During her primary contest with Barack Obama for the nomination of the Democratic Party, Hilary Clinton once remarked that one only needed to look at the two of them (a woman and an African American) to recognize that both represented change. One could say the same about India’s newest political party – the Aam Aadmi or Common Man Party, barely a year and half old, but being seen as a potentially transformational political force. Its members – unassuming middle class housewives, small time lawyers, IT professionals, college professors, journalists, and community organizers -- stand out in sharp contrast to the seasoned political operatives from established parties.
In fact, in an environment where opaque campaign financing, political lineage, and the politics of identity are accepted avenues to the corridors of governance, the Common Man Party has literally risen from the streets, taking on corruption at all levels, appealing to ethics and citizenship rather than caste or religious affiliation, and proving its independent credentials by making its funding (primarily small donations) transparent on its website.
But while its passionate stance against corruption has ignited hope in a country reeling under a barrage of high level corruption exposes, its conduct during its short stint in government in Delhi has also drawn flak as blurring the boundaries between governance and activism. AAP’s protagonists - a group of prominent anti-corruption activists - were among the primary authors of the country’s transparency reforms and social mobilization against corruption. They morphed into a political party on the logic that the anti-corruption movement was proving to be of limited efficacy, and had to be supplemented with the a viable political alternative with credibility and commitment to push through such reforms as a people’s ombudsman with teeth, devolution of power to the local level, and an aggressive persecution of corruption.
Subsequently ascending to the Delhi government, however, AAP’s activist tactics -- staging sit-ins, raising questions, and demanding accountability – has thrown the neat little boxes of “demand” and “supply” sides of governance into disarray and triggering a debate on the advent of a “new politics.” While this has drawn sharp attacks, AAP’s activist politics might rather be seen more accurately as an implicit effort to bridge the deficit in the demand side of accountability that its transformation into a political party created.
In the long run, of course, such a dual role – of a formal political entity staking a serious claim to governance and a civil society organization striving to hold the political establishment to account – is unviable. If the AAP matures into the former role, its uncompromising passion and commitment could bode well for the anticorruption and accountable governance agenda. But, even the sustainability of its anticorruption credentials will no doubt depend on the resilience of the social mobilization it created. AAP’s founding principle is that the political establishment needs to be held accountable by those it seeks to serve. And the marker of its success must necessarily be the continued vigilance of civil society to hold it accountable as well.
On the other hand, if the AAP’s political effort flounders, it could still play an important role in its original avatar as a force for accountability. But, such a scenario also carries the risk of emboldening the culture of impunity, unless other alternatives emerge. In either event, the evolution of AAP will hold important lessons for the effectiveness of civil society groups as an antidote to corruption and the nature of social accountability. It is this, rather than the actions, fate, or future of any particular leader or group that makes this movement significant.
Photograph by Simone D. McCourtievia the World Bank's Photo Collection, available here.