By Urvashi Prasad:
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has taken India’s political arena by storm. While opinion polls in the run up to the 2013 Delhi Assembly Elections had indicated that the party was gaining momentum, few would have predicted that they will eventually win 28 seats and finish a close second in another 20. The events of the last couple of months, however, including the resignation of Mr. Kejriwal from the Chief Minister’s position, seem to have shaken the belief of several people and many have written off the party already.
Here are six reasons why I think this should not be the case:
1. Birth of a new brand of politics: Since independence, India has made progress on numerous fronts, however, we still have a very long way to go when it comes to effective governance. Here are some sobering facts to consider – according to the Government, approximately 30% of India’s population is below the poverty line, however, 47% of children under the age of 5 are undernourished (according to UNICEF one in every three malnourished child lives in India) and 57% of the population still does not have access to electricity. Moreover, India ranks 136 on a list of 186 countries on the United Nations Gender Inequality Index. Clearly, the need of the hour is not to continue with the orthodox but to introduce a new and more effective brand of politics. AAP may or may not be the solution we are looking for. In fact, it is unlikely that AAP alone will be able to change the entire political landscape. However, until we give them adequate time to establish and prove themselves, we will never really know.
2. Active involvement from various sections of society: The last few months have seen strong political participation from hitherto less active segments like the urban youth and professionals. This has been facilitated through grassroots campaigning by parties like AAP as well as extensive engagement with social media. In fact, AAP’s campaign in Delhi benefitted hugely from the contribution of Non-Resident Indians, primarily students and young professionals, through funding as well as volunteering. While time will be the ultimate test of whether this involvement can be sustained, it has certainly been an encouraging development.
3. Acknowledgment of a broad range of election issues: The upcoming General Elections are no longer dominated by issues of communalism and secularism alone but equally by matters of governance. This is at least in part due to the emphasis of new entrants like AAP on everyday challenges faced by ordinary people, with a spillover effect on other parties. The Bhartiya Janata Party, for instance, is focusing on the progress made by Gujarat on a number of measurable indicators under the leadership of Mr. Narendra Modi. Similarly, in his recent television interview, Mr. Rahul Gandhi highlighted the accomplishments of the Congress Government in the last few years including the Right to Information Act and the Anti-Corruption Bill.
After forming the Government in Delhi, AAP acted on a number of its promises including announcing subsidies for water and electricity. The subsidies sparked off passionate debates around their economic justification and long-term sustainability. Whether we agree or disagree with the specifics of the AAP policies, this is exactly the kind of open debate on the merits and demerits of various policy initiatives that is needed on a more regular basis.
4. Entry of common people into politics: The birth of AAP and the rise of new leaders has demonstrated that it is not impossible for ordinary citizens to enter the political arena. While Mr. Arvind Kejriwal might not be all that “aam” given his IIT degree and bureaucratic credentials, several ministers in his Delhi cabinet were previously little known names. Like them or hate them, they have given hope to several aspiring politicians. This is especially true for those among the youth who are passionate about driving change but are sceptical of entering a space that is perceived as a bastion of elites or those with the appropriate “connections”. While no one is naÃ¯ve enough to think that entering politics will ever be straightforward, at least it no longer seems like an aspiration that is completely unrealistic.
5. Emphasis on clean candidates and transparency: India has struggled to ensure that those with criminal charges or convictions are kept put of parliament. In fact, estimates suggest that nearly a third of our parliamentarians have had criminal charges levelled against them. Parties like AAP, in particular, have emphasised the importance of fielding candidates with an untarnished image, making this a bigger election issue than ever before. By having a clean image, candidates are in an undoubtedly stronger position to ask questions of others in public life, something that those with skeletons in their own cupboards will always struggle to do. Transparency about how funds are collected and spent on election campaigns has also become a subject of much discussion.
6. Simplicity: The success of AAP in Delhi has shown that we appreciate simplicity in the lifestyle and demeanour of those we elect. While there have been several debates around whether a three room flat for a Chief Minister is really “simple” or how much security is appropriate, it is encouraging to see that privileges that have previously been taken for granted are now being intensely questioned. No one likes being held up on the road because of VIP movement or contributing hard earned money towards palatial homes. This has been more unambiguously expressed in the last few months than ever before. Hopefully, some of these debates will also help define clear parameters around the facilities office bearers absolutely need to discharge their duties efficiently and those that are excesses.
Sceptics would argue that many of these positive developments have been limited to urban areas, which is a valid concern. Also, AAP has a long way to go before it can establish itself in the political arena and demonstrate its credibility, transparency and inclusiveness. However, they will not be able to do so if we write them off within a period of a few months. The media also has an important role to play in ensuring the appropriate level of scrutiny. During the two months of the AAP Government in Delhi, there seemed to be constant and at times unnecessary media glare which can make it difficult for any party let alone a political newbie to function. The people of Delhi exercised their voting power and catalyzed perhaps one of the biggest upsets in the history of elections in India. It is now up to us to shape the future of this potential political revolution. Even if AAP as a party does not succeed, it is critical that the ideology of clean, participatory and effective governance survives and flourishes.