A new party is beginning to open up new spaces of conversation
Democracies are paradoxical creatures in one respect. For all their openness,they are often institutionally very conservative. Entrenched party structures are often difficult to dislodge. In India,there is rarely a sense of something new sweeping politics. The Emergency brought new social movements and political styles in its wake. Rajiv Gandhi tried to engineer a new generation into politics. Once in a while,a party or leader like Mayawati emerges from the waves of a newly politically conscious social formation. The other route to unsettle politics has been riding on the coat tails of regional dissatisfaction. We have been perpetually waiting for a generational shift. But as UP reminds us,a shift in age is not a shift in values. Many of these disruptions are easily domesticated: the same combination of family,patronage,institutional messiness,corruption chugs along. In a lucky state,this political economy will be made compatible with some progress; in more benighted ones,the stagnation of politics will be matched by other forms of stagnation.
It is this context that makes the Aam Aadmi Party experiment so staggering. In some ways,its performance may define the future of Indian politics far more profoundly than the gladiatorial contest of the two main parties. The party is confined to Delhi for the moment,and the optimism of opinion polls notwithstanding,its future is still hard to predict. But its mere presence has been transformative in more ways than one can list. You may not be the biggest fan of all of Arvind Kejriwals institutional proposals. But there is no question that he played a significant part in transforming the discourse on corruption. He has empowered many others to say that business as usual cannot continue.
But the party is more profoundly trying to tap into something new. It is easy to laugh off the zeal with which AAP supporters sometimes talk of peoples participation in decision-making. Many worry about its economics and supposed claims that democracy will regulate many prices. But not taking the underlying sentiment seriously would be a mistake. Here is a party running really on one central idea: our governance structures are disempowering. We need more decentralisation. As for the economics,I cannot think of a single political movement that did not have its moments of absurd excess in articulation. The ideas of parties evolve with experience and context. The question is whether the party has a set of people who can act in good faith and rise above their own dogmatism. But the party is,on the ground,providing an opportunity for a new conversation,particularly on areas the state regulates. It would also be tempting to dismiss the partys less successful attempts to find symbolic issues: the public charges on corruption or the rather less convincing drama on non-payment of electricity bills. But again,these discoveries of what symbolically motivates are part of any evolving movement. The fact that the party managed to elicit a temporary press blackout suggests they were on to something.
In terms of reform,all parties have been mixed bags. But no party has stood behind one very simple tenet of reform: administrative simplicity. Telling small business that they have been stymied by administrative complexity may turn out to be smarter reformist politics than abstract accounts of price theory. But the idea that one should build a civic political party whose base is not just a social or regional identity is powerful. That such a party can be built through new and imaginative forms of organisation,outreach and financing is itself innovative.We are also missing the degree to which both national parties have put a range of issues in deep freeze: from reservation to the way in which the minority-majority discourse has been articulated. Here is a party that,in its own quiet way,is beginning to open up new spaces of conversation.
This column has frequently disagreed with key figures of the AAP: with Prashant Bhushan on economics,with Arvind Kejriwal on faith in independent bureaucracies to produce accountability,with Yogendra Yadav on caste and politics. My sense of how institutions actually work is probably still different from theirs. But at least there is something radically fresh in what they are attempting; there is an infusion of new people,ideas and a platform that can evolve.
Narendra Modi said,that BJP mein Vijay hi Vijay hain. He should have added that the problem is wohi puraane Vijay hain. The candidates have such a tired,well-worn look. The Congresss hubris has been rewarded too often because of lack of alternatives. Many are describing these assembly elections as a semi-final of sorts,a test of the momentum behind Modi. I rather suspect these elections are no such thing. They are going to be fought hard on state-level issues. But there is a tantalising possibility that whichever way voters vote in these elections,they may be swayed by different considerations in the general elections.
It would be presumptuous for a column to endorse any party; voters do not need to be told what they should do. But to not acknowledge that something new is afoot would also be a mistake. The potential demonstration effect that AAPs success may have on politics in other cities is not negligible. While politics is often local,successful examples are empowering. It will force national parties to raise their game. I have no idea how AAP will actually perform. Will the threshold required be just too high for a debutant party? Will Indias ruling elites,in the end,seek the comfort of the familiar system,whose collusive games they are used to?
There is also the deeper issue that always haunts politics. Lalu Prasad was once asked,in a TV interview almost two decades ago,why good people did not enter politics. In his inimitable style,Lalu said something to the effect of: Who says good people do not enter politics? Were we,those of the JP movement,not good people when we entered? Was George Fernandes not a good person when he entered? All of us made sacrifices. Did not Rajiv Gandhi bring in good people? The question is: what happens to them after they enter politics? Deep down,have we reconciled ourselves to the thought that in the final analysis,politics changes people more than people change politics? And if that is the case,do we then retreat to familiar configurations of power? For all their faults,at least we know how they work. Democracies may turn out to be not that experimental,because we all have a tragic view of politics,where idealism seems naive. That may be what is at stake in the AAPs prospects.
The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,
Delhi,and a contributing editor for The Indian Express