What is two years in the life of a new political party? Particularly when the party does not have pedigree, it would certainly become the object of mild curiosity and much contempt from the establishment.
That is exactly what happened to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Until it stormed Delhi in December 2013. After that, the AAP became the talk of the town. Some held it in awe. Some saw it as an omen of destabilising tendencies; some read a spring of democratic revolution in it. Until it resigned in a huff within 49 days of assuming power in Delhi. Once it did that, it looked like it had run out of steam.
A year on after that hara-kiri, the party has once again taken over Delhi and in what style! Now everyone would find virtue in the party. This is something curious: you may eulogise it, you may grumble about it, but it is impossible to ignore the AAP. One may attribute this to the smart way in which the AAP capitalised on the media attention it has been getting. But there is no point denying something extraordinary about the party. A deeply political leadership has steered a vocal but almost anti-political band of ‘democracy enthusiasts’ into engaging with established parties on an unprecedented scale.
The AAP has broken the barriers set by the FPTP system and years of big-party dominance—twice. It has gatecrashed the ‘party’ that only established parties enjoyed so far. A rank outsider, the AAP is now set to rule Delhi for next five years. Will the gatecrasher become a routine part of our competitive politics? Will it yet retain the ‘outsider’ image? In the first place, however, how does one make sense of its gigantic victory? If one goes by the description of the BJP’s 282-seat victory in parliamentary elections as a ‘wave’, what does one call the AAP’s Delhi sweep? If the BJP’s 31 per cent voteshare then looked like a dramatic achievement, what superlative would do justice to AAP’s 54 per cent? Simply put, the AAP captured the imagination of the voters of Delhi. Its work in the bastis of Delhi and its goodwill among the colonies combined to produce this victory.
Most electoral success stories of India pertain to a balance between playing up faultlines and yet building numerically formidable but socially contradictory coalitions. In this sense, the AAP victory in Delhi is so very like the BJP victory of last year and in turn, the BJP victory of last year too was so much like the older victories of the Congress party: in these victories, there is a successful effort to construct a social coalition that is both broad-based and yet having a specific tilt. Such a coalition is then presided over by a leader who claims to have the capacity to reconcile the irreconcilable interests and aspirations of the members of the social coalition. Last year, Modi presided over a social coalition that sought to base itself in the newly swelling middle of the social structure. That effort created an impression that the political space for a social coalition mainly based within the lower half of the social hierarchy had disappeared. At least in Delhi, the AAP has shown that such a space is extant and, what’s more, politically viable. At the same time, the AAP’s politics seems to be based on privileging the lower half without engaging with the differential between the lower half and the upper-middle sections. This fits in with the traditional Congress style of politics (pre-Indira Gandhi) where class mattered—but without being the focal point of contestation.
So what does this victory portend? In the short run, the AAP has shown that the BJP, which appeared well-entrenched and unassailable, can be cut to size. Of course, there is no reason why the BJP would be defeated in every subsequent election. The old style leadership consisting of Laloo-Nitish-Mulayam would not be able to easily defeat the BJP. However, the victory of the AAP has effectively wiped out the halo of invincibility from the face of the BJP. Those concerned with the excesses of the BJP and the political opponents of the BJP may feel happy about this. But this is not the main contribution of the AAP—it is only a secondary gain.
More substantively, the victory of the AAP has achieved two interrelated things. On the one hand, it has diverted the anti-political energies of the Anna movement into electoral politics. The emphasis of that movement was on discrediting the ‘political class’. Also, the party has brought into politics a new set of actors—those with no experience in politics.
One big problem that AAP will face is of expanding beyond Delhi. It will also have to find a way of retaining its part-time cadres.
