For the modern, secular liberal chaterrati, the recently concluded assembly elections have resulted in the discovery of their new savior, Arvind Kejriwal. We are witnessing an increasingly competitive streak in glorification of his virtues. As results seem to demonstrate, the closer the constituency is to Raisina Hill, greater seem to be his impact. Indeed, but for a determined Narendra Modi and Harshvardhan, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) may very well have swept the elections in Delhi sending BJP into exile reminiscent of Uttar Pradesh.
While the success on debut for a party formed less than a year ago is no doubt creditable, it also raises several questions. Just as arguments viewing it as a vote against the system and not merely against the ruling establishment cannot be dismissed easily, the implications of the success on the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections too remain hazy. AAP’s attitude towards government formation and preference towards another elections raise concerns about the practicality of the approach and even its sustainability. It is also worth pondering the possible benefits Indian polity would derive through the arrival of an anarchist party like AAP.
Making sense of this phenomenon and thus mapping the possible future directions, an examination of the arguments put forth by Matt Mason in his book The Pirate’s Dilemma (Free Press, 2008) in a different context would be in order. To him, pirates or rebels occupy the space left vacant by the mainstream. They sail into unchartered waters, waters unbounded by tradition.
Further the rebelliousness of the pirates is all about radical experiments in ideas on competing, collaborating and coexisting in an environment unencumbered by presence of mainstream assumptions. They create new spaces and disturb the equilibrium of the establishment. Diagrammatically it can be represented as shown in Fig 1.
Fig 1- Pirate’s Dilemma- What Pirates Occupy?
No doubt, Mason arguments are in the context of cultures and insights from these cultures enabling the resolution of contestations in the digital economy. Yet adopting this framework to understand the context of the emergence of ‘rebel’ or ‘alternate’ parties in Indian politics increases our understanding of the ‘AAP’ effect.
The roots of AAP go back to Anna Hazare fast in 2011 under the banner of IAC first at Jantar Mantar and later at Ram Lila Maidan. While India was experiencing its periodic bouts of scams, the establishment appeared not only in denial but apparently living in a fairy tale universe. The opposition was not to be left behind. But for routine disruptions to Parliament and scoring few brownie points in television studios, they were happy to let the UPA survive without too many uncomfortable questions being asked.
The feeling in the BJP leadership was they would be default beneficiaries of UPA scams and all they have to do was to wait and watch till 2014. Presumably they had not learnt the lessons of 2009 when a similar strategy landed them in the opposition job for five more years. Yet, outside this fairy tale universe, a churning was on and discontentment rising. The citizens for whom, Corruption is a daily nuisance found an apparent insensitive establishment.
Fall in job creation, signs of emerging economic crisis led to feeling among vast section of the youth that the government had let them down. Unrest was building and just needed a trigger. This trigger was what Anna Hazare and his team provided. A septuagenarian Gandhian on fast demanding a mechanism for accountability through a Jan Lokpal (though no matter the shortcomings in the approach) resonated in the minds of many a family. Caught unaware, the UPA establishment got caught on wrong foot more than once and allowed the movement to gather pace. With opposition NDA in state of hibernation, it was clear path for the ‘Rebels’ of Indian politics to occupy the entire the opposition space (Fig.2).
Fig 2- How ‘Rebels’ or ‘Pirates’ Encroach the Mainstream
While the agitation may have run out of steam despite flip-flops of the political class as a whole, the undercurrents did not disappear. The horrifying Nirbhaya rape case saw another rise of the street protests facilitating the ‘non-political alternates’ to occupy the center stage. The pervasive feeling of insensitive government to societal concerns, dysfunctional opposition all seemed to suggest streets to be the only way resolving the contestations.
These undercurrents of discontentment needed to be channelized into a political vehicle which Kejriwal successfully did. Thus, perceived governmental inaction on issues considered important by the society, lack of opportunities for youth to prosper, rising middle class who felt their aspirations were hindered by government policies, moribund state of opposition all played a role in AAP emerging as an alternative political force. Parallels in the past point this was not unusual.
