India's Aam Aadmi Party defeated Modi's powerful Bharatiya Janata Party in the Delhi elections, with a landslide, but its potential as a formidable alternative for mainstream politics demands critical analysis.
- By Sandipto DasguptaSandipto Dasgupta is a Newton International Fellow of the Royal Society and the British Academy, King’s India Institute, King’s College London.
Earlier this month, Indians woke up to the unfolding of a spectacular political event, the likes of which electoral politics promises often, and delivers rarely. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – literally translated, The Party of the Common Man – defeated India’s ruling party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the elections for the state of Delhi, which includes the national capital. The barely two-year old party, one that has far less financial and organizational capacity of the BJP, swept away Modi’s party with a landslide 67 of the 70 seats in the state assembly. The effects of the victory have been further amplified by a national media that is almost entirely based in Delhi.
Already, many are speaking of this as the rise of a formidable political challenger to BJP’s current dominance. Not undermining the significance and scale of their victory, however, the supposed potential of AAP to be the political formation to challenge the ascendency of the Indian right in the near future demands critical analysis.
The national elections of last May gave a clear majority to the BJP under the leadership of Modi, signaling a decisive shift of the political center of gravity to the right. The series of victories for his party in local elections since May, and the lack of any credible opposition at the national level only strengthened the sense of BJP’s invincibility. To many left-liberals AAP’s victory in the Delhi elections carries with it signs of hope where none existed.
AAP was born out of an anti-corruption movement in December 2011 that found wide support amongst the urban middle class in India. Tackling the endemic corruption in Indian public life remains the central identity of the party. Significantly, it is a party that self-consciously disavows a social base; it claims not to speak for any group in society, but rather speak of the indisputable virtue of non-corrupt and transparent governance. Its main line of attack against the BJP has been that the party is as corrupt as its predecessors. This might well be true, but it is doubtful such a line could be a winning formula nationally.
While Modi and the BJP undoubtedly benefitted from the public disgust with the never-ending corruption scandals of the previous government, being a non-corrupt party is not central to their identity. The BJP is a traditional party of the right, which has modernized under Modi. Its dual identities are made of a pro-business bent that champions a neo-liberal economic order, and an ethno-nationalistic tendency that promotes Hindutva and seeks to redefine the idea of India around an upper caste Hindu identity.
In pursuance of the first strain, Modi is keen on removing the hindrances in the path of business owners in the form of labor or environmental regulations, and curtailing the various social welfare programs. The second strain has been the core of the Hindu right movement from which the BJP emerged, and has expressed itself in the form of an increasingly hostile environment for minorities in India that has recently caught the attention of international media. While Modi recently broke his silence on this due to increased international scrutiny, he is yet to take any concrete steps to assuage minority concerns. One can therefore make a political argument that the BJP’s agenda consistently serves certain interests in the society – business interests, the rich, and the dominant Hindu castes. Non-coincidentally these are the groups that overwhelmingly supported the BJP in recent elections.
An effective opposition to the BJP has to speak a political language that makes this connection clear, and convince the electorate that the agenda of the ruling party serves a relatively small section of the society, at the cost of the many. This is where AAP’s disavowal of an ideology or social base becomes a problem. Against an ideologically coherent and committed party like the BJP – and one that has been extremely successful in winning votes on the basis of that ideology – one cannot just promise progress by putting better people and processes in place. One has to be able to explain why people should reject the ruling party’s ideology, articulate distinct alternative visions, and demonstrate why these policies would serve a wider public interest. One cannot just say that one will do things cleaner and better, but that one will do different things.
AAP’s current rhetoric of corruption and accountability is clearly effective, as the elections in Delhi showed. But it must be redefined if the party is to be the hope that the left-liberals want to see flourish. Presently, AAP defines corruption in too narrow a sense – only limited to specific quid pro quos. However, the term corruption can be expanded to denote a sort of structural unfairness, where certain specific interests consistently benefit, and certain broader groups consistently lose out from policies made by the government.
Such an argument opens up the possibility for a more potent claim about accountability in a representative democracy. AAP’s success is partially based on its addressing the feeling among voters that their government that is nominally their representative tends only to a small group of influential interests. This is not just an issue of holding regular public assemblies, as the AAP is known to do, but one that needs addressing through concrete programs and plans. These should adhere to the logic of representation by translating popular demands into concrete policy, and curtail the systematic advantage enjoyed by the dominant few.
A viable progressive opposition to Modi has to enunciate how his government already speaks for those with the most power in an increasingly unequal society. It has to also then rally those – vastly larger in number – who have little power but the power of their vote. And one cannot rally them by merely pointing out specific instances of corruption amongst the ruling party. One has to show how their aspirations will actually be translated into concrete and meaningful policies.
Sandipto Dasgupta is a Newton International Fellow of the Royal Society and the British Academy, King’s India Institute, King’s College London.
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