Not just AAP

Its achievements in Delhi are remarkable,but not as unusual or unprecedented as they are being made out to be.

Written by RAHUL VERMA | Updated: January 9, 2014 9:42 pm

Its achievements in Delhi are remarkable,but not as unusual or unprecedented as they are being made out to be.

A general consensus seems to have emerged in the past few days. Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party are being tipped as the hottest entrepreneurial ventures in the current political marketplace. Everybody wants to learn from the AAP model and embrace its ideals. Everyone appears to see its successful debut as the arrival of a “new kind of politics” in India.

In our opinion,political observers have gone overboard in celebrating the AAP’s performance and describing how its presence is challenging established models of electoral politics. Leaders,movements and opinion-makers are sometimes not constrained by facts. They are more interested in shaping outcomes. A careful look at the evidence suggests that what the AAP has achieved is notable,but it is not as unusual and dramatic as is being made out.

First,the AAP’s performance in the Delhi assembly elections was historic but not unprecedented. The media and AAP supporters have many reasons to celebrate. The AAP has all three women,nine out of 12 Scheduled Caste legislators and the 10 poorest MLAs in the Delhi assembly. However,it’s not as if the AAP is the first experiment in giving a voice to common citizens,or of political novices becoming leaders overnight. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) under N.T. Rama Rao in 1983 and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) under Prafulla Mahanta in 1985 won a majority of seats in their respective state assemblies. Agreed that NTR was an iconic film actor at that time,but Mahanta and half his cabinet ministers stepped into the Assam chief minister’s secretariat almost directly from their Guwahati University hostel quarters.

Second,most movements and their political avatars during the early stages of transformation were no less (if not more) radical than the AAP. The self-respect movement that later became the DMK in Tamil Nadu (AIADMK is an offshoot of the DMK) challenged the Brahminical social order in south India. Similarly,the JP movement during the Emergency galvanised a generation of youth in the country. Many of the apprentices of that movement became chief ministers of north Indian states. Much of the leadership and cadre of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) came from BAMCEF (the All India Backward Minority Communities Employees Federation) and DS4. These two organisations preached and practised B.R. Ambedkar’s mantra of “organise,educate and agitate”.

Third,as the data suggests,the AAP’s victory was not monumental. They received approximately 29.5 per cent of the vote. A large majority of Delhi voters (more than 70 per cent) still voted for “politics as usual” parties rather than the AAP,which promises a new kind of politics. There is also a rather large variance in the AAP vote share across constituencies — much larger than that of the BJP and Congress. What this means is that the AAP did far less well in some constituencies and better in others than the BJP or the Congress. For instance,the AAP did not do well in many outer Delhi constituencies. There are 18 assembly constituencies in outer Delhi that border Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The AAP won in only three of these,came second in five and was relegated to either third or fourth position in 10. Further,if the results of assembly segments are converted at the Lok Sabha constituency level,then most of the AAP’s victory is in just two Lok Sabha seats (New Delhi and Chandni Chowk),whereas the BJP has the edge in Delhi’s other five seats. In terms of vote share,the AAP is only marginally ahead in Chandni Chowk. While this is no mean feat,it is not unprecedented,as the electoral success of the AGP in Assam and the TDP in Andhra Pradesh will attest.

Fourth,the AAP’s focus has been on transparent campaign finance. Its leadership on several occasions has argued that politics should be run by money donated by common citizens,and not the kickbacks by vested interests. The BSP began on a similar promise. Kanshi Ram was aware of the party’s shortage of funds and coined the slogan,“ek vote,ek note (one vote,one note)” to collect donations from the general public who used to attend the BSP’s meetings. Kanshi Ram came up with innovative strategies to mobilise funds,like charging candidates a fee for a speech given by him in their constituency. Aspiring politicians paid a price to be nominated as a BSP candidate. The BSP also adopted the practice of accepting gifts to the party fund on Kanshi Ram’s and Mayawati’s birthdays.

Fifth,the AAP will face an uphill task in converting the momentum gained in Delhi to an all-India scale. The political situation in Delhi presented a unique opportunity for a new party to make inroads. The level of dissatisfaction with the incumbent was running high. The CSDS opinion poll data point out that more than two-thirds of respondents in Delhi were unhappy with the performance of the Sheila Dikshit government. A similar proportion of respondents said that they did not want to give the Congress government in Delhi another chance. As the CSDS tracker poll (a national poll) conducted last July suggests,the same is not true for incumbents in other states,where the governing parties and their chief ministers are viewed more favourably.

Sixth,it is important to point out that no party which began its electoral journey in one state has ever managed to successfully cross the boundaries into another state. It could win one or two MLA seats (like the BSP in many north Indian states),but hardly challenge existing parties. The AAP’s victory in Delhi was helped by enthusiastic voter turnout. Opinion poll data indicate it did very well among first-time and young voters. However,the AAP has not managed to create a core social base of its own among Delhi voters. It received similar proportions of votes across social groups. For AAP proponents,this represents support for the party’s vision of a new kind of politics. For the sceptics,this signals a more fragile electoral base because all the parties in India which have sustained themselves in the long run rely on the support of a core group. For instance,the BJP in Delhi drew its vote heavily from upper castes and the middle class,whereas the Congress managed to retain much of its vote among Muslims and the poor.

Whether these cautionary notes come to bear,only time will tell. For now,the AAP has made some smart political moves and should be congratulated. The strategy of competing from Delhi rather than a smaller town elsewhere in India was a good political move. If a similar anti-corruption movement had won a large number of seats in another city,it may not have received the unprecedented attention the AAP got. The AAP has successfully managed to push the norms of electoral politics in the country. It meticulously brought out election manifestos for each constituency separately; managed to run its campaign on a meagre amount compared to other parties; and showed that political alliance is not a matter of convenience but principle. The AAP has reminded us all that democracy can be transformative.

The writers are at the Travers Department of Political Science,University of California,Berkeley

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