Politics as unusual

But AAP's real challenge will be to find ways to enhance routine accountability.

How should one understand the politics of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)? How promising is the AAP's future, in 2014 and the years to come? Will the AAP hurt only the Congress, or also the BJP?

The AAP's electoral debut is stunning. It won 30 per cent of Delhi's vote within a year of its birth. It relegated the Congress to third place, eating away 15 per cent of its vote. The AAP also chipped away roughly three per cent of the BJP's vote, and reduced the BSP, which held great promise, with 14 per cent of Delhi's vote in 2008, to insignificance. With less money than the Congress or the BJP, and driven by volunteer energy, the AAP has stolen the thunder from an otherwise quite impressive BJP performance. It has rattled the Congress and planted doubts in the BJP's mind, making it unsure of what lies ahead.

Moving forward, the AAP's quick spread to India's urban parliamentary constituencies (94 in all) and semi-urban constituencies (122) simply cannot be ruled out. Penetrating rural constituencies (327) — beyond those that exist in the larger neighbourhood of Delhi, especially Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh — by May 2014 will be a tall order. If the AAP gets 30-40 seats in 2014, mostly from urban India, it will be the third largest party in Parliament. If it gets 15-25 seats, it will still be a force like the BSP, SP, JDU, TMC, DMK, AIADMK or BJD in Parliament.

This may or may not come true in May 2014, but it remains a remarkable prospect. The Congress won a large proportion of urban seats in 2009. Riding an anti-inc-umbency wave, the BJP, especially under Narendra Modi, had hoped to garner most of the urban vote. The AAP might significantly cut into that, hurting not only the Congress but also the BJP. That is why India's two largest parties feel a deep sense of threat.

The AAP's performance is best described as an electoral insurgency. Only three comparable, though not identical, instances in India's post-Independence history come to mind: the victory of the Janata Party in 1977, the rise to power of the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, and the AGP in Assam in the 1980s. Each instance was bigger in scale, and also different in key respects. The 1977 Janata victory came after the only post-1947 nationwide suspension of democracy; the AAP has made a Delhi debut, not a national one. A charismatic film star, recognised all over Andhra, led the TDP on the slogan of regional pride; Arvind Kejriwal has no cinematic record. The AGP is perhaps the most similar. It was born out of a student movement, the AAP of an anti-corruption movement. But, like the TDP, regional pride was the AGP's slogan. The AAP has national ambition.

Given the prospect of the AAP's national rise, we need to pay special attention to the ideology of the party. What can we say?

The AAP wants to practice what may be called the politics of citizenship. The party's Delhi election manifesto and Kejriwal's book, Swaraj, are the best windows to its guiding principles. Both constitute an indictment of representative democracy, as practised in India. India's polity comes remarkably close to its citizens at the time of elections, but a seemingly unbridgeable gulf appears between elections. A wooing polity at the time of elections becomes an unfeeling polity between elections. "Is democracy all about casting your vote once in five years and then letting these parties and their leaders rule the roost?" asks Kejriwal.

In formulating the problem this way, the AAP is tapping into the worldwide debate variously entitled as: democratic deepening, deliberative democracy, governance, accountability, citizen politics versus clientelistic politics. These are not the same things, but each points to the insufficiency of electoral democracy. There is, of course, no democracy without elections, but a deeper democracy requires accountability not only at the time of elections, but also during routine, post-election government functioning.

Voting is only one part of the modern idea of citizenship. Citizenship also means that individuals have a bundle of rights , especially with respect to health, education and public order. Such rights are entitlements, not an expression of government kindness. Regardless of class, ethnicity or religion, a democratic polity must deliver these services.

As I have argued in my recent book Battles Half Won, India, by practising universal franchise at a low level of income, has become a great historical exception, surprising theorists with its democratic longevity. At its level of income, no polity has remained democratic for so long. But the quality of democracy often plummets between elections. An ordinary citizen feels empowered at the time of elections, and powerless otherwise. On the whole, neither the politician nor the bureaucrat shows signs of routine accountability.

This is the key problem the AAP wishes to address. "The amount collected by the government in taxes," writes Kejriwal, "is our money... Those whose salary comes from our money don't listen to us. We cannot do anything against government doctors, teachers, fair-price shopkeepers, or policemen."

It is this critique, the promise of a citizen-friendly and corruption-free state, that has begun to excite the imagination of urban India. The AAP threatens to undermine politics as it is practised. But what are the solutions it proposes?

The bulk of the proposals can be divided into three parts: administrative, economic and political. A lokpal to investigate corruption is at the heart of the administrative proposals, though there are other ideas as well. The economic proposals are not fully developed yet. A hint about the economic philosophy is in the party's Delhi manifesto: "udyog anukul neetiyon se... audyogik gatividhiyan badghegi... isse rozgaar bhi badhega (industry-friendly policies will expand industry and generate jobs)". The AAP has given the impression of being anti-business. But it is more accurate to say that the party is drawing a distinction between capitalism and crony capitalism. It is also against anti-poverty and welfare programmes as conceptualised by the UPA. It would rather have the government allocate resources for welfare and have people decide how to use them at the local levels. "[W]e do not want old-age pension, widow pension, or NREGA, or Indira Awas Yojana. It is better to give a village Rs 3 crore in untied funds than Rs 5 crore in tied funds."

The largest part of the proposed reform is political. Kejriwal believes in a variant of direct democracy. In support, he cites the example of Porto Alegre, Brazil, well known for people's participation in budgeting. But most of all, he admires the Swiss polity, where "if 50,000 people... sign a petition and ask for a law, it has to be presented as an act of Parliament". This theory of democracy was also reflected in the AAP's decision to consult the people on whether it should form a government in Delhi. Kejriwal would like to devolve as much decision-making power to gram sabhas in villages and mohalla sabhas in cities as possible.

The debate on direct versus representative democracy is old. Essentially, the consensus in political science points to the necessity of considering issues and scale. Some issues, such as macroeconomic policy (inflation, current account deficits) and national security, cannot be handled at the local level; the implementation of health, education and public order can be. Similarly, the problem of scale is significant: what works at the local level may not work at the national level. To consult people all the time, even after elections, can hinder, not facilitate, governance. How many referendums can one have in a continent-sized polity? Porto Alegre is a small town, and Switzerland has only 8 million people. Even the city of Delhi has more.

All parties evolve. The AAP also will. As it does, it will have to pay greater attention to policy and institutional designs. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that we have watched a formidable electoral insurgency.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'

express@expressindia.com

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