Vinod Mubayi


A few months ago, when talk of the 2014 elections began to dictate discussion of Indian polity, it was the Congress-dominated UPA vs. the BJP-dominated NDA that were posed as the alternatives. The sudden entry of the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, borrowing the term “Aam AAdmi first used by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh,  has changed this discourse considerably.


When Narendra Modi was proclaimed as the BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister last October 2013, on the orders of the RSS, it was still Congress-dominated UPA and BJP-dominated NDA that were seen as the principal adversaries. A month later, the state elections in Rajasthan, M.P., Chhattisgarh, and Delhi, showed that the Congress had entered a deep decline.  It was defeated comprehensively in the two states, Rajasthan and Delhi, where it was ruling and could not benefit from an anti-incumbency vote in the other two states ruled by BJP, which was able to maintain its rule there.


While BJP was celebrating, the real story of these elections was in the capital, where BJP won a plurality but could not secure a majority. AAP placed second in number of seats just behind BJP and in one of its few wise moves in the last several years, Congress decide to offer support to an AAP government.  The outcome has so far been little short of astonishing, especially in the context of Indian politics.  The BJP-Modi juggernaut appears to have been sidelined for now as all the political oxygen has been sucked up by AAP.  Meanwhile, on the advice of Sonia Gandhi, one of its wiser leaders, the Congress declined to name Rahul Gandhi as its candidate for PM. Although Rahul made an uncharacteristically feisty speech at the recently concluded Congress enclave that revved up the Congress faithful it is difficult to judge whether it changed the common view of him as a political lightweight.


AAP, which was formed barely a year ago, began its journey on the single issue of corruption; it touched off a chord that seems to have resonated across the urban public, especially the youth, spanning the entrenched divides of class, caste, ethnic origin, and religious affiliation. Delhi capital region is a microcosm of the whole country, as people have come there from all states and regions in search of employment.  Traditionally, Delhi had been ruled either by BJP or Congress, who, over the years, had established their hold over various voting blocs. The AAP’s electoral victory over many Congress/BJP “heavyweights” revealed that corruption in fact represented a deeper malaise – the dissatisfaction of urban youth, whether upper middle, lower middle, or poor in terms of class, with the functioning of the existing political system that seemed to deny any entry or agency.


AAP’s style of establishing a mohalla-level participatory democracy offered an instant and encouraging alternative to the bureaucratic-political system that dominates civic life and institutionalizes corruption in urban India. Before AAP was formed its leader, Kejriwal, was instrumental in launching the Anna Hazare-led movement for the Jan Lokpal (peoples’ ombudsman) that was supposed to act as an independent authority for assuring probity in public affairs on a coeval level with the national legislature and the government bureaucracy. The Jan Lokpal is now in the process of being set up but Kejriwal, who had in the meantime broken up with Hazare and some of his other followers, decided a year ago that entering the political fray directly was the way to go.


AAP’s predecessors were the civil society mobilizations of the 1970s, such as the JP movement, and later the VP Singh led movement against the Bofors scandal in the late 1980s. While the latter also was energized by the issue of corruption its class base and rhetoric was different. The leadership of AAP comes from the urban middle class of engineers, lawyers and other professionals, including former government officials such as Kejriwal. These segments like to consider themselves as apolitical or even anti-political; for them politics and politicians are identified with parties like BJP and Congress, which are seen as intrinsically corrupt beholden to their caste, ethnic, religious, or class bases. However, AAP’s voters, at least in Delhi, spanned a wide segment of the urban youth from the middle class to slum dwellers, who would appear to have little in common apart from anger and disgust with existing political parties.  AAP offered an exciting alternative of participatory democracy fueled by the new internet technologies and social media networks that have penetrated widely in urban India.


But can this diverse coalition cohere, especially in a party that claims to disdain any type of ideology?


The upwardly mobile class may be disenchanted with conventional politics, but their desire for more market-oriented “freedom” may clash with the segments of the poor who would like more from the state in terms of greater entitlements or services, which are currently denied to them.


AAP’s leadership may deride the notion of “ideology” as old-fashioned jargon, but on vital issues they will have to take a stand to sustain the party. Take the issue of communalism, for example. One AAP leader, Kumar Vishwas, is on record supporting the fascist Modi, while other leaders have opposed BJP. Of course, BJP may itself attack AAP and push it into a corner if it feels that AAP could take away some of its vote base, which will force AAP to define its stand. On another important policy issue, Kashmir, the AAP leader Prashant Bhushan made a sensible statement to reduce the Indian Army presence, but had to disavow it when attacked by the “patriotic” mainstream media.


More recently, some actions of sections of the AAP government in Delhi have come in for severe criticism, such as vigilante raid led by the Law Minister Somnath Bharti on African women living in New Delhi who were accused of drug dealing and prostitution, and humiliated and strip-searched in an abominably racist way. These kinds of opportunistic, anarchic actions may pander to the racial and sexual prejudices of sections of the Indian population but are unlikely to resonate with AAP’s middle-class base.


AAP has positive potential as shown by its practice of grassroots democratic politics, which energized sections of a previously apathetic middle-class youth and brought them into touch with the realities of Indian society and politics. If this movement avoids some of the pitfalls of functioning and governance and holds together, it may evolve into an important political force. It has openly stated its ambition of contesting a significant number of seats for the Lok Sabha in the coming elections. If by doing so it can ensure the defeat of the fascist Modi and the BJP it will have fulfilled an important task.

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