How AAP can and can't change the future of Indian politics

Sumit Mitra
Sumit MitraFeb 15, 2015 | 17:06

How AAP can and can't change the future of Indian politics

There is a world of difference between the swearing-in of Arvind Kejriwal as chief minister of the city-state government of Delhi today, and the grand spectacle last May of Narendra Modi taking oath as prime minister, a show that merited being called "coronation", if crowns hadn't gone so hopelessly out of fashion. The real difference lies not just in the glamour quotient, which is obvious as the Modi show was nothing short of a SAARC summit, nor in the incomparable gap between the two men in clout and resources. Modi's word is law, literally, as his government-by-ordinance shows. Kejriwal, on the other hand, doesn't even have a traffic constable under him as Delhi Police salutes to the Union home ministry alone.

However, the inauguration of the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi may turn out to be more crucial for Indian politics. It may be an inflection point, promising to change the rules of the game of electoral politics. For instance, long before Modi's 2014 victory, it was known that he was certainly not strapped of cash, with business top guns going to the ends of the earth to see that his campaign succeeded. Kejriwal's astounding victory, on the other hand, challenges the general belief that elections are a spending contest. It raises the disturbing question whether corporates were all along being made to cough up huge amounts to politicians on the pretext of buying posters and flexes and chartering helicopters, while most of the cash pile actually went to grease their own palms.

But the biggest issue that the AAP victory raises is: It may be possible to think of voting beyond the impenetrable dialectic of the Congress and the BJP, the two aces of spade that come to power cyclically, though they have equally disastrous governance record. 68 years after Jawaharlal Nehru's oft-quoted celebration of freedom at midnight, with the Congress holding the rein directly or indirectly most of the period, two-thirds of the people are supposedly unable to buy food from the market without state aid and half the people still defecate in the open. And the BJP, within its first year of rule, has got most of the areas where it has a presence engulfed in face-off between the Hindu majority and the Muslim or Christian minority. Nor is its track record in managing the economy any better. And on integrity, they've indeed got the lowest berth double-booked. It is in this context that the famous line, apocryphal perhaps, of an Indian tycoon is often recalled: "I have got them (the Congress and the BJP) in my two pockets".

The Kejriwal strategy of using armies of motivated volunteers to approach voters, and make them feel that their votes could be decisive, has paid rich dividends in a city like Delhi. Most people in the capital were born outside the city - three out of every five - and have fewer clan, caste or religious ties than those living in, say, rural Uttar Pradesh. Can the AAP replicate its winning strategy in states where Assembly elections are due from now till 2017, like Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh? Besides, can it maintain its winning streak in mega-urban spaces, like Mumbai's BMC, where elections are due in 2017? And how can it add on its existing strength in Punjab, where it shocked the entrenched trinity of the BJP, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress, by wresting four parliamentary seats and coming second on a number of Assembly segments?

The AAP's future, like the trajectory of a spaceship, is marked by innumerable uncertainties. There can be many pitfalls. Kejriwal and Modi may get trapped in a game of chicken sooner than expected, and it is unlikely that either of them will swerve, thus giving the winner the chance to say "chicken". Trouble may begin not over larger issues, like Delhi's full statehood demand (which, if at all given, may boomerang on Kejriwal), but on matters concerning corruption in public utilities. The charges of blatant cronyism that surfaced in the run-up to the election, of the newly appointed BJP state chief himself being involved with one of the city's private power distribution businesses, if proliferating, can put the Centre and the state government in headlong collision.

The fact that Kejriwal has not given up on his trademark war on corruption is evident from the AAP's insistence to make anti-graft crusader Sanjiv Chaturvedi chief of the new government's anti-corruption bureau. The former Indian Forest Service officer is a bête noire of the Congress and the BJP. The spirited fight he put up against the Haryana "forest mafia" led to his being transferred 12 times by the state's erstwhile the Congress government. Further, being posted in charge of vigilance at the AIIMS Hospital, he nabbed a Congress MLA who owned a pharmacy in the hospital and dealt in banned drugs. Meanwhile, government changed but corruption didn't. His wings were clipped, making him deputy director without vigilance responsibilities. Unfazed, he unearthed startling "skeletons" from the hospital's cupboard - of a BJP Rajya Sabha member running a dodgy security firm in the hospital, and the Union health minister particularly favouring an IAS officer in bending rules to allow tenure extension to an engineering firm given jobs worth Rs 3,700 crore.

Compared to the might of the capital and the gravitas of Modi, the lordly figure who hugs the US President in public, Kejriwal is a small man, the "muffler-wala". But he is too close for comfort. Kejriwal's journey in politics dredges up old memories. When Rajiv Gandhi, as prime minister, was caught in a double bind with the anti-corruption crusade of his finance minister VP Singh, he got his Mr Clean kicked sideways to the ministry of defence, hoping he wouldn't have much to tattle in the staid office that hardly came in public view. But then came volleys of corruption charges, HDW submarines and Bofors howitzers, fired by Singh at Rajiv and his family. The shots were perfectly aimed. They cost Rajiv his job, and the Congress party its political pre-eminence for ever.

Last updated: February 15, 2015 | 17:06
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