It was George Bernard Shaw, famous Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics, who said politics is the last resort of the scoundrel. Perhaps a tailor-made quote for politicians in India? With corruption, criminalisation and dynastic rules rampant in politics, the anger and frustration of Indians have reached a tipping point. Or so it seems. A new phenomenon has emerged in India over the past 12 months. That phenomenon is called the Aam Admi Party (AAP).
The following months will tell us whether Narendra Modi will become the prime minister of India or whether AAP will turn the tables. India’s general elections will be held from 7 April to 12 May. The big story that is brewing today is the story of AAP, quite literally the common man’s party, which has emerged from nowhere to grab so much attention.
Amitabh Mattoo, Director of the Australia India Institute and Professor of International Relations at the University of Melbourne, says, “The jury is still out on whether the AAP is a zeitgeist of the contemporary history of our times but it is some of the exciting moments in contemporary Indian history.”
So how was the AAP born, why was it born and what are its strengths and weaknesses? According to Mattoo, two major incidents among others led to the birth of the AAP -- the infamous Nira Wadia tape leaks, which broke out just after the Commonwealth Games fiasco, exposing the whole huge corporate-political-media nexus thereby destroying their credibility, and the anti- corruption movement in 2011 by Anna Hazare. “India was then looking for one iconic figure. And Hazare, a Gandhian led one of the strongest movements against corruption.”
But the real organiser behind the anti-corruption movement was this low profile, former income tax officer and former IIT graduate Arvind Kejriwal. “Unlike the middle class radicalism of many, Kejriwal was not there for expressive reasons alone. He believed the only way of getting mobilisation was through the use of political power,” says Mattoo. But when Kejriwal announced the formation of AAP, Hazare and Kiran Bedi, the other staunch supporter of the movement, distanced themselves from him. So what. AAP trounced the ruling Congress in the state elections soon after, came to power, albeit short, riding on a huge middle class, urban support. Some called it a ‘whiff of fresh air’.
And after ruling for just 49 days, Kejriwal on February 14 announced his resignation as Chief Minister of Delhi after his push for the anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill was blocked in the state legislature by MLAs from the Congress and the BJP. The move is seen by some as part of AAP’s strategy to focus on the coming general elections. Others have called it shirking away from responsibility of governance. Others still are disappointed by AAP’s excessive focus on dharnas. However, blaming negative media attention, senior leader Prashant Bhushan defends, “AAP has not haemorrhaged support in the intellectual and professional class. We have to hammer in our message of anti-corruption. That's the first thing on the agenda. As far as the dharna is concerned, I feel it was misread because it was connected to the Somnath Bharti incident. By and large people would have supported the dharna if it was seen as a fight to get full statehood for Delhi.” Incidentally Bharti, former AAP law minister raked a controversy when he and his supporters allegedly conducted an illegal midnight raid against four African women suspected of drugs and prostitution racket.
With the broom as its symbol, AAP’s motto is to clean the filth which has permeated the system. “The country needs a clean sweep of its corrupted main stream political parties,” it states. The party has now thrown its hat into the ring for the Lok Sabha polls. In the Delhi elections, their promises were a mix of populism but also concerns which affected almost everyone, says Mattoo. “It called for an end to VIP culture of Delhi, reducing electricity bills by 50 per cent, providing 700 litres of free water daily, and most importantly an end to corruption.”
What is important now is to see whether AAP can move beyond Delhi. Critics say AAP’s appeal is restricted to the elite and will not percolate to the villages and semi-urban areas. But, says Mattoo, “There is a disagreement on what constitutes urban and middle class but they could be the potential game changer… For one here is a party without any religious, regional or language affiliation, it is a modern, liberal party focussed on the individual and individual needs of good governance, basic health, education, water, shelter, etc.”
Today, AAP’s membership is already 10 million encouraging a diverse group of people. Some of the party candidates are people such as Medha Patkar, Rajmohan Gandhi, Meera Sanyal. Its key strategist is eminent psephologist Yogendra Yadav.
But the party is also accused of having no economic ideology, only pro poor. At a recent Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), India’s apex industry body, meet, Kejriwal said his party was not against capitalism “but crony capitalism… Our economic policy is honest politics.” Is it enough? However, some were of the view that Kejriwal passed his CII test with flying colours answering questions directly without the evasions that all other party leaders resort to and seemed to have evolved from the somewhat regressive positions he espoused in his book, Swaraj. Earlier, Kejriwal had also attacked some of the biggest names in corporate India over gas pricing.
The question therefore: will the young, angry, impatient India give AAP a chance again? “The role of swaraj is a bit of idealism,” says Mattoo but adds, “Decentralisation of power has a great pull.”
For now the darling of the media, it will be exciting to see what the future unfolds for this ‘mad’ man who has created such a great buzz in Indian politics.