Assam in late 1970s was a powder keg. A sharp increase in the population and thus electorate thanks to increased infiltration from Bangladesh, the perceived inability of the then government to act against these infiltrators resulted in the students coming on the streets. Support from various non political quarters led to this agitation taking a shape of mass movement unsettling the government of the day. The mass agitations culminated in the Assam Accord of 1985 (not before the farcical elections of 1983 and Nellie massacre in the run up to that election).
The elections held in December 1985 saw the formation of PK Mohanta’s Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) government. AGP’s story since then shows the decline of the original ideals once co-opted into the mainstream. In fact NTR’s victory in Andhra Pradesh in 1983 was occupation of non-Congress space that was by and large vacant. Further Chiranjeevi’s relatively impressive debut in 2009 or for that matter Mamata Banerjee’s Nandigram and Singur moments all represent the disturbance of equilibrium on the political arenas to varying degrees. In all these cases, there were certain issues deemed unimportant by the ruling establishment or even the mainstream opposition, a new force exploits these discontents, channelizes them into a political force and reaps dividends.
To the establishment, this disequilibrium forces a rethink of their existing strategies. Borrowing from Mason’s arguments, the rethinking will have to involve penetrating the vast space hitherto unattended by these parties (Figure 3).
Fig 3- What the Approach of the Mainstream Should Be?
The mainstream political forces have certain inherent advantages normally not available to the ‘Rebels’. Organizational strengths, booth level work force, their presence for years, core voter base, experience in governance, visibility of their leadership all would stand in good stead. History is replete with instances of ruling parties appropriating anti-establishment spaces. Revisiting the Indian political environment in the late 1960s demonstrates this.
The internal machinations of the Congress resulted in Indira Gandhi assuming power in 1966. Her victory in 1967 was fragile and for the first time Congress did not seem invincible. Her battles with the old guard of Nijalingappa, Kamraj, Morarji Desai and others over the organizational and government control resulted in the Congress split of 1969. Vulnerable to the ‘Syndicate’ and dependent on the support of Communists, Indira Gandhi played her card ‘Garibi Hatao’.
In one stroke she appropriated the dissident spaces in the Indian social spectrum and destroyed the entire Opposition in the midterm elections of 1971. In fact almost 20 years later VP Singh’s Mandalization approach was a similar attempt. Cornered in the intra-party rivalry with both Devi Lal and Chandrshekhar, he essentially pre-empted their occupying anti-establishment subaltern space by announcing the implementation of dormant Mandal Commission report. While he may not have succeeded personally, the act did throw host of political parties feasting in Mandalization of political environment, the remanants of which are still visible today. By seeking to project the assertion of Hindu identity, L K Advani’s Rath Yatra enabled the appropriation of latent Hindu political space.
The current approach of Narendra Modi as an ‘outsider’ to Luyten’s Delhi is a conscious attempt into projecting the anti-establishment credentials. Rahul Gandhi’s struggles to posit himself as an anti establishment within an establishment demonstrates the dangers of falling between two stools in seeking the status of crusader against the ‘unresponsive’ and ‘insensitive’ system, a system which was largely a creation of the family.
These moments of upheaval in establishment politics often have several beneficial purposes. It presents an opportunity for the political parties to clear of dead wood present in their structures. If not AAP’s emergence, as few commentators have pointed out, BJP may not have gone for course correction like bringing in Dr. Harshvardhan in Delhi. But novelty will not last long. As other parties adopt these ideas or intra-factional fights take a toll on the organizations, many of these parties turn into pale shadows or end up as old wine in new bottle.
Experiences in the past almost all the parties deviated from the original idealism and became a product of the system they started off opposing. The rebels push the governments and the political class to do more right things, be sensitive to the aspirations and concerns of the society and in the long run strains of a more democratic system would arise.
Uncertainties and apprehensions aside, if greater accountability is infused in the system, these alternates or rebel parties would have done their job. It forces political class to constantly monitor those changing currents beneath the surface and reinventing into co-adopting those currents. Yet the voting community in exercising their franchise for these parties may unwittingly open a Pandora’s Box which has to be guarded against.
Prashant Kulkarni teaches economics, a digital economy and globalization at a leading B-School. His area of interest lies in dissecting resource contestations and human behavior at the intersections of digitization, urbanization and globalization.
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