Discontent with democracy and the AAP experiment

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Towards the end of December 2014, a lot of people asked me if I would be joining  the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).  Having been a key person in Karnataka in the crusade against corruption that Anna Hazare had led, many had presumed that I would also automatically gravitate towards this newly formed political front. When Arvind had met me then in Bengaluru, he did talk about the need for people like me to be in active politics.  Yogendra Yadav and Prashanth Bhushan too had tried to impress on me the need to be actively engaged in AAP and contribute to fine tuning its ideological moorings.   A few newspapers had also announced that I would be their candidate for the Parliament elections that was held in May 2014.  It was around this time that I had posed a few questions to them about the political ideology of AAP; the intent of having structures that demonstrated inner party democracy; what was the governance model that their were having in mind and what economic theory of development that AAP subscribed to.   Though I did not get satisfactory answers, I decided to respectfully observe the growth and trajectory of AAP as I believed that this could possibly be the much-needed paradigm shift in the Indian political scene.  It was also the time that I decided not to associate with any political party but to closely observe how AAP’s existence would affect the quality of all the other political parties. I must confess that I was hopeful that this experiment of the Aam Aadmi Party will bode well not just for Indian politics but for the nation’s progress as well.

It is interesting to understand the underpinnings of what led to the mercurial growth of Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP.   What we saw from 2010 to 2014 in India was a collective expression of the restlessness of the Indian masses.  There was such a deep distrust of the political setup and the common man was desperately looking for a messiah.  Over the previous several decades especially after 1991, growth opportunities and investments in Infrastructure, education and health care seemed to benefit only one particular class of people.  The effects of distributional consequences were beginning to be seen and the social and economic inequities were becoming more and more stark.  State expenditures on health and education were being inconsistent and the private sector was encouraged to consider providing public services for a price.  Cutting of the social benefits was hurting the poor the most and International trade, market policies and technological change over the last many years were resulting in hurting the same people again and again.  There was widespread discontent with democracy and the electoral process due to rampant perversion of the system, use of money & muscle power and using identity politics for electoral benefit.  It was in this scenario, Arvind and company entered and convinced the Nation that corruption was the cause of all their sufferings and that he could provide them with a viable and a fresh alternative.  A nation hungry for change lapped up everything he said and he soon became the poster boy of not just AAP, but also of an emerging new political paradigm.

Arvind soon learnt that he could build political capital for AAP and deal with the pervasive cynicism by constantly pulling down the ‘establishment’ and everyone associated with it.  Little did he realize that it would soon become counter-productive once he became the establishment himself.  Even after being swept into power in Delhi, he continued to denigrate expertise, selectively use ‘filtered’ information and kept projecting himself as the helpless victim of the ‘establishment’, which he equated with the Central Government led by Modi.

Today he and his party are going thru a reality check.  The more he and AAP have become like others, he needs to understand that the people will treat him with the same disdain and distrust that they have treated all political parties and politicians till date.  Inner party democracy cannot just be a sledge hammer with which you beat up others.  One needs to role model it within AAP and then bandy it around.  He needs to not only encourage people to speak up, but he needs to learn to listen with patience, humility and serious intent.  Respect for colleagues cannot not be driven by political expediency and he needs to demonstrate authentic leadership now.  His government’s policies need to be administratively feasible, politically practical and financially viable.  No longer will the people tolerate his constant blaming of ‘others’ and AAP as a party has to learn that the metrics of performance in a democracy like India is electoral success.  Decisions have to be informed by the trade-offs that such decisions entail and he needs to prepare himself and his party to learn to absorb them.  Democracy was questioned and in helping vote the AAP to power in Delhi in 2015, the people saw a redeeming solution.  But today, one cannot fault the common man of Delhi for feeling let down and cheated.  And they responded in the only way that they could – not give AAP their trust as demonstrated in the recently held MCD elections.

The AAP has to put its house in order not just to save their fledgling party, but to save this experiment in Indian democracy.  People are now no longer dissatisfied with AAP alone, but see a justification in their discontent with democracy itself.  The debate should not be whether elections are rigged but should be about whether the political process itself continues to be rigged.  If the evident skew in favour of the rich, the mighty and the powerful had to change, we needed this political experiment to have succeeded.  Questions that still lie unanswered are the challenges of Affluence vs Influence; Public opinion vs Public policy; Interests vs Positions, and Competence vs Values.  And one had hoped that the emergence of AAP on the political spectrum in India would have kick started the debate on finding the answers for these vexatious questions and Indian Democracy would become healthy and vibrant.

Profile photo of Ramaswami Balasubramaniam
Dr. Ramaswami Balasubramaniam is a development scholar, author, public policy advocate, leadership trainer and activist, known for his pioneering development work with rural and tribal people in Saragur of Heggadadevana kote taluk, near Mysore in Karnataka, India. He is the Founder & President of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM), a development organization and also the Founder & Chairman of Grassroots Research And Advocacy Movement (GRAAM).