Aam Aadmi Party: A Turning Point for Indian Democracy?

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Aam Aadmi Party: A Turning Point for Indian Democracy?

The Aam Aadmi Party could be transforming Indian politics. The Diplomat‘s Sanjay Kumar reports from Delhi.

Aam Aadmi Party: A Turning Point for Indian Democracy?

Aam Aadmi Party supporters

Credit: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

Ramzan Khan was in tears as Arvind Kejriwal took his oath as the Chief Minister of Delhi. He could not take his eyes off the podium. It was also an emotional moment for all those around him. Khan had traveled all the way from Jodhpur, more than 600 kilometers from Delhi, to witness the moment. A carpenter, Khan describes the event as “a historic moment in India’s history.”

The atmosphere in the sprawling Ramlila Ground, the venue of the swearing-in ceremony, was supercharged. Young and old wore the trademark cap of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, or Common Man’s Party) and thousands had gathered to see the mascot of the anti-corruption movement assuming the mantle of Chief Minister, less than a year after forming a political party.

“In 1947, the country gained its independence but today the people gained their freedom. For the first time in India, a real democracy of the people and by the people has been established. I feel liberated. Now people are the real rulers. This will take care of the problem of corruption prevailing in the country,” says 44-year-old Azam Khan who makes around $4 a day.

“A revolution has started in India and this will bring real change in the way we conduct politics in the country. The new polity will not tolerate corruption in the country. The suffering of the people at the hands of government officials and the system will go away with the rise of people like Arvind Kejriwal. He is the medium for change,” asserts Ayush, a software engineer who traveled from Gurgaon to attend the ceremony with five of his friends.

The fledgling Aam Aadmi Party, born from the crucible of the anti-corruption movement that began in 2011, is generating a new kind of energy and hope in the country never witnessed before.

“For the first time, a civil society movement has transformed itself into a political organization and challenged established political parties. Similar attempts were made in the 1960s and 70s but did not succeed. This is a healthy sign for democracy,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Delhi-based political analyst.

It was this signature of democracy that was on full display on December 28 at the iconic Ramlila Ground in the heart of Delhi. Fittingly, this venue was one of the launching pads of the movement against corruption. Kejriwal, under the leadership of the veteran anti-corruption crusader, Anna Hazare, rose to national prominence from this very place. The ground acted as a catalyst and transformed what was initially a rebellion against the system into one of the major political parties in Delhi.

Arvind Kejriwal formed the political party in November 2012 after breaking away from his mentor Anna Hazare. Nobody expected the AAP to capture the imagination of the people of Delhi so quickly and become a thorn in the side of the political ambitions of the established Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Indian National Congress.

The party came second in the recently held elections and won 28 seats out of 70, thereby restricting the frontrunner BJP to 32 seats and reducing the incumbent Congress to third place with just eight seats. A lack of numbers forced the BJP to sit in opposition and outside support from the Congress catapulted the AAP to the seat of power in the city state.

What does the rise of AAP signify for Indian politics? Will politics in India remain the same after the entry of an unconventional party like AAP?

“I never expected this kind of meteoric rise and endorsement of the party in a short timespan. Our success demonstrates this strong urge for change. Otherwise with a small party like us with limited resources and rudimentary structure, there is not much of a chance to succeed in a such a small time,” says Yogendra Yadav, one of the founding members of the AAP and a key strategist. In an interview with The Diplomat, Yadav further explains that “the AAP became an instrument and an occasion for people to carry out their wishes. There is a much greater appetite for an alternative pole in politics than anybody had imagined.”

Manish Shishodia, another senior leader and minister in the first AAP cabinet in Delhi, subscribes to this view. Speaking with The Diplomat, the journalist-turned-politician says that “we came to channelize the frustration of the people towards the system. There is so much anger among the people against the present political establishment that the moment the people saw an alternative in us they supported us.”

So, is the AAP a reactionary anti-establishment party or does it have an ideology and vision beyond anti agenda?

Political historian Shruti Kapila of Cambridge University says that “the media should actually take some credit, particularly for the rise of the AAP.” In an interview with Mint, Kapila surmises that “in terms of ideology, it is certainly likely to cause a crisis for the party to define itself beyond, especially, the Delhi city state.” She further adds that the burden is now on the AAP “to think about a political vision which is beyond just deliverance, growth, governance and anti agenda.”

Aditya Nigam of Centre for the Studies of Developing Societies (CSDS), a New Delhi based think tank, argues that “even though it seemed as if the movement had a one-point agenda – that of combating corruption, the fact of the matter is that it had a fairly detailed critique of the actual processes of representative democracy and the business of coalition politics that made every party a shareholder in the loot of the people.”

Can the AAP be a real national political alternative or can it not sustain the momentum?

“It is too early and too premature to make such claim. We don’t know and we have to prove ourselves. This would be our ambition and this is what we would like to become,” says Yogendra Yadav.

Professor Nigam seems to be more optimistic when he says that “the chances of it emerging as an alternative pole across the country are fairly bright in the short run. The same disgust with organized politics that was manifested in AAP’s victory in Delhi is pretty much in evidence elsewhere and it seems the party is already getting very good responses from other states.”

But critics say that without any ideological clarity or clear political vision, sustaining the movement on a single issue of corruption will prove elusive.

“For both replacing the Congress as well as providing an alternative to the BJP, the AAP will need to articulate clearer political positions and take ideological stands. Its willingness and ability to do so will perhaps decide whether it will grow to become a national force. Not doing so may have been a strength but may soon turn into a liability,” writes the Economic and Political Weekly.

Professor Badri Raina of Delhi University, in an article in the magazine Mainstream, warns that “in the days ahead, the AAP may need to consider a party with only ‘honesty’ for its agenda may find it hard to go far enough in either comprehending the nuts and bolts of a caste and class-based democracy or realizing transformations that may have a lasting yield for the honestly laboring citizenry.”

It is uncertain what fate awaits the AAP in future, but it has certainly unnerved India’s established political parties. Despite performing extraordinarily well in the recent state elections, the BJP seems to be nervous with the outcome of the Delhi elections. The party sees the AAP as a potential threat to its urban constituency. Not long ago, Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was riding roughshod over the Congress, looking confidently towards victory in 2014. The BJP at its parliamentary retreat recently discussed at length possible strategies to combat the AAP’s growing urban influence.

For the ruling Congress, the anti-corruption political organization attacks the base of its politics and threatens to hijack its inclusive and secular agenda.

“It fixes Congress and the BJP and threatens to affect regional parties. Modi would be affected directly. In the urban areas where Congress is in decline, the natural winner would have been the BJP. But the Hindu right will be affected by the rise of the AAP thereby making Modi’s task difficult,” says Mukhopadhyay, who recently wrote a biography of Modi, in an interview with The Diplomat.

As for Ramazan Khan, he is not worried about Delhi’s fate. He feels confident that in India’s future, it will be the common man and the common man’s party who will be the real rulers.