By Swapan Dasgupta
On the afternoon of December 8, the principal interest of ‘political’ India will be on the Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party encounter in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. If the BJP manages a conclusive victory by both holding its own and wresting at least one state from the Congress, it is likely to remove many obstacles in the path of Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial overdrive. If, on the other hand, the Congress somehow manages a 2-2 draw or even succeeds in wresting Chhattisgarh from the BJP, it will signal to its supporters that all is not lost and that the UPA remains in the 2014 election race.
The natural focus on the fortunes of the Congress and BJP should not, however, divert attention from a fascinating sub-plot of the Assembly election, in Delhi at least: the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party as a possible third alternative.
As I see it, counting day on December 8 will be marked by three possible outcomes for the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP that was born as an offshoot of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade and battle for a Janalokpal Bill.
For the new entrant to electoral politics, the most spectacular outcome would lie in its ability to translate the 28 per cent or so of popular votes—as predicted by the CSDS-Lokniti-CNN-IBN pre-poll survey last month—into seats. This would mean that neither the BJP nor the Congress will be in a position to form a government in the National Capital. For the AAP, which is barely a year old in electoral politics, this would be a colossal achievement. It would indicate that there is a meaningful space available in large parts of India for what is being flaunted as “alternative politics”.
The second scenario that could be moderately satisfying for the AAP would lie in its ability to secure a small toehold in the Delhi Assembly. Although the third party wouldn’t be able to avert a Congress or BJP victory—and, in fact, would actually contribute to the outcome by playing spoiler—it would have carved out a niche for itself in the civic life of Delhi. In other words, the AAP would have laid the foundations of a potentially larger role for itself in politics. Depending on how it conducted itself in the next few years, it would be in a position to either advance or shrink into irrelevance.
For the AAP, the most disheartening outcome would lie in its inability to either win seats or prevent any party from securing a clear mandate. In the event of such a result, we can almost visualise tearful scenes in the AAP offices on the realisation that the stupendous energy and enthusiasm displayed by its youthful volunteers hasn’t proved contagious. The sense of disappointment is likely to prompt its idealistic supporters to either eschew electoral politics altogether and revert to NGO-type activism or turn to more extremist causes.
At this stage of the campaign, when the AAP is experiencing both the exhilaration of possible popular support and the murkiness that is associated with securing votes, it is hazardous to predict which of these outcomes is most likely. If the feedbacks from the Congress and BJP camps are any indication, it would seem that the support for the AAP is extremely patchy and not sufficiently concentrated to enable the party to win seats. As the campaign gathers momentum, it is becoming sufficiently clear that many AAP candidates, while exemplary individuals, lack both the local connections and the organisational networks to fully convert goodwill into votes. The absence of enough candidates with local links could explain why there was an attempt by the AAP leadership to try and rope in individuals from established parties who were disappointed at not getting the party nomination. This departure from the high idealism of “alternative politics” was revealing and suggested that purity and saintliness are not always practical in democratic politics.
Not that these occasional lapses should divert attention from the fact that regardless of the actual results of the Delhi election, the AAP has had a visible impact on the political culture. The more established political parties can ignore the larger AAP impact at their own peril.
The most profound impact has been in the AAP thrust on the personal integrity of the political leadership. The BJP may not open acknowledge it but it is undeniable that its midway course correction in discarding Vijay Goel and replacing him with Dr Harshvardhan was a direct consequence of the AAP’s spirited quest for ethical politics. Goel, a former minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, was no doubt an energetic leader with a taste for razzmatazz. Unfortunately for him, he was perceived as a politician who was cut from the same cloth as Pramod Mahajan. Compared to him, Dr Harshvardhan, a low-key medical practitioner from East Delhi with a fierce reputation for personal integrity, was regarded as someone who provided a meaningful alternative to the Congress’ perceived mega-corruption. If the BJP manages to prevail in Delhi with its new chief ministerial candidate, much of the credit must go the AAP for forcing a change of guard at the eleventh hour.
Unfortunately, however, the AAP impact has been confined to the top of the political pile. In the matter of choosing local candidates, both the national parties have kept a sharp eye on the winning potential of individuals.
An associated feature of the AAP impact is in the realm of political funding. By upholding the sanctity of transparent, voluntary contribution by individuals, the AAP has taken a modest step in the right decision. Political parties are disproportionately dependant on cash contributions by either corporates and local business or kickbacks from government contracts to contribute to the larger process of clean politics. The AAP example may actually force the mainstream parties into taking some steps towards transparent fund collection.
Finally, in using the energy and commitment of its volunteers to spread its message, the AAP has definitely contributed towards imaginative, low-cost electioneering. It has relied more on innovative methods and direct voter contact than the established political parties whose appeal to voters is more linked to the mass media and are, consequently, more impersonal. In particular, the rediscovery of old-style persuasion is a positive trend and could, in the long run, contribute towards reducing the high levels of alienation that ordinary people have for politics and politicians.
Conventional wisdom and past experience suggest that the transition from a socio-political movement to a political party can be extremely troublesome. The impact of Anna Hazare’s fast in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar and Ram Lila maidan was considerable and played a huge role in destroying the credibility of the UPA-2 Government. If there are times the re-election of a Congress-led government at the Centre seems near-impossible in 2014, much of the credit goes to the veteran Gandhian who highlighted its departure from ethical politics. However, the decision of the activists who organised the Anna movement in Delhi to branch out to electoral politics has proved more contentious, not least because there is a definite impression that the anti-corruption platform is a shield for political agendas that would otherwise not appeal to the middle classes. The AAP is a coalition of very disparate elements who are awaiting the outcome of the Delhi polls to reveal their true colours. Post-December 8, the further fragmentation of this amorphous body of activists seems unavoidable.