An activist who became a Chief Minister, a Chief Minister who became his party’s official prime ministerial candidate, and a scion struggling to replicate the charisma and political success of his storied family were interesting sights of the year gone by. Beyond the rise and fall of politicians, 2013 marked the year of the citizens’ ascendancy. Political parties, never tired of claiming they represented the people, are finding to their dismay that a large section of the population has slotted them alongside the arms of the state like the bureaucracy and police. The Aam Aadmi Party’s giant-killing act in Delhi has raised questions about the concept of party organisation, hitherto viewed as an enabler for political participation. Relying on full-timers and an array of part-time volunteers drawn from varied social and professional backgrounds, the AAP became indistinguishable from the people, selecting candidates, preparing manifestos, and forming the government based on citizen’s views. By junking symbols of power like red beacon lights and security cordons, the AAP exploited the us-and-them distance between political parties and people; a chasm that was growing, yet one which no party wanted to address.
The AAP’s success was a fitting culmination to events and processes that began a long time ago.
The discontent with the political class is decades-old now. The advent of 24X7 news channels, social media, and a vocal urban citizenry gave new forms of expression to this discontent. The trigger was the inadequate political response to recurring scams, sticky inflation, economic slowdown, and pressing legislations. Yet another catalyst for change was the impending general elections in 2014. The BJP responded by anointing Narendra Modi as its PM candidate overriding the objections of veteran LK Advani. Since June, Modi has criss-crossed the country addressing dozens of rallies and pitched himself as the sole alternative to the UPA government. In recent weeks however, it is Arvind Kejriwal who has fired up the imagination of the country and it is the AAP’s forays into other states that are attracting more attention. Modi’s ambivalence on Lokpal/Lokayukta, the Gujarat riots, and minorities, hampers him despite the strong punches he is able to pull against the Congress’ failures of the past five years.
The Congress is meeting the challenge raised by Modi and AAP by vesting more power in Rahul Gandhi’s hands. Interestingly, Rahul has warned that he will “change the Congress in ways no one thought possible” but doubts persist over his capacity to effect such sweeping changes.
Though Rahul influenced his party’s decisions on disqualifying convicted legislators, the Lokpal legislation and now the Adarsh housing scam report, each time the Congress came out looking bruised by the Gandhi scion’s whims. On issues affecting their freedoms like political parties coming under the RTI Act and disqualification of convicted legislators, most parties have appeared uncomfortable and resentful of the popular pressure. With the cry for alternative politics gaining ground, those who first raised such slogans, the regional parties, are some of the worst culprits. Among them, the Samajwadi Party’s positions on most issues — be it on corruption or women’s and minority rights — have ranged from the regressive to the bizarre.
The year also saw Parliament pass big-ticket legislations like the food security, land acquisition and the Lokpal bills. But precious little work was otherwise accomplished leaving 122 bills pending in both houses. The latter half of the year saw the Manmohan Singh government work with greater purpose towards curbing the current account deficit and putting crucial projects on the fast-track to bolster investment and kickstart growth. But the failure to prioritise inflation, which has remained high for over three years now, has hurt the UPA government more badly than it is ready to accept. Like 1977, when Indian democracy reinvented itself after Indira Gandhi’s oppressive regime, the ground for a political renaissance in 2014 was laid this year.