29 November-5 December 2013 #683

Democracy’s guerrillas

For the first time in four decades, India is getting an alternative political party to hold its own in elections
Ajaz Ashraf
As assembly elections to the Indian capital approach, the new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) faces a host of accusations, most of which are either unfounded or difficult to prove. It’s not known what impact these accusations will have on the AAP, but the anti-corruption citizen’s party has re-imagined contemporary Indian political culture.

The AAP has reclaimed the ideals of Indian democracy that have been so persistently violated over the decades that they are now simply dismissed as manifestations of bygone idealism. The AAP’s charm lies in its audacity in attempting to translate this impractical idealism into reality.

When the AAP was formed less than a year ago, Indian political pundits thought it was bound to be a non-starter. Presumably, they reached this conclusion because their own perception of the political culture’s sheer imperviousness to impulses of change. They said that in order to succeed, a political party must adhere to one or two of the six principles of the Indian polity and the AAP did not seem to subscribe to any of them.

The first principle: charisma. The AAP lost the services of its most charismatic leader, Anna Hazare, who was opposed to his comrades entering politics. Charisma, we all know, helps overcome organisational shortcomings. Second: money. It was deemed the AAP couldn’t possibly muster the massive financial resources required to be competitive, even in a quasi-state such as Delhi. Its anti- corruption rhetoric was bound to alienate corporate money-bags, as would its avowed principle of making public the names of donors.

The third principle: cronyism. Its members had no prior experience of electoral politics and did not belong to families steeped in Indian politics for generations. The AAP, therefore, could not depend on India’s famed patronage system to gather votes. Fourth: firepower. The party lacked the muscle considered necessary to intimidate the poor into cast their ballot in its favour. Fifth: manpower. The AAP didn’t possess cadres who have been ideologically schooled and trained, as is true of the Left parties and the BJP.

And the sixth and most important principle: audience. The party’s appeal was said to be confined to the middle class, which is considered notoriously fickle in its political allegiances and too indolent to even turn up at the polling booth. The AAP’s rhetoric did not even target a populous caste, which could constitute its committed voter-base and to which they could then weld other social groups.

Almost all opinion polls have predicted that the AAP is slated to perform well. Should it indeed poll a respectable vote-share, it could perhaps become the only new Indian party in recent times to succeed even as it flouted the six basic principles of India’s political culture.

No doubt, the last 30 to 40 years have seen a plethora of political parties emerge on the Indian landscape. However, most of them have been splinters from one or another organisation and have had as their spearheads those who were already seasoned politicians. For the first time in four decades, the AAP could emerge as the only new, centrist party to hold its own in an Indian election.

It has taken the AAP tremendous energy to defy the existing political culture. Its activists are what a friend calls democracy’s guerrillas, politicians overcoming obstacles through ingenious methods, whether in collecting funds or launching their poster-war or social media jousts.

The AAP’s ability to gather ‘clean money’ is decidedly the reason behind the hypocritical attacks the Congress and BJP have launched against its relatively small kitty of Rs 200 million.

Should the AAP manage a good showing in Delhi next month, its experiment could spawn a ripple effect in India’s more than 100 urban constituencies. It could then test the electoral waters in neighbouring Haryana state, where the opposition seems dispirited and decimated, and enter Mumbai, where goonda-gardi is considered the rite of passage for politicians. Should it fail, it still would need to be applauded for endeavouring to restore democratic ideals to the Indian polity.


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