SPEAKING FREELY India's new party brings hope and danger
By Samir Nazareth
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
With Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) assuming office as New Delhi's chief minister, political pundits are recalibrating poll equations as India heads into national elections this year. Arvind Kejriwal and his fledgling party have barged onto the political stage that up to now had only two principal actors - Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Rahul Gandhi, of the Congress-I.
Not a day goes by in the Indian national media where AAP, Congress-I and the BJP are not mentioned in one breath, and
there couldn't be a greater indication of India being in the throes of political and social upheaval than this. However, even in this state of flux, when Narendra Modi becomes prime minister later this year, as at present seems inevitable, the face of the country will change, to the point where the country's Hindu majority may once more find its voice.
Modi, the new face of Hindu revivalism, is seen as an answer to the socio-economic secularism of the Congress-I fronted political coalition because this revivalism also has an economic facet to it which has found resonance in many quarters. There is another aspect to this surge - the alleged mis-governance and corruption of the Congress and its allies in central government that has tainted the party's performance and fortunes in the state elections, as seen most starkly in the recent defeat of the Congress and its stalwart who headed the government in Delhi.
This mis-governance has also given rise to a new political party which in its electoral debut won the second highest number of seats in the Delhi state elections. In fact Kejriwal, the leader of AAP, stood against and defeated the incumbent chief minister, Shiela Dixit in her own constituency, by a huge margin of 25,864 votes.
From this and the coming electoral battle there is a lesson from the United States for those concerned with the future of India under Modi or Rahul Gandhi. Modi is a political leader known for his alleged involvement and handling of the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which many see as an instance of a state-sponsored pogrom, while his claims of success in bringing Gujarat economic progress hides a big socio-economic travesty.
While Rahul Gandhi is an almost unknown political entity, he was born into a political family that not only worked for India's freedom and has lead India almost entirely since independence and is now hobbled with allegations of corruption. Rahul is trying to change the party's functioning to get the party back on its feet.
Learning from America
When George W Bush became the US president, one of the cries that went across the US was "Hail to the Thief", a rephrasing of "Hail to the Chief", with many arguing that Bush stole the presidential elections.
The 2000 election in the US was one of the few instances where a third party was involved at the hustings, with Ralph Nader running as the presidential nominee of the Green Party. It was argued that Ralph Nader split the Democrat vote, causing Al Gore to lose to Bush by 537 votes. There was also the contentious Supreme Court ruling that stopped a recount in Florida, which undoubtedly helped Bush. Though later electoral studies were in two minds on the impact of Nader in Gore's defeat, what is certain is that a new entrant can change the dynamics of elections.
The reasons include "the-new-kid-in-town" effect - that is, the attraction of a fresh, unsullied face entering the political arena. Fresh faces not only attract a whole set of new people who may have been disillusioned with politics but also bring new issues for the electorate to mull over. This naturally leads to a churning within the population, which brings in more people to vote and a shift in political allegiance.
Nader's plank in 2000 touched on problems of a two party system, affordable housing, universal health-care - issues that were close to some voters. Being new, what the AAP did in Delhi was something Ralph Nader-esque - they chose issues that directly affect people, including demands for cheaper electricity and a regular supply of water, all neatly packed in a corruption-free governance package. The party also created election manifestos for each constituency.
In 2000, Ralph Nader spoke of his candidacy as an alternative to both the Democrats and Republicans, stating they were indistinguishable from each other as they now drank from a common economic and philosophic wellspring. AAP came out with a similar statement in 2013; Kejriwal said that the BJP and the Congress were clones of each other with their politics of caste, riots, handouts to the corporate sector and corrupt leaders.
Being a new kid in town naturally drew people's attention. Thus there were more than the usual ears; what the kid was saying was very different from what had been said before. Importantly what was being said was also said by someone who had their own ear to the ground, something that had not happened for a very long time.
Nader's campaign resulted in an increase in the voter turn; at 50.3%, it was higher than the preceding 1996 election, when only 49% voted, though in the following election the turnout was again higher.
A similar scenario played out in the recent elections in Delhi. The voter turnout of 65.8% was well up on the previous election, when 57.58% of the eligible population voted. BJP, the right wing party, won 31 seats, the AAP in its first electoral secured 28 seats and the Congress Party lost all but eight seats. Two seats went to smaller parties.
While Nader came nowhere close to winning the US presidency, voters acknowledged the issues he raised, indicated their disillusionment with the current political system and their desire for change; but in voting for Nader, did those supporters lose the long-term perspective and not realize that they could be unleashing a far more dangerous beast?
Nader realized that he was muddying the waters by running, but did he realize also that by teaching the Democrat leadership a lesson) he would in the end punish the country? One cannot blame Nader for what followed, but one surely can find fault with an electorate who donned a restricting, self-righteous world view that the power of their vote could change the world for good - but instead harvested something much worse, witness the damage that election winner Bush did to the world.
The anti-incumbency factor in politics is borne by the perception, real or otherwise, that those in power are no longer listening to the people and this unresponsiveness is because politicians build themselves ivory towers. One could argue that the AAP reaped this anti-incumbency factor.
But if this were all, it would be the known entity - the BJP with Modi as its well-marketed figurehead - that would have won a clean mandate, leaving the unknown AAP and the ruling Congress to share the dregs.
This did not happen. Instead, the spoils of vanquishing the incumbent were divided between the neophyte and the veteran.
Ralph Nader is not a politician, although he is known for his left-liberal stance and for his fight for the common US citizen. That he did not win the 2000 presidential elections is irrelevant; that he could have been the cause of a larger voter turn-out is something that needs to be taken into consideration.
Political parties need to keep re-inventing themselves because the society they wish to represent politically is always in the throes of change. This change is tangible in its cultural and socio-economic connotations and also through the intangible -the philosophical discourse - which colors the former two.
Nader touched on issues that directly impacted Americans, as the AAP did with Delhi voters in through constituency-based manifestos. The underlying message in such a move was that the AAP would constantly gauge the pulse of the electorate. More importantly, the candidates for this political party were common individuals, with no history of political work and with whom people in society could identify themselves - the party couldn't have found a better way to communicate "of the people, by the people and for the people".
The results of the Delhi elections could be the beginning of a trend of the electorate no longer identifying with a political party but with an individual from within the community. Thus political parties would need to involve the community in formulating manifestos and in choosing candidates for elections. This is real democracy - representation that rises from the people and not parachuted down from a central authority, which is how candidates are chosen in the BJP, Congress and other parties.
Nader's 2000 presidential attempt also begs a bigger question - should leadership be of the "Charge of the Light Brigade" kind, resulting in consequences far greater than what an individual can imagine; or should it be one where a leader is able to acquiesce and form partnerships with others to ensure a far greater danger is met? Even as one wishes AAP to do well in the 2014 national elections, it needs to be aware of this pitfall.
Today, the Congress and BJP seem to be of the same genetic stock. The fact remains that one party can be induced to change and the other cannot because the foundations of the latter, its roots in the Hindu past, are based on a regressive ideology that needs to interpret history in an exclusionist manner to further its political ambitions.
The current political and electoral catharsis initiated by the AAP may benefit the country in the long run. However, if in the meanwhile the process allows a divisive figure who represents an exclusionist religio-right-wing ethos to come to power, one wonders whether the means can really justify the end.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Samir Nazareth is a commentator based in India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org