Against the backdrop of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stumbling at the finishing line in Delhi, it might seem ironical to focus on the political fledgling. Yet, the AAP’s astonishing showing must be highlighted because it has injected a new idea into the country’s fractured polity, an idea likely to sprout in the 2014 general election and blossom thereafter. This is a certainty, regardless of the cautious, even pessimistic, analyses of politicians and political pundits who, anyway, failed both to recognise the AAP’s rise and discern the appeal of its novel message.
Otherwise, too, the AAP imparted a frisson to what would have been an otherwise staid poll, erroneously thought to portend the dominant trends of the general election, due in another four months. Erroneous because elections in three states — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh — directly pit the Congress against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in sharp contrast to large parts of India witnessing triangular, even quadrangular contests. The AAP’s stupendous performance tells us that the expected battering of the Congress in 2014 need not mean a walkover for the BJP in areas where there are more than two serious contenders in the fray.
The assembly results have also made complex the task of gauging the magnitude of the wave that BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is capable of generating. No doubt, the BJP’s thumping victory in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan suggests that Modi will help augment the party’s tally in its strongholds. However, the close electoral battles in Chhattisgarh and Delhi indicate otherwise, particularly where there is a credible third choice.
No doubt, the Delhi election mirrored, to a great extent, the proverbial race between the hare and the tortoise. The tortoise was the AAP; the two political behemoths — the Congress and the BJP — symbolised the hare. The AAP, tortoise-like, doggedly began to crawl from the starting line six months before the assembly election, choosing their candidates for a clutch of constituencies, and sending their teeming volunteers on house-to-house calls.
Undoubtedly, the AAP ran the race on its own terms, trying to be the change it was campaigning for and winning hearts. It mustered a paltry campaign kitty of Rs20 crore, disclosed the names of its donors, did not harbour musclemen, withdrew a candidate who hadn’t disclosed cases pending against him, and fielded just one contestant (out of 70) who had a 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. This it linked to the menace of corruption: a compromised, callous government formulating policies to benefit the big businesses operating in the utility sector. Crony capitalism was portrayed to be steamrolling Delhiites. It was an audacious attempt to fashion an appeal across classes, as also to bridge the chasm that Mandir-Mandal politics has created.
The AAP’s exceptional performance testifies to the emergence of a new Indian voter, to the advent a new political consciousness, not necessarily across the country, but at least in the bustling metros and urban sprawls. The new voter is willing to forget his or her myriad class-caste-religious identities to create a common and shared space for participating in politics as citizens.
He and she believe it is time to replace the venal system with one that is both transparent and effective, and define their political role as continuous and unceasing, and not confined to casting their vote every five years.
For sure, AAP leaders will now step into the national arena. For starters, in the 2014 general election, the party will target neighbouring Haryana, segments of west Uttar Pradesh bordering Delhi, and 40 constituencies in eight cities having a population of over 50 lakh. Add to this another 20 constituencies which are purely urban, having no rural segment. The AAP’s strong showing in Delhi will inspire its volunteers and the people into believing it is possible to divorce money-muscle from elections, for the small to trounce the big, and that politics is not necessarily the last refuge of the scoundrels.
The AAP’s rise impacts more the BJP 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, rather 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 Sangh’s Hindutva project of turning India Hindu. His campaign appeals to urban aspiring classes and those sensitive about their Hindu identity.
During the Nineties, a resurgent Hindutva had found a match in a muscular Mandal. These two contrasting ideas presented before the people the two imaginings of India. It was because of Mandal the BJP could not penetrate beyond central Uttar Pradesh. Sure, the Mandal forces, in different avatars, are still guarding their citadels, but they, unlike in the Nineties, are 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, can the AAP convince the urban voter to vote for it in the 2014 elections, considering it is inconceivable it can form a government on its own or 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 ample clout to transform the political system. Three, the AAP is also limited by the four months that remain for the Lok Sabha polls.
For the Congress, its failure to wrest back Madhya Pradesh reinforces the belief that whenever the Congress loses a state, the party finds it extremely difficult to reclaim it. Think Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Decades of wielding power has made the party adept at handling the levers of governance, but it remains clueless about the politics of agitation. No longer can it postpone its return to the politics of the street, which is where budding leaders are found and a new vision crafted. The Congress should ask Kejriwal to make a presentation to them.
The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist.