Common Man’s Party captures Indian imagination

Emergence of newly formed Aam Admi Party could upset the calculations of established political parties.

AAP, flushed with its recent success in Delhi, plans to contest next year's general elections [AP Photo]

India’s 725 million voters are set to go to the polls to elect a new federal government in 2014.

Now, a few months before those polls are expected, the last big set of provincial elections concluded this Sunday.

The Centrist-secular Congress party has been resoundingly defeated in four of the five states with the opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) winning in three, besides emerging as the largest party in the state of Delhi.

But it is the debutant Aam Admi Party (AAP) which has stolen the show in Delhi. It came a close second – the Congress was routed here – scaring traditional parties, who are worried that its success provides a template which could be quickly replicated in rapidly urbanising and restless India.

Delhi does not mirror India’s other caste and religious voting patterns and is the most cosmopolitan of its big cities. It’s small, contributing to just 7 of the country’s 543 members of Parliament.

Yet, it has always been held as a symbolic and a bellweather state, and the latest poll outcome here makes the 2014 look more interesting than expected.

The BJP has reasons to worry about the Delhi outcome. Despite 15 years of Congress rule in the capital and a robust party machinery, AAP’s ascendancy has deprived the BJP of a clear majority in the state. The AAP is now threatening to replicate its Delhi success elsewhere in the country – promising to contest next year’s parliamentary elections in a big way.

The underlying message could be that BJP may not be the sole beneficiary of widespread disaffection and annoyance among the urban voter.

AAP ascendancy

AAP’s (Common Man’s Party) performance on debut has been spectacular, so far rare in Indian politics. It has broken the stranglehold of the Congress and the BJP, winning just under half the seats, almost completely swallowing the Congress vote, and preventing the BJP from getting a clear majority.

The AAP has spearheaded the paradigm shift in Delhi’s otherwise staid politics.

Arvind Kejriwal’s political party was formally launched last year in the wake of an anti-corruption movement which managed to tap into widespread discontent and annoyance in Delhi, India’s largest growing and migrant-friendly metropolis, with corruption, tedious procedures and a general disconnect of powerful leaders in power.

Through imaginative campaign and a steady ‘anti-system’ campaign, AAP first played the outsider and then quickly shape-shifted to a party, asking for votes.

It had a wide and open volunteer base and through energetic campaigning, wrested both, the middle-class vote and the considerable poor vote, who live in Delhi’s growing shanty towns (52% of Delhi lives in the slums).

Changing Indian voter

While rural India still accounts for 68.84 % of the population, and only 225 of the 725 million voters live in urban areas, the urban population has grown faster than in rural areas for the first time in independent India during the past ten years.

AAP’s emergence could endanger Congress’ traditional base. The BJP is equally concerned as it takes the sheen off the high-voltage and expensive projection of their candidate for Prime Ministership, the controversial Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi.

AAP could be considered the first new and successful party formed in India, ever since economic reforms were kicked off in the 1990s and the governance reforms initiated in the 2000s.

Economic reforms have resulted in a record fall in organised workforce and most of India is now a part of the unorganised workforce. It has meant higher wages and a better lifestyle for sections, but has also sharpened inequality and created more job uncertainty.

Empowered by a slew of legislations – notably the Right to Information and the Right to Food – a record number of Indians armed with cellphones and with access to the Interent have had greater interaction with the government.

Besides bringing about a sea-change in life in Indian cities, it has also unleashed expectations of a robust and demanding citizenry that now, in the words of renowned political scientist Rajiv Bhargava, “expects clean, accountable and responsive governance”, if not as a moral value, then at least to make its pursuit of a better material life more hassle-free.

Worries galore

BJP, expecting a rapidly urbanising India to be more receptive to its PM candidate in 2014, hopes urban voters will ignore Modi’s questionable role in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, as he is projected as being a messiah for ‘development’ in urban Gujarat.

So, the fact that despite carpet bombing TV with his many campaigns and speeches, if AAP provides an answer for the restive urban voter, then it could be a major headache for the BJP, already pressed as it has lost crucial allies after Modi’s annointment as its PM choice.

Congress of course has reason to worry as AAP has stormed its base: the common man. 

It may have hoped that AAP,  being a largely middle-class project,  would help it to thwart BJP’s ambition in cities like Delhi. But AAP has proven its calcuations wrong by checkmating both the Congress and BJP.

The last time India saw a surge in voting in a process termed as a “churn” in Indian politics, was when the Congress’s near supremacy in the 1980s was challenged by parties in rural and semi-urban areas by parties that stood for backward classes, the Dalits (formerly termed as Untouchables, a word now outlawed in India), regional forces and even the Hindu Right. The “churning” had lost momentum since then.

Now, AAP could propel the first big churn in urban India in the 21st century. Urban voters, so far seen as apathetic and trapped by older and bigger parties, could prove to be the game-changers, upsetting the calculations of the two biggest parties in India, the Congress and the BJP.

The last time a party emerged as spectacularly was the Telugu Desam Party in 1983, which, led by a very charismatic filmstar in Andhra Pradesh, swept to power in the state within nine months of its formation.

K Rammohan Rao, a leader of the party and a former member of Parliament finds little similarity between then and AAP now, but says, “It is clear that people want a change – from everything.” He also warns that parties suddenly doing well generate higher expectations and that “people could change their mind again as surprisingly in six months.”

Others point out that while Rao’s party itself is a shadow of its former self, it has taken years for disenchantment to follow the big bang. With national elections just around the corner, it may be too short a time for that cycle to play out for AAP.

So all in all, AAP at least in the short-term has disrupted several calculations. Indians can hope for some more interesting times in 2014.

Follow Seema Chishti on Twitter : @seemay