The journey from learned helplessness to empowerment is a one-way street. Once empowered, the people cannot go back to feeling helpless or powerless

As the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, Arvind Kejriwal was sworn in as Chief Minister of Delhi on December 28, 2013. Of the lakhs of voters in Delhi who gave such a strong mandate to a fledgling party, or the hundreds of thousands of supporters across India and the globe who participated in this struggle and made this happen, the emotion was jubilation, exhilaration and a feeling of having made the “near impossible” happen. Others who were on the fence and earlier doubtful that a new party with such impractical ideals of transparency and accountability could make any serious inroads into the entrenched political game of money and muscle, will be feeling a grudging admiration and a feeling of “wow, not quite sure how they pulled this off but these people are certainly worth taking seriously”. Many such people are flocking in large numbers to join this political revolution as this wave for clean politics sweeps across the nation. The emotion in corridors of administrative offices in Delhi where corruption was an accepted everyday phenomenon may surely be one of trepidation and unease as they see their bastions of power crumbling and an uncertain fate ahead.  There are media reports of files being shredded and tossed and officials scrambling to get transfers out of Delhi.

So, how did such a transformative change happen in such a short period of time, defying all conventional political wisdom? This is the question on the lips of many as they scratch their heads in wonder. What was the secret recipe for success in the stunning victory of the AAP? Even political opponents, established parties such as the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, are doing some soul-searching and taking lessons from this turn of events. Rahul Gandhi himself has acknowledged that the Congress will need to learn from the AAP.

What was the goal that the AAP had set out to achieve? To first rid Delhi of corruption and then do the same for the rest of the country. Their slogan or “mantra” was “A corruption-free India is not our request, but our demand and obsession”. Go to their website and this is the first message that greets you. There is clarity and firmness of purpose here.

But why should this be so difficult to achieve? Are not most people in India on the receiving end of corruption and only a small fraction beneficiaries of it? So, why should it be difficult to correct this state of affairs in the world’s largest democracy? Would not every Indian naturally want this and vote for clean politics? What forces had created a system where only the corrupt could survive in politics and people are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils? Was it that those indulging in corruption were really smart and hid their tracks and fooled the people most of the time? That does not seem too plausible in an environment where mega corruption scandals are exposed with alarming frequency and skeletons tumble out of the closet as an everyday occurrence. So, what was it that was causing this state of affairs to continue? What forces were keeping this system from moving to the desired state of a corruption-free country?

Removing barriers

Experts in change management talk of two ways that you can make change happen. By putting in place “drivers” that create a force towards the desired future state or removing “barriers” that prevent a system from moving to the desired future state. In fact, it’s often easier to change a system by removing “barriers” rather than putting in place “drivers”. The desire of a majority of Indians for a corruption-free country was a “driving” force for change, but at the same time there was a sense of helplessness or powerlessness, a belief that it’s the way it is and nothing can change it, that became a key barrier to this change. Removing this barrier was critical to allow the system to change.

Psychologists have studied the phenomenon of “learned helplessness”, where people who have been put in a prolonged situation where they are unable to get results from their actions, give up trying, and thereafter, helplessness becomes a learned behaviour. I would venture to say that large segments of Indians had succumbed to the phenomenon of learned helplessness, and felt powerless to change the state of affairs regarding corruption in the country. That being the case, a central task for the AAP was to undo this sense of helplessness and make people feel empowered to rise up and fight for change. A lot of key messages of the party were aimed at this.

The very name of the party created this sense of empowerment. It made every Indian who donned the Aam aadmi topi (cap) feel that they were the party — that they owned the party. The topi became the crown that made them feel like the king of the party.

Central messages of the party also built on this feeling of empowerment. “The aam aadmi will go to Parliament and clean corruption”, “the aam aadmi will be selected as a candidate”, “the aam aadmi has won from this constituency and will live not as a minister but as an aam aadmi rejecting the trappings of a VIP political culture”.

Not only did the aam aadmi feel empowered, he felt heard. The tragedy of Indian politics in the past several decades since Independence has been the growing irrelevance of the aam aadmi and his troubles and woes. Politics became a game of buying and manipulating votes to win elections and then driving the very people who voted for you into a corner, extorting from them through any unfair and corrupt means, and making their lives difficult. The AAP’s door-to-door campaign made the aam aadmi feel heard and empowered, as did the Mohalla Sabhas of the AAP to create Assembly manifestos. Even the decision to form the government in Delhi was taken to the aam aadmi in one of the largest referendum exercises in politics. Even while the Opposition scoffed at this, it struck a chord with the aam aadmi. If any other political party wants to learn lessons from the AAP, they need to learn the ABC of empowerment.

How long will the euphoria last?

As we celebrate this moment that may very well be remembered in the years to come as the turning point that changed the trajectory of India’s development and made the common man relevant, many are also asking the question, how long will this last? How long will the Congress allow this government of the people to continue? How long before the corrupt forces band together and strike it down? 

My answer to this question is that the journey from learned helplessness to empowerment is a one-way street. It cannot go backwards. Once empowered, the people cannot go back to feeling helpless or powerless. The people of India have woken up; they feel empowered and will not settle for less any more. They will demand clean candidates, they will demand transparent political funding, and they will demand that money be spent on the needs of the aam aadmi. They will insist on their voice being heard and participating in the political process. Hail to the power of the people in the world’s largest democracy!

(The writer is an organisation development consultant in Chicago and has been coordinating the AAP Global supporter group)

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