As the year draws to a close, I am struck by some similarities between the Decembers of 2012 and 2013.
Last year ended on a raucous note as street protests against the brutal gang rape and death of a medical student forced the government to change the rape law.
This year ended as people power once again resulted in legislative change. The Lokpal Bill, a long-standing demand since Shanti Bhushan first proposed it in 1968 and Anna Hazare launched his agitation in the winter of 2011, is finally law — and politicians are scrambling to take credit.
An uncharacteristically verbose Rahul Gandhi declared: “It is our responsibility to complete the unfinished work in the fight against corruption.” As Hazare and Gandhi exchanged thank you letters (all thoughts of Hazare’s arrest by the UPA apparently forgotten), the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj pointed out that credit for the anti-graft law should be given to the ‘old man’.
The results of the recent assembly elections are still being analysed. Was Narendra Modi a factor? What accounts for the Congress’s stunning defeat in four of five states? Will Rahul Gandhi be named as his party’s prime ministerial candidate? There are no clear answers.
What is clear is that in Delhi, voters — four lakh of whom were voting for the first time — have signalled that they are done with old-style politics. What they want is a new story-teller who speaks a new language. They want participative politics with which they can engage, not politicians who come around only at election time. And this is not limited to middle class Delhi, but also to the slum clusters where AAP has made massive inroads.
A canny Arvind Kejriwal is reading those signals correctly. While cynics scoff at his party’s SMS-style referendum in reaching out to 26 lakh voters to ask whether the AAP should form the government or not, Kejriwal’s move sends out a powerful message: you matter. The AAP may or may not form the government; if it does, it might fail miserably at governance, but at least it offers hope. It offers the hope of a new political narrative where dynasty and entitlement count for nothing.
The AAP’s impact is already evident. From a political landscape where post-election coalitions are conducted in the shadowy world of deal-making, today nobody wants to form the government in Delhi – not even the BJP which has the largest number of seats but still falls short of a majority and is, significantly, down three percentage points since the previous election.
Caught between the BJP’s muscularity and the AAP’s idealism, and with the general elections just four months away, the Congress is scrambling against time. Despite his unshaven, rolled-up sleeves man-about-work appearance, despite the occasional melodramatic flourish thrown in (tearing into the hugely unpopular ordinance to protect MPs with criminal charges, for instance), Rahul Gandhi and his 137-year-old Congress party have failed to connect with the new, aspirational India. Gandhi has consistently projected himself as the outsider who wants to cleanse politics, but voters realise that he is in fact the consummate insider, the ultimate beneficiary of dynasty. It’s not an accident that the youngest MLAs in Delhi come from the AAP. It’s not an accident that all three women elected also come from the AAP. If nothing else, the party has read the new mood where women and youth are increasingly demanding a new deal.
Perhaps the Congress’s biggest mistake in the two terms that it has held power is that it has forgotten how to listen. It has failed to realise just how much India has changed in these eight years. Last year in response to the street protests at India Gate, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid had berated a TV reporter seeking a response from him. “Is this how we should govern the country? Through street protests?”
Khurshid and the rest of his party have now got their answer. The people of India want a new narrative. And if entrenched politicians won’t listen, then they will write their own script.
The views expressed by the author are personal