Irrespective of its eventual performance in the Delhi assembly election, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) must be credited for triggering a re-imagining of contemporary Indian political culture.
Without a doubt, the AAP has reclaimed those ideals of our democracy that have been
persistently violated over the decades, to the point that they are now dismissed as nothing more than manifestations of impractical idealism.
The AAP's charm lies in demonstrating the audacity of attempting to translate impractical idealism into reality. We had an initial glimpse of this during the anti-corruption movement itself.
Nobody had then imagined that a group of civil society activists comprising a former income tax officer (Arvind Kejriwal), a lawyer famous for fighting public interest litigations (Prashant Bhushan), and a former police officer (Kiran Bedi) under the leadership of a septuagenarian Gandhian (Anna Hazare) could compel the arrogant central government to sue for peace.
The government's capitulation, though temporary, spectacularly underscored the possibility of citizens banding together to agitate without having to rally under the banner of one political party or the other.
It was, simultaneously, a pointer to the diminishing faith of people in the sincerity of the political class to take steps to provide transparent and accountable governance. It suggested, therefore, the pressing need for a new political party.
Yet, political pundits thought the AAP was bound to collapse. Presumably, they reached this conclusion because of their own perception about the sheer imperviousness of the existing political culture to impulses of change.
To succeed, a political party must adhere to one or two of the six principles of our politics, and the AAP did not seem to subscribe to any, they argued.
One, the AAP lost the services of its most charismatic leaders, Hazare and Bedi, who were opposed to their comrades entering politics. Charisma, we all know, helps overcome organisational shortcomings.
Two, it was deemed the AAP couldn't possibly muster the massive financial resources required to fight elections even in a small, quasi-state such as Delhi. Its anti-corruption rhetoric was bound to alienate corporate money bags, as would its avowed principle of making public the names of donors.
Three, its members had no prior experience of electoral politics, and did not belong to families that have been in politics for generations. The AAP, therefore, could not depend on India's famed patronage system to gather votes.
Four, it lacked the muscle-power considered necessary to intimidate slum voters into casting their ballots in their favour. Five, it didn't possess cadres who have been ideologically schooled and trained, as is true of the Left parties and the BJP.
Sixth, and more importantly, its appeal was said to be confined to the middle class, which is considered notoriously fickle in its political allegiance and too indolent to even turn up at the polling booth.
The AAP's rhetoric did not even target a numerous caste which could constitute its committed vote-base, and to which they could then weld other social groups, a strategy which the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has adopted with astonishing returns.
True, opinion polls in the past have gone horribly wrong at times, yet its presence on the streets of Delhi and repeated surfacing in drawing room discussions suggest the AAP has crossed the threshold of viability.
Should it indeed poll a respectable vote-share, it could perhaps become the only new party in recent times to succeed even as it defied, more or less, the six basic principles of our political culture as delineated above.
No doubt, the last 30-40 years have seen a plethora of political parties emerge on the Indian landscape. Most of them have been splinters from one or another organisation and had, as their spearheads, those who were already seasoned politicians.
Think the Yadav chieftains of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, as also Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, the Gowdas in Karnataka, even Naveen Patnaik, who had no prior political experience but, nevertheless, inherited the legacy of his father, Biju, and his organisational apparatus.
Two political parties - the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the BSP - have been exceptions to this trend. But even they subscribed to some of the six principles: the TDP relied on the charisma of filmstar NT Rama Rao, and in its early days depended on a Congress renegade, Kotla Bhaskara Rao, to devise its strategy.
As for the BSP, it was built around the nucleus of Dalits, particularly the Jatavs. In that sense, for the first time in four decades the AAP could emerge as the only new, centrist party boasting a cross-sectoral appeal to hold its own in an election.
It has taken the AAP tremendous energy to defy the existing political culture. Its activists are what a friend calls democracy's guerrillas, overcoming obstacles through ingenious methods, whether in collecting funds or launching their poster-war or social media jousts.
The AAP's ability to gather 'clean money' is decidedly the reason behind the hypocritical attacks the Congress and the BJP have launched against its relatively small kitty of Rs. 20 crore.
It is, indeed, a leap of imagination that only one of its 70 candidates has contested an assembly or parliamentary election before. Then again, these candidates have been chosen not by what is called the high command but mainly by active AAP volunteers.
Should the AAP manage a good showing in Delhi, its experiment could spawn a ripple effect in India's more than 100 urban constituencies. It would test the electoral waters in neighbouring Haryana, where the Opposition seems dispirited and decimated, and enter Mumbai, where goonda-gardi is considered a rite of passage for politicians.
Should it fail, it still would need to be applauded for endeavouring to restore democratic ideals to the Indian polity.
Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal
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