Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister and leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has become the face of India. Wherever I go, I find myself being questioned about the leader’s policies, what I think of him, what his rule might mean for my country, and what I expect of him. The most common thing I hear when people talk to me about him – and by people, I also include friends and family outside of India – is the kind of charisma they say he exudes.
With this in mind, to most of India and beyond, the local elections in the capital city seemed like it would be another win in Modi’s kitty – but it has proved to be otherwise.
To start with, the BJP has been very content with itself. It had the right image to take on the elections. In the run-up to the elections in New Delhi, it was a majoritarian power, capable of taking on anything. It seemed to be inclusive, with its ear to the ground as it beckoned the world’s leaders to weigh in on the direction that India must take, policy-wise.
But even as the nation’s attention was focused on the BJP and its work, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was busy regrouping after having licked its wounds following a debacle in the recent past. In February 2014, AAP’s head, Arvind Kejriwal, stepped down from the post as New Delhi’s Chief Minister after being thwarted from introducing the Delhi Jan Lokpal Bill (which was to create a civilian vigilante body against corruption), just 48 days after he assumed power, and he recommended the dissolution of the State Assembly. Most people had written the party off, claiming that the time had come for it to self-destruct.
Answering them all in style, the Aam Aadmi Party stood as a formidable force, taking on the nation’s newest giants in the local elections.
For the longest time, India’s political scene was dominated by The Congress (which was born in 1910, as an entity attempting to hold take charge of Indian administration in the face of British Rule), the BJP (an initiative born in 1951, which grew in strength in the aftermath of the Emergency in 1977), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist, and founded in 1925).
The birth of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) began with the previous round of elections in New Delhi as an attempt to recreate a political structure significantly divergent from the prevailing landscape. There were temporary comparisons to a one-time attempt in Tamil Nadu, with Lok Paritran, which was an initiative led by young men that fizzled out soon after a defeat. The AAP began as a protest that questioned everything that the Indian public was upset about: corruption and insufficient access to public goods, among other things. Success was inevitable. The AAP came with the promise of hope, and even delivered a fair amount of change for a bit – before decay set in.
One might have been quick to assume that they gave up. Most might give up in such circumstances, too. But the Aam Aadmi Party chose to rise like the proverbial phoenix, its myriad supporters remaining staunchly invested in the party’s capacity through sheer faith.
In the process, there was a lot of pruning: the jingoistic and less-committed members who didn’t put reform and party goals before their own considerations, were sheared away. All that was left was a group that looked at politics differently, a group that decided to rise above the clamour of politics to address the real issues that ailed the Indian democratic set-up.
What does the win mean?
Against a backdrop of disillusionment among a majority of the intelligentsia with the BJP’s inability to address problems in the nation, AAP managed to find support from all quarters. The credibility that comes with the promise of perseverance and the humility that underlies being able to issue public apologies outweighs the fact that the AAP is still wet around the ears. The masses were won over, and it was time to give them a second chance.
Another point to take into account is that the masses have become more discerning of what they want from their leaders. From the no-Modi wave, which came from a section of the population very clear about doing away with the BJP, to the fact that anti-incumbency was no longer a springboard to victory for the BJP, there was a lot of clarity in the choice-making this time around. What also worked in AAP’s favour was that there was zero polarization of the vote-bank on religious grounds.
This works very well in a nation whose youth are working very, very hard to bridge divides built on long-standing sectarian differences.
The AAP stands not just as the representative of a people who have chosen, but also as the scion of the unheard and marginalized masses. The wholesome perspective of livelihood that the AAP has chosen to keep at its epicenter of citizen rights – rather than the hackneyed ideas of illiteracy, poverty, and unemployment – enables understanding of the bigger picture.
Access is key here – not inherent inability. People are poor not because they can’t work but because they do not have access to resources. People are not unemployed because there are no jobs but because the job sector is skewed against inclusion. People are not uneducated because there aren’t enough schools but because there are too many schools that don’t have staff or budgets to begin with. The AAP has not only seen these slips between the cup and lip, but have also made it the very core of their policies, choices, and action points.
Sitting in Delhi, the AAP is not myopic so far as its sensibilities go. Take for instance, the nuclear debate. Kudankulam was, for a long time, a locally-centred debate. But the AAP has realized that it is more than just a single thread in the fabric of the Indian polity, society and economy, and has understood that there is tremendous importance to be given to the marginalized. While everyone else was busy arguing about the nitty-gritties of nuclear energy, the AAP asked for the fishermen in the region to be given a chance to talk about the impact that the nuclear plant could have on their lives. In the process, they empowered common man with the space for his voice to be heard.
While there certainly are a lot of points in the AAP-kitty that let it win the election, the Achilles heels in the BJP were also catalysts in making this happen. Propping Kiran Bedi as its electoral candidate was a puppet-response to the AAP’s choice of making an outsider the leader. The ensuing result was that a woman who was revered came across as a bit of a propped leader, parroting lines and being anything but the firebrand that she was known to be.
For starters, the victory could usher in a new chapter in politics. The young idealists who now hold the reins of a state’s future hold the promise of cleaning up the scene. What sets the AAP apart from the rest is the fact that their approach is skewed towards solving glaring problems. From their rhetoric to the broomstick as their symbolic motif of choice, the AAP has been incredibly clear that their agenda does not list legislative priority or privileges for parliamentarians as their key goals.
What it does, instead, is look at the real issues and work to solve them. In doing so, the AAP went so far as to apologise for abandoning Delhi in the previous elections – and went to grass-roots with solutions for the bigger issues. To the opposition, this came across as a threat. It was anarchy in operation to the parties driven by hierarchy, privilege and glamour that remained in the political scene for years.
In the days to come, the AAP has its work cut out for itself. The pre-election campaigns focused on the need to attend to corruption, drug trade, and the need to ensure access to quality water, education, technology and electricity as public goods and the like.
The AAP has buttressed its position on the promise of including the consumer-citizen’s voice in determining access to public goods. With this, a promise of encouraging politics as an attempt to open up channels to access qualitative public goods hangs in the air. In the pursuit of politics in that niche, it is important to monitor access, quality, participative inclusiveness and the vox pop – and not be lost in the redundancy of one-track economics. There is a sense of certainty that the AAP will deliver this and more: if the request they made to Reliance to make oil a part of the common resource-pool for all of India’s citizens is anything to go by, the future is set in many positive possibilities.