring us back to our senses and release us from the trappings of our own mind.   Perhaps, that’s the belief that pushes me to serve in situations and explore places that disrupt my own set comfort zones.

The Big Disconnect and The Class Divide

I had never imagined being part of a political campaign.  Politics, to be frank, always seemed too dirty to touch.  Life, however, keeps throwing new surprises and often times I have chosen to rise to the occasion.  Politics touches pretty much every aspect of our life is what I have now come to realize.  During recent elections, I found myself campaigning for Rajmohan Gandhiji, who contested for the Lok Sabha seat on Aam Aadmi platform in East Delhi.  Since many years, my family has been associated with him through Initiatives of Change, which he was instrumental in establishing in India.  Having received so much from that space and knowing about the purity of his intentions in contesting these elections, I was drawn to serve whatever small part I could during his campaign.  His incredibly inspiring life journey only further convinced me why the Indian parliament should not lose a credible candidate like him.  I also took pride in the fact that I was serving with the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, with whom my own grandfather had volunteered in his youth during the freedom movement.

Even at his senior age, Rajmohanji has relentless energy—working from 6 am right until 11 pm or even later at times!  In the mornings, we must have visited hundreds of thousands of hutments, walking tirelessly through narrow and often extremely filthy alleyways in the slum communities and trying to connect with the people at a personal, human level.  Along with some volunteers, we also went to mega-sports complexes, jogging parks, apartment buildings, private housing societies, metro station and mall localities…there was a palpable difference in the way the middle and upper-middle class / educated people responded to our appeal for vote and the more ‘on-the ground’, daily-wage earning, working class people did.  Often times, it was the upper and the middle class, educated folks that we had the hardest time having a cordial conversation with!  There were many exceptions of course.  Sometimes when faced with indifference or rude comments, or doors closed on us, or just sheer exhaustion taking over, I kept reminding myself of the famous Gandhi quote:  “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

The 3 weeks spent in Delhi left quite intense impressions on me.  I had numerous encounters with countless aam aadmi (common people) striving hard for their daily survival. There were several instances when I felt utterly hopeless, insignificant, enraged or even guilty about the huge socio-economic divides across the city.  Their pitiable living conditions and the plight for survival kept bringing up several questions in mind. 

Found this man carrying heavy loads of bricks on the 3rd floor of a building being constructed.  He has lost one of his arms due to an accident.  When we tried to strike up a conversation with the man, his supervisor became quite angry and suspicious of us.
Why is there so much misery despite so much opulence around? What is the interconnection between the two? Why do people choose to live in slums when the countryside is so widespread and beautiful? Do they even have a choice? Where do we begin the process of total transformation as opposed to mere patchwork?  What’s at the root? Why should they even vote, when 60 years of a supposed democratic rule has probably only worsened their situation?  

While at the back of my mind, I carried the burden of these questions, I was amazed and inspired by the sense of optimism, faith, and sheer hard work with which the aam aadmi folks embraced the odds in their lives.  Rajmohanji expressed the need for bridging the apparent disconnect between the slums and the adjacent affluent communities—in the process both would be elevated.  Geographically the two may be not too far apart, but in terms of their respective lifestyles and unique challenges, they were two worlds apart.  Rajmohanji with his kind temperament and ability to see beauty in every being touched an instant cord with the otherwise invisible and hardworking grass-root heroes. 

Time and again we witnessed tremendous entrepreneurial energy and street-smartness amongst common people—a clay artist making religious idols, potters, music instrument makers, bamboo artisans, people who repair and mend items of daily use, fruit vendors, rickshaw pullers, daily wage earners…all aspiring towards a common human desire to not just survive but also to thrive! Unfortunately, the way currently our society is organized, few people thrive (in economic/material terms) on the backs of a vast majority that is caught up in the survival game.

If we consider some of the holistic aspects of human development--mental / physical health, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, even the so called civilized or 'developed' societies suffer in a competitive, consumption driven growth paradigm--as argued by author Charles Eisenstein and many others.

“Violence is the weapon of the weak…” –M.K. Gandhi

Getting into conversations with auto rickshaw drivers, who almost always happened to be very amicable Aam Aadmi Party supporters, I was impressed how politically savvy and fearless they were.  They had tasted in 49 days of Aam Aadmi rule a new possibility of corruption-free governance.  The policemen who used to often harass them, had to keep low during those seven weeks when AAP was in power.  The same harassment, bribe-seeking tendencies sprang back to life immediately after the party resigned from power.  Despite that, the auto-drivers kept freely posting the party banners on the back hoods (for which they had the election commission permission and yet many policemen kept tearing those off!).  The auto-rickshaw drivers often offered to transport us across the city, without taking money, as their way of contributing to the campaign! 