There have been some efforts earlier to bring in new faces. Rajiv Gandhi famously tried that—more cosmetically, his efforts were limited to the elite who were not active politically. Otherwise, most new political actors of the non-Congress variety often come from movement-participants. The AAP has managed to create an impression that really ordinary persons can enter the political arena. This has opened up possibilities of a totally new experiment in India’s democratic politics. We do not know how much and how long it would succeed. We do not know if it would succeed beyond Delhi. But in principle its worth is undeniable. Democracy often tends to get routinised and antidotes such as these become important to save democracy from the establishment it generates.
Whether this moment of victory would turn into something durable would depend much upon how the AAP conducts itself. And this ‘conduct’ is not so much about lal battis, perks of representatives and other rather superficial manifestations of ‘change’, though they do have symbolic value. But the project that the AAP has taken upon itself would be better served if it goes beyond performative politics and handles three critical challenges. These challenges are less about manners and simplicity; they are about the real thing—politics.
The first would be the challenge of governance. People have voted the party to govern. In the campaign for the recent election, Kejriwal did come out with many new policy issues, but he and many like him in the AAP seem to be suspicious of governmental power and its exercise. The ultra-democratic ideas of governance sit ill with the huge expectations voters have posited. The fear is not that the AAP’s elected representatives will become corrupt; the fear is that they would not understand the logic of power and governmentality. Like ‘Main hoon Anna (I am Anna)’, ‘Main hoon sarkaar (I am government)’ may become the slogan. It can be attractive but problematic as it may manifest through vigilantism. Many organisations across the country resort to vigilantism. The AAP may be tempted to theorise it, institutionalise it and treat it as expression of popular will. So, it is not the fear of Kejriwal resigning again, but the fear of new dispensation unleashing government by vigilantes that constitutes the anxiety over the governance challenge. The corrupt, arrogant and self-serving governance model of the Congress and Modi’s emergent model of personalised authoritarian governance need a robust, long-term response in the realm of governance. To construct such a response, the AAP would need to grow from a party of angry protests to a party of democratic governance. People outside Delhi will be watching too.
Everyone will also be watching how the party expands. As stated above, bringing ordinary people into politics is an important agenda. To realise that agenda, the AAP would need to respond to the challenge of expansion. It has conquered Delhi; but India remains to be captured. As a predominantly urban, ‘babufied’ social universe, as a political unit with limited expanse and a compact set of problems, Delhi’s politics happens to be somewhat unique. Sustenance of the party would depend on its expansion beyond Delhi. So far, the expansion has been very limited. All its MPs come from Punjab, where it has goodwill and no organisation. In the recent Haryana election, the party missed a golden opportunity to electorally move out of Delhi and yet reap the harvest of proximity to Delhi. Unless the party expands its base in a few states, the present euphoria would evaporate.
Above all, the fundamental challenge for the AAP would be the challenge of sustaining the model of aam admi politics. As of now, the party has only rhetoric and no ‘model’ as to how to bring ordinary people to politics. On the one hand, most of its ‘active’ cadre come from relatively well-off and self-employed sections. True, that the party has ignited the imagination of large numbers of ‘ordinary’ persons about a brush with active politics. But they are sill away from politics. This is not a criticism. This is a challenge and a dilemma. Doing politics requires resources (both individually and collectively as a party). The AAP has rather surprisingly succeeded in generating resources to finance its campaigns. But it will have to raise resources to run the party. It will also have to evolve a model of part-time cadres, rather than full-time workers. Already, many elected representatives are social workers, social activists or political activists—either with the safety of family businesses or truly without independent source of income. In either case, they are not the aam admi. For the real aam admi, a full-time political career would mean serious issues of livelihood. Can there be ways of balancing party work and one’s family obligations? There is no clue how the AAP leadership proposes to resolve this other important issue. Otherwise, only those who have the social and material capital would afford to become social activists—something the AAP would not want to happen.
It is barriers like these that await to be gatecrashed. As the party crashes the gates of competitive politics, it remains to be seen how wide it manages to open those doors and for whom.
(Suhas Palshikar teaches political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.)