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THE rapidity with which the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has forced itself into reckoning has surprised most observers. In the murky electoral landscape of Delhi, long dominated by the Congress and the BJP, few expected a motley group of middle class activists to create such a ripple. Once the anti-corruption movement spearheaded by Anna Hazare fizzled out, many believed that the struggle to demand accountability of our representatives had been shown its place. The announcement of a party by Arvind Kejriwal and his associates was thus received with a tired cynicism.

So, what has changed in these few months such that the broad consensus among election watchers, as also politicians and activists of all shades, is that the AAP will do far better than anticipated in the December state assembly elections? Whether or not the claims of the AAP of forming the next state government in Delhi are taken as credible, there is at the moment little doubt that it may well emerge as strong third contender, possibly even hold the balance of power. And though seasoned watchers caution that election forecasting is a dodgy business, particularly when multiple parties are in the fray, the role of the AAP in livening up, and infusing fresh energy and meaning into, what increasingly has come to be seen as a cynical exercise, can no longer be denied. The expectation of change is in the air.

In large measure this is because of the continuing bad news plaguing the Congress, the party ruling both the state (15 years) and the Centre (close to ten years). Alongside the stench of corruption and malfeasance, the UPA-2 regime appears tired, adrift, caught in policy paralysis and, despite formal kow-towing to its leadership, a house divided. Unlike UPA-1, none of its initiatives, including the much touted Food Security Bill, enthuses. Worse, with little signs of any pick-up in the economy, and inflation and unemployment remaining unacceptably high, public anger has grown. In such an environment, justifiably or otherwise, acts of omission and commission, as also of alleged corruption, acquire a larger significance.

It is hardly surprising that the non-performance of the Centre scars the state government. Few today are willing to accept the plea of limited power – the Centre controls law and order and land; the opposition runs the municipal corporations – that the state government offers as defence. It, after all, more than any other state, has benefited from central largesse. Worse, it has no answers to the poor performance of departments that it controls – state run schools and hospitals and the Delhi Jal Board. Or the fact of corruption in the Commonwealth Games and privatization of power distribution.

Fortunately for the AAP, the other major contender, the BJP, appears far too much a house divided to offer any prospect for stable and coherent government. Its performance in the municipal corporations remains abysmal. Moreover, despite the enthusiasm generated by its prime ministerial candidate, its activities and political style in Delhi reveals it as no different from the ruling Congress. Evidently, despite years in opposition, the party has learnt little. With little new on offer – candidates, programmes, political culture – it does not appear well-positioned to capture the urge for change.

If today the AAP in Delhi comes across as a party worth considering, it is in substantial measure due to the inability of older, major parties to a communicate credibility and resolve. Equally, one should not underestimate the impact of some of the steps the AAP seems to have taken to signal that it is different. Its innovative campaigning style; the process of candidate selection by seeking out the opinion of its volunteers and voters; the transparency in fund collection, and so on. The enthusiasm of the young, middle class professionals and students to contribute – both financially and by volunteering to take up different tasks – is unusual. And while its somewhat high-decibel sloganeering and the proclivity to paint opponents in negative colours does create disquiet, its ability to keep alive media interest as also communicate with potential voters is undeniable. Hardly surprising that many sceptics and critics, even if reluctantly, are now beginning to look at the new entrant with less judgemental eyes.

To repeat, elections are suffused with uncertainty, as they should be in a vibrant democracy. In addition to the Congress, BJP and the AAP, there is also the BSP whose influence is considerable as also the Akali Dal, the NCP, and the inevitable ‘rebel’ candidates all of whom can complicate the best crafted plans. But whatever the outcome, it does appear that the AAP has helped ignite the urge for change. Win or lose, if it manages to shake up our political party establishments, and forces them to rework their relationship with voters, it will have earned our gratitude.

Harsh Sethi