Delhi is a confusing city. It sprawls for miles, miles and miles upon miles, by some estimates the largest urban conurbation on earth, the most populous place on earth and the oldest continuously occupied human space. And, by some estimates, momentous things are occurring there now, in a city that is not unused to significant events.
Except, that is, in its politics. Until recently, like the rest of North India, the Delhi legislature was divided in two, with a general split between the centre-left Indian National Congress (INC), and the right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with both parties making up majorities with alliances with regional parties.
This, however, all changed at the end of last year, as a new force rose in Delhi politics with far reaching implications for the politics of India as a whole: the new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or Common Man Party, formed a minority government in the unicameral Vidhan Sabha Legislative Assembly of Delhi on the 28th December.
The most startling thing about this surprising election is the youth of the AAP: it was formally launched on the 26 November 2012, out of the India Against Corruption Movement. It was associated with prominent anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare famous for his 2011 hunger fasts for the institution of a national anti-corruption ombudsman in the form of the Jan Lokpal Bill. Debate over the further politicisation of the movement drove Hazare apart from his lieutenant Arvind Kejriwal, who went on to found the AAP on an anti-corruption platform, and became the Chief Minister of Delhi at the party’s victory.
This victory was not outright however. The BJP gained the most seats, but 4 short of a majority, they declined to form a government, perhaps because the AAP had dominated discourse in the election and the necessary political trade-offs and compromises would show badly for the BJP in the upcoming national general election. The Congress, who ruled in Delhi for 15 years, were heavily punished, losing 35 seats (half of the Assembly’s total 70), with former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit losing her crucial New Delhi seat to Kejriwal. The punishment meted out on the INC is likely due to their sluggish response on the issues of corruption and social justice driving the AAP, as well as poor national opinion of their economic policies, as India is experiencing a slow-down. Thus the AAP was able to form a minority administration, with limited support from the national INC apparatus.
The recent genesis of the party, and its youth (Kejriwal’s cabinet being the youngest ever to rule Delhi), as the extension of a civil society movement has led to some interesting happenings in Delhi. On 11th January, Kejriwal gave a durbar, or public hearing, for the grievances of the people that degenerated into chaos due to the thousands who came to attend. An anti-corruption hotline was set up, leading to two almost immediate arrests of accused police officers. The party is also using its new political clout to force through the anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill through in Delhi. The party also followed through on an election promise to halt FDI by supermarket chains in Delhi. This is a momentous step, as the previous government had authorised FDI in the Delhi area only 15 months ago, and international retailers will need a foothold in the capital in order to persuade other states to follow suit, opening up India’s potentially vast retail market. This blanket ban has been declared as a response to the perceived unemployment caused by chain stores; this economic policy has drawn fire from India’s political establishment, and the media who seem entirely pessimistic about the prospects of the AAP.
Further, two weeks ago, the administration took to the streets, conducting its business outside the central rail office and choking up the central thoroughfares of Delhi with people, threatening to disrupt the celebrations of Republic Day. This was in protest over control of the police force, which, in the capital, falls under federal jurisdiction, and is widely regarded as corrupt: the specific issue was the AAP alleged police protection of a vice ring. On an even more negative note, internal divisions within the party have led to the ousting of lawmaker Vinod Binny for accusing Kejriwal of being a “dictator” in the running of the party.
Reactions on the ground are mixed, and the national implications of the AAP’s victory have yet to be fully felt. This will happen in the campaign for the general election, which has begun gearing up in earnest, with Congress finally declaring Rahul Gandhi, of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, as the head of their campaign team. The breaking of a stultified system by rebels who appear to want genuine change to a heavily gummed up system is admirable in its way. While protest votes against the Congress account for a large margin of the AAP’s victory, their staunch anti-corruption agenda, uniquely, appealed to the Delhi electorate across socio-economic, caste and religious boundaries, unlike the alternate regional parties who have to appeal to a set base of adherents. This includes even the BJP, whose Hindu-centric aspect drove many potential defectors from Congress into the arms of the AAP, especially Muslims. How indicative this is of the upcoming election is moot; the AAP have so far said they will only be contesting seats in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. These choices are pointed: Gujarat is the home state of BJP PM candidate Narendra Modi, and UP is the most notoriously corrupt state in the union; both are states with a high Congress presence and many Muslims.
As for their track record in Delhi, the AAPs shining debut image is already partially tarnished. No more durbars have been announced in the wake of the disastrous first, the anti-corruption hotline went cold last week due to over-trafficking and Kejriwal was forced to publically apologise for the inconvenience caused by the huge manifestations in the centre of the city.
But this is not to be overly negative about the party, or the social forces they represent. India has once again proved its political vibrancy, as the world’s largest democracy ought to, by breaking from the dynastic politics that have dominated its system for years. That the AAP sprang from the huge civil society pool that operates in India is indicative of the political will and innovation that is going on beneath the legislative surface of India. The political establishment needs to understand that the issues the AAP espouse capture the imagination of a populace, tired of recycled issues and paeans of complaints about the “system” (such as Rahul Gandhi’s recent first TV interview) and, most especially, tired of corrupt politicians and government servants enriching themselves at the expense of the citizen.
The birth of the party from civil society has led to some problems, namely that they cannot seem to separate administration from campaigning, a common problem for new parties everywhere. Politics being the art of the possible, shaking the system and breaking the rules works, but order and precedent still must be followed if any administration is to be successful. Indeed, as Mr. Soin, a Delhiite professional, told this reporter, the “AAP has proven to be the symbol for all that is right and all that is wrong with the Indian political system. The sheer pride in the fact that virtual nobodies can challenge the system when needed but also the sheer disgust when the much touted alternative fails as much as the system.” The AAP may represent change, and they obviously appeal to a jaded electorate, but their methods must fall more into line with the establishment. If they can do this without compromising their agenda, or, more importantly, the values they have that speak to such a broad section of the polity, they will remain a force to be reckoned with in Indian politics for the next general election, and, perhaps, far beyond. They are making Indian politics more confusing, shaking it up and out of bi-partisan woes, dynasties, corruption and regional sectarian squabbling, to return politics to the core issues that face this great and growing country; this is, even if they fail, an auspicious sign.
Addendum: The Delhi Chief Minister, Kejriwal, and his entire AAP cabinet resigned on the 14th, because their anti-corruption bill was blocked in the Delhi legislature. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-26192983) They are doing this to bolster their position in the upcoming general elections, where they are contesting a large amount of seats for a party with barely months of very rocky administrative experience, but presumably so they can push the anti-corruption measures at a higher level as part of the inevitable state and national level coalition governments that will have to be formed in the currently fragmented Indian political landscape.