Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Rise of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) in the recent 2013 Indian assembly elections

The Rise of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) in the recent 2013 Indian assembly elections
The Assembly elections of Delhi held last week has seen a resounding defeat of the dominant Congress party - a party that had ruled the national capital of India for the last three consecutive terms and the country for over 48 years. The triumph of the AAP, a party unknown till last year, which came a close second after the dominant opposition party, the Bhartia Janta Dal, is a reflection of the voting clout of the new youth centric middle class. This group is not related to the old traditional middle class families of Delhi who over time and through generations, have captured all the exorbitantly priced real estate in Delhi. This elite group has traditionally had access to the ruling class via family links or membership to British style clubs such as the Gymkhana and the India International Center. Then there is the government class which depends on the largesse and goodwill of the politicians and so is often reluctant to upset the establishment. Both these groups have been the traditional power base on which the fortunes of the congress party have rested since the now deceased Prime Minister Indira Gandhi converted the party into a family based enterprise.

The new middle class supporting AAP which is similar across urban centers in India, is educated, and has migrated from smaller cities purely on the basis of its merit and professional skills. This group is based in the trans- Jamuna suburbs and beyond, where real estate is affordable but increasingly distant because of traffic gridlock, from the employment hub of central Delhi.  This new Delhite is also frustrated with the lack of access to the power structures of India that comes so easily to the old time residents of the city. Traditional politics and political parties are in the control of dynastic families and their cohorts or tribal caste based rulers whose goals and morality are different from the new urban class. The increasing corruption that continues to transfer wealth to power brokers, has disgusted the new Delhites as access to essential resources like water and electricity are impacted. A house in the upper class neighborhoods of central Delhi such as Jorbagh and Defence colony means no power cuts and water shortages while living in Patparganj where the AAP won with a huge majority, means a few hours of municipal water supply and electricity. Most people in these and other outer suburbs depend on generators and water tanks to ensure a regular supply. The outlying colonies of Noida, Gurgoan and Faridabad that are no longer in Delhi’s municipal limits, and have crept into the neighboring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, have it even worse. The power brokers in these states are even more brazen in bartering access to power and wealth along tribal and family lines.

In the buildup to the current elections, many other groups in Delhi have expressed disgust with the deteriorating infrastructure and the distribution of public utilities, and have shown a willingness to support “anti-establishment” parties like AAP. The poorest of the poor who serve the middle class and lives in unauthorized colonies surrounding New Delhi, have access to no running water and electricity unless they are creative enough to steal it from regular sources. They also live under a constant threat of removal and resettlement to the outskirts of Delhi from where it is inordinately expensive to travel to the homes they serve. Even the traditional elite of Delhi which routinely voted for the Congress has in recent years, maybe in a desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with their western counterparts, expressed disgust with the Congress party and with business as usual.

The downside to the ascendency of this new class of leadership and its supporters is their unreliability and attention span to things “political” towards which they have traditionally expressed disgust. Lacking family sources of income on which they can fall back, this group has to work hard to maintain their middle class lifestyles in an expensive city like Delhi. Many of those who have come to volunteer for the AAP are shop-keepers or run independent businesses which can only survive a short-term absence of the owner. Besides a shared desire for transparency and accountability in governance, the members of AAP lack any ideological basis for coming together. The lone social scientist among their ranks has stitched together a 70 point manifesto with its central focus on anti- corruption, by way of the  “Jan lockpal” bill which allows people to bring down corrupt politicians and officials via citizen committees.  Other points include inflation reduction, access to resources, and transparency in government functioning. What the manifesto lacks is theoretical grounding which can makes it palatable over the long range despite its shortcomings.

The romance of belonging to a protest movement can unfortunately soon run out when the time comes for the nitty-gritty of governance. The exaggerated and populist natures of the promises made during a brutal campaign, have made the realization of these goals problematic.  This is especially significant given the time bound deadline the AAP members have imposed upon themselves during the hurly burly of political campaigning. Many of the followers of the party never dreamt that they could be in a position to form a government.  Lacking experience and given their professed repugnance to negotiate with established parties, makes it hard for them to rise up to the challenge. Reducing the cost of electricity by half and providing free water for all Delhites, both campaign promises put forth by AAP, is near impossible given Delhi’s rapidly expanding population, limited fresh water resources, high inflation and the free falling value of the Indian rupee. So, sadly we continue to hear sloganeering from AAP cadres about how they came into politics to reform and not govern which then begs the question of what will be the challenge of reform in the absence of any desire to implement such reforms.

The traditional parties which include the two dominant players, the BJP and the Congress are naturally exploiting the reluctance of the AAP to take over the reins.  They are also indirectly encouraging the AAP to push for a new assembly election in Delhi where they hope to discredit the new party prior to the oncoming national elections of 2014. The AAP aware of the danger of exaggerated expectations and the display of bickering inevitable in any immature new party, is refusing to take on the challenge to form a government despite offers of support from their erstwhile rivals. The deadlock continues but having lost the opportunity to take on the challenge posed by those they defeated,  AAP  now faces the danger of being discredited  prior to achieving their ultimate goal of launching a national party in time for the 2014 elections.