13-19 December 2013 #685

Hare overtakes tortoises

India’s anti-corruption citizen party has potential to upset next year’s general elections
Ajaz Ashraf
HINDUSTAN TIMES/GETTY IMAGES
TWIST IN THE TALE: Members of the Aam Aadmi Party celebrate the party’s astonishing performance in the Delhi Assembly election at AAP office on 8 December.
The astonishing performance of India’s anti-corruption citizens’ party has injected a new idea into the country’s fractured polity, an idea likely to affect the 2014 general elections. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stumbled at the finish-line in the Delhi Assembly election this week, but it ensured the city-state had to contend with a hung Assembly and perhaps witness yet another round of election.

More significantly, it has made it difficult to predict the magnitude of the wave that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can generate in next year’s general elections. The Delhi result suggests that wherever a credible alternative to the Congress exists, the BJP’s Narendra Modi might not be able to wean voters to his fold. The Delhi election mirrored the proverbial race between the hare and the tortoise. The tortoise was the AAP and the two political behemoths – the Congress and the BJP – symbolised the hare. The AAP doggedly began to crawl from the starting line six months before the assembly election, choosing its candidates for a clutch of constituencies and sending teeming volunteers on house-to-house calls.

The AAP ran the race on its own terms, trying to be the change it was campaigning for and winning hearts. It mustered a campaign kitty of only IRs 200 million, disclosed the names of its donors, did not use musclemen, withdrew a candidate who hadn’t disclosed cases pending against him, and fielded just one contestant (out of 70) who had prior experience of assembly or parliamentary polls.

The AAP also largely eschewed the politics of identity. It opted to speak in a cross-sectoral language, best exemplified through its campaign against extortionately high electricity and water bills, linking it to corruption: a compromised government formulating policies to benefit the big businesses operating in the utility sector. It was an audacious attempt to fashion an appeal across classes.

The AAP’s exceptional performance testifies to the emergence of a new group of Indian voters and the advent of a new political consciousness in the bustling metros. The new voters are willing to forget their class-caste-religious identities to create a common and shared space for participating in politics as citizens. They believe it is time to replace the venal system with one that is both transparent and effective and define their political role as unceasing, not confined to casting their vote every five years.

For sure, AAP leaders will now step into the national arena. In the 2014 general elections, the party will target 40 constituencies in eight cities having a population of over five million, another 20 big-city constituencies, and a few surrounding Delhi. The AAP’s strong showing in the capital will inspire its volunteers into believing it is possible to divorce money-muscle from election, for the small to trounce the big, and that politics is not necessarily the last refuge of scoundrels.

The AAP’s rise impacts the BJP more than the Congress, which has been steadily losing ground for factors too stark to retell. For one, the BJP has been traditionally stronger in urban than rural India. Second, BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has come to personify development and decisive leadership, but his self-avowed attributes have in no way altered the project of turning India Hindu. His campaign appeals to urban aspiring classes and those sensitive about their Hindu identity.

During the 90s, a resurgent Hindutva had found a match in the policy of granting reservation to socially and economically backward classes. This arrested the BJP’s rise, but the reservation policy is today bitterly divided and perhaps dissipated. Might not the repackaged Hindutva, with Modi as its brand ambassador, have to contend in urban India against the competing contrarian idea of the AAP?

There are imponderables to factor in. One, the political mindsets of metro citizens differ remarkably from those in smaller cities and towns. For the latter, the pull of identity politics still remains strong. Two, the AAP is also limited by the four months that remain for parliamentary elections. Three, can the AAP convince urban voters to cast their ballot in the 2014 elections considering it is inconceivable it can lead a coalition? But then, the Indian electorate has become so inured to a hung Parliament that it might be willing to give the AAP clout to transform the political system.

ashrafajaz3@gmail.com

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