Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Phenomenon

Even as 2013 slowly disappears into the mists of time, it's worth recalling one event that could yet be a pivotal moment in India's political history. On December 8th, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), contesting its first elections since being founded in November 2012, won 28 seats- 8 short of an outright majority. The ruling Congress party (still in power at the Centre) was wiped out, but ended up providing outside support for an AAP-led government. It was a stunning, entirely unforeseen result, but it may well be just the beginning. 

Sometimes a moment gives rise to an individual, and sometimes an individual creates a moment. In either case, the stars align and something special takes shape. Pope Francis came along at a time when the Catholic Church appeared to be at its lowest ebb, and his impact was instant. Similarly, the AAP and Arvind Kejriwal entered the scene just as the sad, final acts of arguably India’s most corrupt administration were playing out. 

The AAP has a number of things going for it- an incumbent government that is now almost fully consumed by its own incompetence and hubris, an enigmatic and charismatic leader, and the tag of underdog (who doesn't love an underdog?) These factors will never exist in unison again. Add to this mix the feeling, however fleeting, that the AAP represents a once-in-a-generation chance to rewrite India's history, and you have near-unstoppable momentum on your hands. 

The Aam Aadmi (literal translation: mango people, but also means ‘common man’; welcome to complex, multi-faceted India!) is a broad category of people that includes not just the nearly 70 per cent of the population that live outside of India’s cities, but also the world's largest middle class. I'm no expert on electoral processes, but I’m guessing if you're a political outfit that has even part of this demographic on your side, you'll win an election every time. 

Suddenly, there is not just a negative feeling of anti-incumbency, but a positive feeling of optimism. Significantly, it is an optimism tempered by reality. The party has gone to great lengths to emphasise both its lack of experience and resources in its bid to take on the two major national parties, the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is the quintessential David vs Goliath scenario, except there are two Goliaths and so David appears twice as small. AAP’s genius lies in taking these apparent weaknesses and turning them into strengths, even virtues. And so, Arvind Kejriwal, a man who officially entered politics just over a year ago, is Chief Minister of a region at the very heart of India's power centre. Make no mistake, it is a journey of epic proportions, one that rivals Obama's journey to the White House. 

When you make your personal integrity and character an integral part of your politics, your survival is inextricably linked to your own actions. In a sense, this is Kejriwal's appeal. For a common man, he has displayed uncommon political nous. In between the grandstanding and soaring rhetoric, he has reset the political debate, changed both the music and the lyrics. That in itself is huge.

It is a sign of how far politics in India has fallen that a leader who presents himself as a public servant is seen as radical. Arvind Kejriwal has brought ideals and a fresh perspective to a political discourse that for too long has suffered from a poverty of both. He does not have all the answers, and there will no doubt be some mis-steps along the way. But the beauty of a vision for a better reality is that every once in a while it can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. The winds of change, usually no more than a soft evening breeze, are now blowing like a hurricane across the country, bringing with it an ineffable feeling of hope. 

Editor’s note: Over the next few weeks and months, this blog will attempt to chart the key developments in the run-up to the polls in April-May. Whatever the outcome, it's guaranteed to be an interesting ride. 
I hope you will join me.

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