I almost got picked up by the police for allegedly distributing campaign materials without permission, (which was a baseless accusation—because the rule is that you need a permission if you’re in more than a group of 5).  The sense of fear and insecurity was clear in the eyes of the cop who tried to intimidate me.  I could only offer my compassion even as a more stern, law-savvy friend thankfully rushed to my rescue!  From election commission, to media to police force, it seemed as if systemic energies were applied to crush the smooth running of the campaign in one way or the other.  Nothing could have been farther from the truth when false allegations against Rajmohan Gandhiji—a person of highest character and integrity—were being circulated by the candidate from the opposition party (who in fact has 4 criminal cases pending against him!).  They called Rajmohanbhai a separatist force in the country running terrorist camps out of Panchgani! The ugly side of politics was showing its colors.  Why is it so difficult for goodness and truth to prevail in our democracy, I kept asking myself.  When personal egos and a scrambling for money, power, fame and status take over, the very purpose of politics is lost.  

Occasionally, the AAP volunteers had to bear the brunt of public anger, from hard-core supporters of the opposition party.  There is so much cynicism, so much distrust, hatred, sense of betrayal, defeat and weakness among a class of people that when faced with a 'cognitive dissonance' that threatens their heavily protected existing identity—they cannot control themselves and readily vent out their frustration onto another being--or at least that's the explanation I offered myself! We saw people spitting in disgust in front of our eyes, tearing off campaign papers and throwing it in our face, giving nasty words and getting very aggressive.  A friend even had stones thrown at him while another friend had his car windshields smashed overnight.  Again, I wondered what causes so much separation among human beings just based on their political affiliations?  Do basic human values have to be compromised in the name of our loyalty to a particular person, party or even religion?  Deeper down, I sensed a tremendous turmoil boiling in human hearts, yearning for a sense of oneness and healing. Sometimes people getting the opportunity to just being peacefully heard eased the tensions.  Unfortunately, politics and religion have tended to severe those unresolved wounds with their emotive rhetoric.   Navendu, a friend who specially flew down from Chicago for campaigning, narrateshis experiences from being a staunch right wing activist to now an AAPsupporter and how he worries about the communal / divisive impact of politics on youth psyche.

Being a foot-soldier with Jagbir and colors united!
Despite, the threat of violence and ridicule, so many volunteers showed up purely out of strong belief for the cause.  I was truly moved when a volunteer, who greatly struggled while walking (due to his physical disability), spent an entire afternoon with us during our door-to-door campaigning.  People had taken long leaves from work and given their whole self, volunteering for the campaign.  Many spent money out of their own pocket to travel long distances, or to feed fellow volunteers, and contribute towards any incidental expenses.  Some worked part-time, some on weekends or after work, others freely lent their vehicles, office spaces…whatever resources they had.  Independent journalists and filmmakers showed up to offer their expertise! Paid-volunteers from the other parties just could not understand this gift-culture phenomenon and kept asking us all sorts of questions! I observed how when people are fired up with a mission and there is purity of purpose, despite so much uncertainty, challenges, and chaos, somehow self-less giving and service-spirit finds its way to make things happen.

A Bold New Experiment…

I look at the Aam Aadmi Party, as a movement, attempting to (non-violently) dismantle the existing class hierarchy and shift the balance of power from a handful few to the masses.  Even while having to fit itself into the existing political framework, it aims to fundamentally transform the system from within the system.  Personally, this is a topic of theoretical interest to me—how far can a system tolerate change from within itself?  Could AAP succeed in radically transforming the politics in India (and the practice of democracy) or would the politics end up diluting the party from its original purpose and intentions?  Would it remain dynamic and responsive to the rapidly changing needs and the uncertainty of the times ahead of us, or would it become a yet another rigid mammoth that exists for the sake of its existence?

I believe all this will depend upon the collective citizenry of the country—on how far they get involved and actively support the shaping up of this movement, which is still in its nascent stages of development.  And by supporting it, I do not mean simply voting or campaigning for AAP, but actually constructively critiquing it, contributing to its manifesto making, taking part in the Gram Sabhas and Moholla Meetings and so many innumerable different ways of being an active citizen.  By its very conceptual framework, the ideal of Poorna Swaraj calls for responsible power to the people…and it can only succeed as far as the citizenry is awakened and willing to serve and contribute to community and national regeneration.  Those slums and crumbling mega cities for example, cannot be expected to be turned around with a magic wand (or broom!) called AAP / or for that matter any political party—by simply pressing that button on the voting machine…it will need people stepping out of their homes, finding those extra hours after work, on weekends, or even a lifetime commitment to shape up the course of collective action and cooperate (or not coopearate) with government machinery (depending upon the specific situation) and hold them accountable to deliver on certain key parameters.  

