The recently-concluded state-level elections in India’s capital city-state, Delhi, yielded a remarkable outcome. The country’s newest political party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), literally “Common Man” Party, formed only a year ago by civil society activists affiliated to the landmark 2010 anti-corruption movement, routed the country’s oldest political party, the Congress, which has governed the country through most of its post-Independence years. The fledgling party’s performance and subsequent formation of the state government (ironically with the backing in the state legislature of the same party it had demolished), is being hailed as the beginning of something like a peaceful democratic revolution. It has galvanized political participation in a fairly unprecedented way as hundreds of thousands of “common people” across the country have rushed to join the ranks of a political force they hope will deliver better governance. And it had sowed the seeds of fresh optimism in the possibility of an ethical and accountable governance system.
This euphoria might be somewhat premature in the absence of any track record of AAP’s performance in government. But the party’s ascent undoubtedly represents a distinct break from traditional politics and suggests a new paradigm in at least two ways. First, AAP transcends the politics of identity and sectarian interests and practices instead what has been called the “politics of citizenship.” While other political parties have emerged from the grassroots in post-independence India and gone on to become potent regional forces, they have typically had their moorings in identity politics of one sort or another – caste, religion, ethnicity – that gave them dedicated support bases. In contrast, the AAP’s primary plank is good governance. Although it has been criticized for espousing untenable populist economic policies – such as subsidized water and electricity, its economic ideology and policies are very much at a formative stage. Its largest selling point has been its promise to fight corruption and bring probity to governance. Its success has catapulted the problem of corruption center-stage as the defining issue in the upcoming national elections.
Second, the AAP has been formed, not by career politicians riding on name recognition, political lineage and corporate connections, but by actors outside the political system – “common” men and women. Its entire leadership comprises of activists barely known till about three years ago, when the anti-corruption movement caught the country’s imagination. Most of its funding comes from small donations– according to an analysis of the contributions posted on the party’s website, more than 80,000 people from across the country and overseas had donated to the party before the state-level elections. The model of governance it espouses is a deeply participatory one - inspired by the successes of the participatory governance experiments such as that in Brazil’s Porto Alegre. It holds regular mohalla sabhas or neighborhood meetings on all kinds of governance issues and has solicited popular feedback on key issues through technologies such as SMS.
What led to this meteoric ascent of such a radically different paradigm of governance? One explanation is that this might be seen as a domino effect of the transparency movement that has been in process for a number of years. In 2005, when India passed the Right to Information Act, it was hailed as “a great and revolutionary law,” one with the potential of “fundamentally altering the balance of power between the government and citizens.” Eight years later, the rise of the AAP seems to suggest that such a rebalancing of power is underway. Civil society groups across the country have leveraged the RTI law to unearth and expose both grand corruption at the highest levels of political power, and corruption, inefficiency, and poor service delivery across the state apparatus –from waste in local municipal administration, to misallocations and leakages in government development programs, to high level scams in telecom, sports, and housing development. These exposes, further fueled by India’s burgeoning and increasingly activist news media outlets, have been instrumental in creating popular outrage making AAP an easy choice for an electorate eager for more honest governance. And initiatives such as “I Paid a Bribe” have further precipitated popular mobilization against corruption.
At the same time, the emergence of AAP as a political entity also highlights the limitations of transparency. The anti-corruption movement from which AAP emerged – India Against Corruption (IAC) - was formed by civil society groups which had been very active in using RTI as a tool to extract information and unmask corruption, but realized that successive exposes of corruption or inefficiency had little meaning without strong independent investigative and prosecuting agencies, and a credible threat of sanctions. One central demand of the movement, therefore, was the passage of an anti-corruption law that would set up a to investigate and prosecute corruption cutting into the “culture of impunity.” The foot-dragging by political parties over the Ombudsman Bill further underscored that transparency was also futile in the absence of a credible political alternative. The formation of the AAP was an effort to provide the electorate an alternative founded on integrity, an attempt to try and reform governance from within, although many in the movement have steadfastly stuck to the view that civil society should provide a demand-side pressure for accountability, not attempt to take over governance itself.
Whether this experiment in the institution of a new governance system will succeed, whether the new government in Delhi will succeed in establishing a transformative model of governance, or fail under the pressure of expectations, and whether political pragmatism will replace unrelenting principle – all remain to be seen. The effectiveness and performance of the party is yet to be demonstrated and judged, its strategies to resist the corrupting influence of power to be fleshed out, and the effect of its populist policies such as water and electricity subsidies still to be gauged. But the AAP has demonstrated that the availability of information can become a tool for popular mobilization and create the space and the possibility for deeper governance reform. This lesson might well persist beyond the success or failure of any one political entity or person.
Photo credit: Veeresh Malik
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