The none of the above party

The interesting question is: how will a party born of a protest movement that claimed to be free of party politics and politicians now transact power?

Written by Mini Kapoor | Published: December 11, 2013 12:44 am

The interesting question is: how will a party born of a protest movement that claimed to be free of party politics and politicians now transact power?

The story went that an enterprising NRI had come up with a winning strategy to launch a new beverage. They’d call it “kuchh nahi”,after the desi habit of mock-declining the host’s offer of a drink with those words,to check how genuine the show of hospitality was. For a while a joke,similarly,went that someone should launch a political party called “none of the above”. It would tap into the Indian voter’s overt,though incredibly shallow and affected,distaste for the political class. We don’t want to vote for any of them,but of course we do want to. We are like that only.

This election,the Supreme Court bestowed the NOTA option on our electronic voting machines,but in Delhi,a political party had already given the sentiment both form and organisation. The Aam Aadmi Party had already nominated itself as the representative of the popular distaste for politics as usual.

Now,when the party has shaken up the capital and is seeing in the city’s diversity and spotlight an opportunity to offer itself as urban India’s voice,how will it internalise the result? Now,when its spectacular success is in itself an outright repudiation of its one-time fellow traveller Anna Hazare’s contention that votes are settled not with contesting visions,but with a sari,a bottle of booze and a few rupees,how will it choose to house itself in India’s political spectrum?

Or to use that beverage analogy: if that drink that calls itself “nothing” is nonetheless a drink,if only by another name,how political will this party admit to being,even as its USP is to be untouched by politics as we know it?

Whatever your politics may be,the arrival of a new political party is an absolutely electrifying moment. In and of itself,it is an achievement that does not repeat too often anywhere,not even in an electoral democracy as diverse as India’s,and certainly not with such a thumping victory margin on debut. It is a feat for which its personnel must be congratulated — heartily so. But it is not just that the newcomer has insinuated itself in an existing space,it can also change it. The manner of the AAP’s arrival is a feat that validates and renews the possibilities of our shared democratic space.

It is,however,difficult to not be stumped by the bewilderment that’s followed from the awe created by the AAP’s arrival as a giant-feller. Some analysts are freely fantasising about the AAP or a constellation of AAP-like parties harvesting the 2014 vote in urban centres countrywide — so older political parties had better consider themselves to be on notice. Others say no,it is just Delhi,the perfect storm that obtained in the capital cannot be found elsewhere,that voters outside India’s most pampered city are less trusting of new entrants,that barriers to entry in the electoral space are far more formidable in the states — so the AAP had better consider itself to be simply another of the regional parties deepening federalism in the country and set its sights no farther than the National Capital Region.

A black swan event,or just another remarkable day in Indian democratic life? A bit of both maybe? Is it,in any case,a question we need,or can,settle so soon? Let the next six months settle that.

What is of tremendous interest right now is how a party born of a street protest movement that claimed to be free of party politics and politicians will now transact power. Having critiqued existing political parties for their clubbiness and opaque,backroom decision-making,how will it occupy space amongst them and engage with them. Having,in an earlier avatar,chased out politicians from its protests,how lightly will its members wear their politician status now?

The “pehle aap” impasse in government formation in Delhi may or may not be finally broken,but having come thus far,can the AAP’s ascent open up our debate on governance and lawmaking? As the new kid on the block,and currently the object of the big players’ scrutiny,can the new party put some questions and reform suggestions out there? In government or in opposition,does it have a model for the legislative House it would like to inhabit?

A new party comes without the baggage of precedent or a track record of expedient compromise. It is more likely to be unconstrained by entrenched interest groups and free of the inertia that inhibits a break from older,settled ways. Beyond the particulars of its manifesto checklist,it therefore has the rare opportunity to set itself its own standards in a manner that may,in addition,reconfigure the political space. On,say,ways and means to break — by example — the dreadful legislative deadlocks across the land. On reviving meaningful discussion on the floor of the House,so that the government (its own or another’s) is not only interrogated,but nuances in debates are teased out to clarify the issues involved. On crowdsourcing suggestions across the aisle by declining automatic and argument-suppressing use of the anti-defection law. On,at the least,having its MLAs commit to being regularly present in the House. On,basically,upgrading the contract between aam janata and elected representative.

Can the AAP,in other words,use this extraordinary moment to throw its voice farther than its immediate concerns and the limitations of Delhi’s peculiar power-sharing set-up? It should be an opportunity too good to miss. It does not come too often in the life of a political party. But to grab the possibilities of the moment,the AAP will have to recognise that its voters have made a deeply political choice in opting for its candidates in these elections,and that their mandate is not for politics-lite.

The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.

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