By Swapan Dasgupta
Maybe I am over-reading the boisterousness, but the Aam Aadmi Party’s coming-second party at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar last week left me a trifle disturbed. The enthusiasm of the modest but jubilant crowd, most flaunting their by-now familiar headgear, was only to be expected. After all, it is not every day that a determined bunch of activists can alter the electoral calculus of a state, especially one that happens to be India’s Capital city, and come within smelling distance of an outright victory after polling nearly 30 per cent of the popular vote. No, the triumphalism was both understandable and expected.
Yet, I expected a measured show of humility by those who had emerged out of a popular movement against both corruption and political high-handedness. Instead, TV viewers were subjected to an astonishing show of cockiness by individuals, heady from their rapid elevation from relative anonymity to stardom. The Master of Ceremonies was particularly exultant and never missed an opportunity to direct his snide asides both on those who had lost and those who had performed better than the fledgling AAP. Although Arvind Kejriwal did make a show of inviting “good people” from the Congress and BJP to join his party, the overall tone was one of dismissive sneer: the AAP was the stage army of the good and all the other mainstream parties epitomised the rot of India.
It was this infuriating arrogance that also led to a AAP celebrity heckling former army chief General V.K. Singh at Anna Hazare’s fast in a village in Maharashtra. So much so that Anna had to personally intervene and ask the loudmouth activist to leave.
To attribute this unseemly display of triumphalism to the personal shortcomings of a few individuals may well be correct. But if success has gone to the heads of those who promised a new brand of “alternative”, much of the responsibility can be pinned on the editorial classes who have cast AAP in the mould of a La Passionara—the legendary figure from the Spanish Civil War who uttered the famous words “they shall not pass” directed at the advancing forces of General Franco.
There was always an extra gush in the coverage of the AAP campaign but if this impressionable folly of junior reporters has been transmitted up the hierarchy after counting day, it is due to two factors. First, there appears to be generalised consensus that the bottom has fallen off the Congress’ support base. This was most in evidence in Delhi and Rajasthan, but even the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh results reinforced the conviction that no great depth left in the Congress batting any longer. Secondly, there is an emerging groupthink that suggests the AAP is the only viable force that stands between Narendra Modi and victory. If the AAP, or so the argument goes, can replicate its Delhi performance in urban India, Modi will have to be content with his existing job as Chief Minister of Gujarat.
The AAP euphoria is proving infectious among those who are exasperated by the sudden death of the Congress and are desperately in search of a force that can derail Modi’s journey to Delhi. An Indian-American academic who was earlier singing praises of Rahul Gandhi has, for example, detected that the dynasty is well past its sell-by date. He is now detecting an AAP surge in places such as Bangalore and Pune. Whether such individuals have actually detected something that is not visible to the naked eye or are merely clutching at straws will be known in a few months. Whatever the reality, the AAP is certainly celebrating its moment in the sun, its rise being equated to a tsunami and the Arab Spring that toppled various decrepit West Asian regimes and left the region in a state of confused turbulence.
Yet, while the AAP rise has many obvious lessons for a smug and complacent leadership of the national parties, its rise suggests various possibilities for the future. The most important—and by far the most reassuring message—is that traditional electoral calculations go out of the window if a big idea grips the popular imagination.
Contrary to media reports, this is not a new AAP contribution to Indian politics. The elections of 1971, 1977, 1980 and 1984 were decided on the strength of a big idea. In those elections, voters weren’t bothered about candidates: their preference was for the big picture. In an equal way, the BJP’s triumph in Uttar Pradesh in 1991 was brought about by a similar attraction to another lofty ideal that proved more appealing than local organisation and candidates.
Equally, the large network of volunteers that AAP was able to organise isn’t exactly new. Every worthwhile party has its network of kayakartas. What makes a crucial difference in the election season is a party’s ability to attract incremental support. In 1977, the Janata Party—born barely a month before the election—was completely dependent on unpaid enthusiasts. For that matter so is the NAMO campaign dependent on volunteers who have shelved other activities to campaign for what they see is a noble mission. Yet, the enthusiasm of these volunteers can only make a difference if they are integrated into the main campaign. The AAP succeeded in effecting that synergy and for that it should be credited. Now it is up to the others to do what is necessary to energise a campaign.
AAP has indicated that the mould of conventional politics can be broken. Mercifully, it is not the only force that can benefit from creative destruction.