Without a renewed sense of volunteerism and living for a higher purpose in the spirit of service (which was widespread during the independence struggle), I do not think that the country can get itself out of the mess it is finding itself in…more despair and frustration would follow otherwise, irrespective of whichever party comes to power.  

Doing rough calculations, I was astonished to think of how much precious human (mostly youth) energy, time and money goes into simply trying to win elections for a single parliamentary candidate…never mind the assembly and other elections that keep popping up constantly and the countless number of hours wasted by people across the country watching news, and reading newspapers that spreads more hatred and distrust than hope and unity.  If only all that energy and resources could be somehow channelized towards a more constructive, longer term, community self-sustained wellbeing!

It would also be interesting to do a little thought-experiment and try to imagine what it would be like if somehow the universal franchise were extended to include the plant and animal kingdom?  What would they have to say about how this land should be governed?

Towards the Future (R)evolution

Vinoba Bhave, the spiritual successor of Mahatma Gandhi, has very thoughtfully laid out in his classic book--Swaraj Sastra--the key tenets of an ideal political order.  The spirit of service, self-reliance, non-violent strength and commensurate wages for all—these are the four pillars on which the edifice of the State should rest…the aim of Politics is to safeguard the entire good of all men, in every form and in such a way as not to produce conflict.”

That may be a tall order, however, it is not beyond human reach is the conviction with which he led his own life.  Swaraj or self-government based on non-violence (in economic, social and other spheres) is something worth striving towards is what he conveyed through his vision for a just world order while emphasizing that India has to devise its own unique model of self-governance and socio-economic development keeping the village self-reliance at its center.

While the current Aam Aadmi Party Manifesto may be far from the promise of attaining such a Poorna Swaraj and the paradigm shifts required to transition us towards a new sustainable model of socio-economic-ecological equilibrium, it can be expected to take key steps in that direction.

“...At least we see in it (the AAP manifesto) some glimpses of an alternative model of well-being, and given the number of AAP members who have led or been involved in genuine peoples’ movements, perhaps it can be helped further towards such a model,” says a leading environmentalist and researcher Ashish Kothari in his comparative analysis of party manifestos that was published in the HinduBusiness Line recently.
Ideals like Poorna Swaraj, decentralized governance, devolution of political power to common people, an open challenge to crony-capitalism, an economic model that places equal importance on ecology and economy, a stringent policy to weed out corruption, localized, strengthened and self-reliant rural economy, are welcome moves in the Indian political discourse.   Whether the country is ripe for its fruition, only time and our collective effort will tell.  Nevertheless, AAP has definitely rocked the boat and created immense churning in a rather dismal political scene.

I also believe that things are always evolving and cannot be strictly perfect from the get go.  Any infant struggles to find its balance during early stages, it falters for sometime, (and even adults do!) A movement of political overhaul in a country that had almost lost hope in politics is going to be a long, challenging one.  A political competition for power, that does not see beyond 5 year planning (planning for elections in most cases!) is not really going to solve the humungous challenges facing our times.

Ideally, politics (and a way of life) beyond separatist / polarizing tendencies, beyond lose-win situations…is what I would truly look forward to.  It is a continual process, a journey of self and societal transition and transformation however…the purity of intentions, clarity of direction, and most importantly the courage to walk upon it with rightful means are crucial indeed.

While it is important that concerned individuals ‘Be The Change’ and start channelizing their energies in more harmonious, sustainable, honest occupations with a service attitude, I do not believe that is enough for a mass movement to gain momentum.  And even though a mass movement in that direction may appear to be distant and inconceivable in the current scenario, we must explore what some of the key levers and crucial steps might be in preparing the ground for such a collective shift to take place in the least tumultuous fashion.  I am optimistic about the recent churning in political discourse…as a key (r) evolutionary step in that long-term transition which awaits humanity.  It may be a yet another false / deluded hope on my part.  Ultimately though, life cannot be sustained without faith, hope and love! 

Winding up campaigning in Delhi, I went straight to a Vipassana retreat, which was in itself quite a profoundly intense experience…reinforcing my belief that the clean-up task is both an outward as well as an inward process.  What if the misery and strife, visible externally, is merely the reflection of a troubled human consciousness? Well, that calls for a much deeper contemplation and a continual self-inquiry!

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