The wave, the waning

Rail Bhavan fiasco signals that AAP’s urban middle class base may not be secure.

Published:January 24, 2014 2:04 am
This class is a source of finance for the AAP, also a source of future leadership, and a reason for media fervour. (PTI) This class is a source of finance for the AAP, also a source of future leadership, and a reason for media fervour. (PTI)

Rail Bhavan fiasco signals that AAP’s urban middle class base may not be secure.

I recently returned to the US after four weeks in India. Two things were manifestly clear. The first was, unsurprisingly, the sentiment against the UPA. Anti-incumbency is all too common in democratic polities. Continuation of incumbents beyond two terms is normally unhealthy for a democracy. In many polities, there is a two-term limit for incumbents, for an unbroken hold over power often leads to arrogance and corruption. The enormity of anti-UPA anger is all too obvious.

The second trend was also unmistakable. The AAP was experiencing a wave in urban India. India’s political conversation had changed. When a polity experiences a wave, conventional political analysis cannot be undertaken. Will the APP get only 8-10 seats, or 50-60? We simply can’t be sure. All we can say is that waves can be exponential, engulfing much that comes in the way. But waves can also crash. Especially after the Rail Bhavan dharna, we not only need to ask how far the AAP will go, we also need to inquire whether the

AAP wave will abate in the next three months. Let us first understand why the AAP rose so rapidly. The AAP managed to combine the support of the urban elite and the urban masses. Normally, mass politics and elite politics dance to very different tunes. The AAP has brought them together. Playing only the middle class game has inherent limits in a country where the underprivileged are still the vast majority. But attending only to the poor, while politically attractive, often leads to reckless fiscal behaviour, which in turn engenders economic and political problems. If one can put the two together and begin to extend it to rural India, a solid foundation of new politics can be created. That is the great promise of the AAP.

After over two decades, the urban middle class appears to be enthused about politics. It has lined up to acquire AAP membership. When you learn that membership lines have formed even in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, places where the AAP was least expected to attract attention, you know a wave is emerging. Funds have also poured in. Equally important, the AAP is going for clean and accountable financing in a polity where campaign finance is murky to the core. Businessmen are writing cheques. Some have joined the party.

Who would be hurt most, if the wave continued? The Congress will in any case go into an eclipse in May. The BJP was to be the biggest beneficiary of the anti-incumbency anger, but the AAP is threatening to split that vote in urban India. In UP, Rajasthan and Haryana, the semi-urban vote, too, might be shared. Moreover, a partial rural penetration of these states cannot be ruled out.

The BJP never had a lion’s share of the rural vote. Its fate is made or unmade by the urban vote. It slipped badly in 2009. According to Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma, political scientists at Berkeley, there were 216 urban and semi-urban parliamentary seats in 2009. Of these, the Congress won 95, and the BJP 55. According to conventional political analysis, that was to be reversed in May 2014, until of course the AAP burst on the scene. Even if the AAP gets only 20-25 seats, which Delhi, Haryana, UP and Rajasthan can provide, it might make it very hard for Narendra Modi to get 180 seats, now widely viewed as necessary for attracting enough allies to form a government.

Would this analysis hold up now? More generally, under what circumstances can the AAP wave crash? A Rail Bhavan fiasco is not enough to write off the AAP, but it certainly suggests what could be one of several routes of waning.

The most important signal the Rail Bhavan dharna sent is this: it can wean the urban elite and middle class away from the AAP, while keeping the urban poor base intact. The urban poor may savour a dramatic political attack on the police, which harasses them routinely. But losing the urban elite, or middle class, will be suicidal. This class is a source of finance for the AAP, also a source of future leadership, and a reason for media fervour.

Why might the urban middle class be upset? One issue is clearly pad ki garima (behaviour appropriate to the office held). A chief minister cannot be the chief protester. He and his cabinet are supposed to govern, not cause chaos. The argument that Delhi’s police should be under the elected Delhi state government has genuine merit. Since Delhi Police reports to the Central government, not to the Delhi government, the locus of elected political power and the locus of police administration are severely misaligned in India’s capital. The misalignment is also a reason for why it is hard to tackle criminality in Delhi, once it raises its ugly head. But the battle for seeking a better alignment of the political and the administrative cannot be waged on the streets. A less chaos-inducing, more governance-friendly and politically creative means must be devised.

