In politics, it is easy to become a victim of traps laid by our own convictions. We then cease to distinguish between political analysis and political endorsement. We cease to pay attention to trends. The Delhi election is indeed deeply important. It is shaping up to be a closer contest than anyone imagined six months ago. Much will depend on the AAP’s political campaign. But there is little doubt that there is space for it to re-emerge as a potent political force. On the evidence of their campaign so far, the BJP seems to be struggling to understand the nature of this challenge. It would do well to heed the warning signs.
The general election was a product of the twin narratives of fear of paralysis and fear of plutocracy. It was the anti-corruption movement, which morphed into the AAP, that took a battering ram to the legitimacy of the UPA. Modi walked into the breach. He seemed, with good reason, the best candidate, to overcome paralysis and restore a sense of possibility. Even if we argue that the jury is still out on where the NDA government is headed, other narratives are now opening up once again.
The fear of plutocracy has not gone away. It may have been overshadowed by the fear of paralysis. But corruption and unseemly conflicts of interest are still challenges. The government at the Centre may not have been rocked yet by a scandal. But it has done little to restore confidence in accountability institutions. The investigative arms of government remain mired in suspicion of extensive partisanship.
Parliament seems unlikely to exercise an oversight function and fears of the undue influence of capitalists are not entirely misplaced. The private sector’s fear about the legitimacy of PPPs is a backhanded acknowledgment of this reality. Except for dissimulation on black money, the government has no reform proposals to show. The problem with the AAP’s traditional approach was its overinvestment in top-down institutions like the Lokpal. But the presence of the AAP itself generates accountability, by inducing a different fear. It was a small party with disproportionate effect. The power of its own example is not inconsiderable. For the most part, its method of financing elections seems the most transparent that any political party has ever seen, setting a new trend.
The AAP’s institutional promise rested on a new paradigm of citizen participation. Government by SMS or continual referendum is not a sustainable idea. But the idea that, in some crucial areas, we might need more participatory modes of government is powerful. Whatever the internal story with the AAP, it still takes the model of governance as a friendly, inclusive, neighbourly chat seriously. All decentralisation is a leap of faith. And so far, the AAP is the only one prepared to take it. In an era of immense centralisation, the attractiveness of this experiment is not to be underestimated.
The AAP is still an important experiment in party-building. Parties are never built without deep disagreements or some unruliness. But the idea that a party can take root that is not tethered to a historical pedigree (Congress), an ideological cadre (BJP) or an ethnic social base (caste and regional parties) is an idea waiting to happen. The AAP’s big problem, particularly in states like Haryana, was that, at the last moment, it slipped back into an old kind of caste and communalism narrative, blunting the distinctiveness of what it wanted to do. There is a joke in Delhi that the middle class that wants to participate by Twitter joins the BJP; the middle class that actually wants to participate will join the AAP. In short, it has the potential of empowering new constituencies, as the BJP did, albeit in a different way. But it has also created a potentially interesting bridge between the middle class and the politics of the urban poor.
The BJP’s increasing vulnerability is that the prime minister is flying high, but the party seems to lack a depth of talent. And nowhere is this more apparent than at the state and local level. At least at the level of the Delhi unit, the BJP looks uninspiring. None of its potential chief ministerial candidates, even those who might be inducted from cabinet, inspire confidence. And the AAP is still in listening mode. You may not agree, but on a range of issues, like education, it is tapping into real anxieties.
The contest between reactionary and progressive forces within the BJP is real. But the outcome of this contest is still open, and in the cultural and social space, lots of reactionary forces are feeling empowered. They will be tamed only when there is genuine opposition. But the Congress so debased the currency of secularism that it cannot provide that opposition. The AAP is not perfect. But it could be a platform for a new politics, provided it sticks to liberal social and cultural convictions, as it did on Section 377. The AAP too will have to decide that the only direction it can take is liberal: this conviction does not come easily.
The AAP had two vulnerabilities. The first was its reputation on economic matters: that somehow it would throw fiscal prudence out and go with runaway freebies. Like most parties, the AAP is probably internally conflicted on this. But some of the fears were exaggerated. The point about its water programme was not that it offered free water; the point was that it would require all of Delhi’s water to be metered, which would open up interesting possibilities for charging overusers. The second was its constant agitational mode, for which it paid the price. But the beauty of Indian politics is that it gets the unlikeliest of politicians to evolve. It is hard to shake off Arvind Kejriwal’s sincerity and tenacity. This is a test of his potential to grow.
The prime minister’s speech last week was a reminder that sometimes generals fight the last war. The Delhi election is a new reality. The BJP has already tripped on the question of full statehood for Delhi, which it had no intention of giving, especially if there was a chance the AAP would come to power. It also has little to show for its seven months of ruling at the Centre. In fact, its only card at the moment is inducing the fear that if the Delhi government is different from the government at the Centre, life will be harder for Delhi. This argument may yet win. The stakes are higher for the AAP; if it performs badly, its future will be in doubt. But if the AAP wins, it might do even the BJP some good. After all, nothing induces complacency as much as the lack of effective opposition.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’ firstname.lastname@example.org