AAP's success depends on combining populism with good governance

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has to relinquish being ‘everyone’s party’ if it has to succeed. The most significant socio-political developments in India in 2012 include the generation and spread of unprecedented civil demands for gender-justice --making this for the first time into a big public issue—and the crystallisation of the mass movement  against corruption into a force and phenomenon of considerable political moment.

Starting from the popular support for Anna Hazare’s fast in demand of a comprehensive Lokpal, through the rise of Arvind Kejriwal as the subsequent leader of the anti-corruption civil movement to the birth of the Aam Aadmi Party and its spectacular results in the Delhi Assembly election—2012-13 has seen extraordinary developments in middle India’s commitment to its fight against corruption in governance.

Such has been the impact of this phenomenon that it has got official recognition from no less a figure than the President of the country. In a recent talk delivered at the annual meet of the Intelligence Bureau, President Pranab Mukherjee hailed the Lokpal bill agitation under the leadership of Anna Hazare as the symbol of the rising maturity of the Indian civil society. Hazare’s agitation and the subsequent developments, the President noted, have added a whole new dimension to Indian politics and to the Indian democratic framework itself.

In an unmistakable acknowledgement of the power of the maturing civil society of India, President Mukherjee observed that it is unprecedented that a civil group has not only demanded a new law for the country but has also put pressure on the government to mould the contours of that law according to popular demands.

Indeed, it is largely due to the dramatic rise of the AAP and the signal its electoral win has given of people’s growing intolerance towards corruption that the Congress and the BJP have spectacularly co-operated, in this late hour of the 15th Lok Sabha, to pass the Lokpal bill with unanimous alacrity.

AAP has ousted the scam-tainted and policy-paralysed Congress with a zealous broom powered by popular support. That the people of Delhi did not reckon the BJP as a clean-enough alternative is also clear from the results. Still, it was not possible for Kejriwal to form a government on his own strength. Under normal situations such a scenario would likely have seen parties trying to lure out members of other parties in their attempts to form the government. That in the case of Delhi at least this has not happened is significant.

Seemingly, this is a positive fall-out of the ideological influence the rise of the AAP has had on the political climate of the country. The way Kejriwal went to the public even after the win, addressing around 280 rallies in order to assess the public mood on government formation is also a new thing in the Indian political scene.

Vox-populi

It is debatable whether measures like interactive rallies and asking people to text message a leader on government building constitute the right way to go about inculcating direct democratic principles into a representative democracy. Changes that need to be introduced in an  institutional manner cannot probably be effected in an ad-hoc fashion. However, Kejriwal’s innovative, if populist attempts to integrate vox-populi in the institutional framework of the Indian polity have had the effect of giving a nascent civil society a semblance of political efficacy and importance.

And herein lies the catch. When a civil society becomes a ‘party’—in the general sense of a group with limited, defined affiliations and interests—it forfeits the right to claim that it stands for the general public, the universal ‘Aam Aadmi.’ It has to pay the price of its political power by relinquishing its ‘civil’—and by definition apolitical—credentials.

 If it does not do so—if it clings on to its initial agenda to represent the conscience of the entire polity—it runs the risk of morphing into a totalitarian sect, which, for obvious reasons, is a much greater danger to a society than scam-tainted ‘regular’ parties and which the Indian polity would take little time to oust through both civil and political means. After all, there can be no such thing as everyone’s party; and if any party tries to be that it strikes at the root of democracy—at its own peril.

 Indeed, the rise of the AAP has opened up an interesting prospect that has thrown into relief the dialectics of institutional politics and apolitical civil society, of the purported universality of the state machinery and the limited interests of political parties. How far Kejriwal’s party will succeed in delivering the electoral promises it has made, how long and how strongly it will be able to pursue its anti-corruption agenda while staying in power, and, above all, how well it will be able to balance its revolutionary zeal and populism with pragmatism and good governance—these are questions that the future will answer.

 It is undeniable, however, that the political experiment that Kejriwal has done has crucial implications both for the Indian democracy and for civil society movements. Indian democracy has a way of enriching itself by integrating new forces, attitudes and methods into itself. The AAP phenomenon proves that this tradition of progress through change and integration continues. This, in the last analysis, is the power of our democracy.

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