At a deeper level, the Gandhian inspiration of AAP politics calls for serious rethinking. Gandhi’s use of civil disobedience was very infrequent. Only the issues of gravest significance required that mode of protest. A dharna, too, requires systematic prior analysis before it is undertaken as a mode of non-violent protest.

The AAP’s notion of direct democracy, taken from Gandhi, also needs to be subjected to deeper reflection. Is direct democracy feasible? Arvind Kejriwal’s idea of janta durbar was laden with grave danger. What if a stampede had taken place and a score of citizens had died? The AAP wave would have started waning right at that moment. Luckily, no stampede took place, but could the possibility have been ruled out? Getting governance closer to citizens is a worthy goal, but the means have to carefully thought through.

Finally, as the AAP works on its national manifesto, it might wish to avoid some more danger signals. Ideologically, at this point, the AAP is a coalition of extremes, as is often the case when movements rebelling against the standard notions of politics emerge. Probity and accountability in politics are the AAP’s signature themes. In a polity that has scaled new heights of corruption and where citizens empowered at the time of elections feel powerless after the elections, these themes are a source of enormous popular excitement and attraction.

But the AAP also contains some extreme left-wing elements. They have supported Maoism and a plebiscite on Kashmir in the past, positions that the AAP, if it wishes to grow, might want to keep a consistent and safe distance from. In an intellectual sphere, such arguments can be debated. But in the political sphere, they are a kiss of death. They can provide easy gifts to the opponents. Can one imagine Modi roaring that the AAP consists of deshdrohis (a party of treason)? Again, the urban middle class will exit the party.

Finally, the term “socialism” is likely to be very attractive to several in the AAP, but if it becomes the centrepiece of its economic manifesto, it will also bring doom. Socialism as an ideology has lost its meaning in the 21st century; especially in India, some of the worst forms of government conduct emanated from a socialist state, which also kept the masses poor; and as a purely pragmatic matter, the so-called aspirational millions and the urban elite, who have flocked to the AAP, have no taste for socialism any more.

Putting together the urban elite and middle class on the one hand and the urban poor on the other is the AAP’s greatest immediate promise. Keeping that coalition intact is also the party’s greatest challenge.

The writer is director of the India Initiative at Brown University, a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’, and author, most recently, of ‘Battles Half Won’ (Penguin)

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  1. A
    Anil Bharali
    Jan 26, 2014 at 5:28 am
    The author has deliberately diminished the idea of protest against corruption that pushes AAP to government as well as to the street again. Every body has seen through consutional means both congress and BJP demanded for full statehood but failed. There is no discussion about it what method would have worked is such cirstances .The scholar should have put forwarded the correct effective steps under the consution.
    1. M
      Madhava rao
      Jan 27, 2014 at 4:06 am
      I agree with the pragmatic views expressed by Mr. Varshney. AAP appears to be still one of the main choices of the Urban middle cl. One of the ways of improving the the political awareness of the rural cles is to allow broadcast of local and and national news by private FM stations all over the country. The news broadcast from FM stations must be monitored and the owners must be held responsible for correct content of the news.
      1. B
        B. Gopi
        Jan 25, 2014 at 9:22 am
        Modi stands exactly in the middle between pacifist "Rahulji" and anarchist "Arvindji". Rahul does not give the impression he wants to do anything. Arvind gives the impression that he wants to do everything. Modi comes across as the guy who wants to do something(Experience of power, I believe, teaches you your own limitations). Think about it.
        1. M
          Jan 26, 2014 at 5:39 am
          The recent survey shows about the decline already set in for AAP. The survey was before the disastrous Dharna of AAP at Rail Bhawan. It can be said with safety that the decline now will be much faster than expected. Ashutosh missed the main point how AAP rose so rapidly. That is -he exploited the field prepared by Anna movement. Now that, that influence is waning, along with it the pority of AAP.