Home / Opinion / AAP’s triumph in Delhi: Will the spark spread?

When the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) drew a blank in Delhi in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it was written off by many. It was widely believed that the decision of its convener, Arvind Kejriwal, to quit as chief minister after 49 days in power was a missed opportunity of epic proportions, a blunder that would render the AAP a sad but minor footnote in Indian political history.

This was not an entirely insensible view to hold, for very rarely does a new political formation get a second chance. Yet, the AAP scripted, against heavy odds, a remarkable turnaround. In the process, it managed to convince Delhiites that it deserved precisely such a second chance.

More than the revival of its electoral fortunes, what is really significant is the resilience of the party, especially through its difficult months when attempts were reportedly made to entice its legislators to defect. These attempts did not leave the party unscathed. Some leaders such as Shazia Ilimi and M.S. Dhir did abandon what was then perceived by many to be a sinking ship.

If the party managed to take these blows, stay on its feet, and eventually knock out its electoral opponents, it was made possible, literally, by the common man. From students to retired senior citizens to middle-aged office-goers -- it was the hard political labour of citizen-volunteers that engineered the change in fortunes.

So, in a limited sense, Narendra Modi was indeed right, though for the wrong reasons, to label the AAP as a party of anarchists – for it is a party that seeks to challenge not so much the state as the status quoist political class that has the state apparatus in its grip.

Put simply, the AAP that has reclaimed Delhi today is in some ways the mirror-image of the Modi-fied Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) we saw in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. If heavy funding from the corporate elite turned the BJP into an electoral vehicle for the aspirations of India’s business class, then crowd-sourced funding from the aam aadmi turned the AAP into an electoral vehicle for the aspirations of those excluded from the gated communities of India’s shining classes—excluded, that is, except when required for menial services.

This is not to say that the AAP does not enjoy support among the upper-middle classes or the business elite. It commands the attention, if not the sympathy, of all those who yearn for a new political idiom that articulates values which are decidedly alien to the political class that dominates the scene today—values such as transparency, accountability, honesty, integrity, humility, respect for the marginalized.

It has already become a cliché of sorts to say it is not so much the AAP as the idea of AAP that is a game-changing departure in Indian politics. But clichés are clichés because they carry an element of truth. Today, the idea of AAP—an open political space that can be whatever that you, as a citizen, make of it through a process of sustained engagement with others like yourself—signifies a tremendous advance in democratic praxis, especially in a young post-colonial nation-state with less than seventy years of democracy under its belt.

This is also the reason behind the anxiety, articulated in some quarters, over whether the AAP phenomenon might end up being replicated in other states. So far, one antidote to this mild panic has been the comforting assurance put out by some that the AAP is an outcome of a Delhi-specific, and hence unique, urban configuration that cannot possibly gain traction in other states.

While it is true that Delhi, as the venue of the anti-corruption movement that was the precursor to the AAP, does enjoy certain advantages conducive to an AAP-like phenomenon, there is nothing in the idea of AAP that would make it incompatible with democratic politics elsewhere. It may be true that identitarian dynamics such as caste and religion have tended to dominate elections in other states. But that has been so only in the absence of an alternative such as the idea of AAP.

To be sure, an AAP-like entity parachuted elsewhere from Delhi may or may not work. But an intriguing political prospect, going by the Delhi experience, would be if Indians in the rest of the country—be it in cities or towns or villages—are able to imagine themselves as political subjects, as opposed to passive objects of politics as dictated by The Leader or neta-log.

What is disturbing about the AAP to those who are comfortable with the existing political culture is not the purportedly radical nature of its political agenda, but the radical assumption of political agency on the part of those who have traditionally been outside the system—whose only role hitherto has been to follow, not shape, the political discourse.

In this sense, it does not matter if the AAP invests no energy in expanding beyond Delhi—it doesn’t need to. Its political task at present is to stay put for five years, and do its it best to deliver on its promises while holding fast to the values that propelled it to power. As for the rest of India, the message is clear: you can do better than sit back and complain about politicians.

To read the AAP manifesto, click here-

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