A multi-class urban party

The AAP’s success in Delhi could possibly be emulated in similar urban pockets elsewhere, where civic concerns and a compact urban community could enable it to attract the different urban classes

January 03, 2014 01:09 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:26 pm IST

Having graduated from a political movement to a party in government relatively quickly, in the small but significant State of Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is now poised to address its next challenge — that of attaining national relevance. The party’s success in Delhi had much to do with some unique factors related to the capital city such as the extensive media coverage it received during the phase of its agitations for a Lokpal. But it was the party’s strategy to move away from a single-issue movement (anti-corruption) with an element of anti-politics to a “populist” political organisation articulating real life issues of the ordinary citizens like inflated power bills and the inequitable distribution of water, that catapulted it to centre stage. It transited from being a civil society organisation committed to the realisation of the Lokpal to a political party seeking to implement the vision of Lokniti (decentralised, communitarian democracy).

Support base

By seeking to mobilise the urban poor on issues related to livelihood and welfare, the party was able to build a multi-class support base, which included many sections of the urban salariat and the lower middle classes. The party’s calling card remains its stress on being anti-establishment, but its source of support among the poor is linked to expectations of better welfare delivery and empowerment.

It is this mandate from the poor which has forced the AAP to form a government with the support of the very party that it has been stridently opposed to. The decision to accept support from the Congress has certainly dismayed a number of its adherents who identified the latter with malfeasance and as the “primary enemy” for the party, but for the poor, the AAP’s ability to make a difference by being in government outweighs such tactical concerns. The AAP’s garnering of support from Delhi’s urban poor — except among Muslims who preferred to back the Congress possibly as a bulwark against a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — was without recourse to narrow identitarian politics or patronage based on caste, religion or region.

The urban poor — drawn from the working classes in the informal sector, small traders, hawkers, migrants, etc. — were also drawn to the emphasis on anti-corruption by the AAP as meaning better and direct welfare services and opportunities without having to rely upon unscrupulous middlemen. The urban poor identified the AAP as being different from the BJP and the Congress, who were seen as parties which had cultivated these middlemen and patrons. The support from the urban poor is reflected in the electoral performance of the AAP in the various slum clusters of the capital city. Conversely, in areas of Delhi which have a greater number of rural households and in the “urban villages” where such politics of patronage and caste-community identity have a long history, the AAP’s primary political message did not find as many takers.

The AAP’s success in Delhi could possibly be emulated in similar urban pockets elsewhere, where civic concerns and a compact urban community could enable it to attract the different urban classes. But the party would certainly encounter a more difficult challenge as an upstart in most places of the country which are predominantly rural or semi-urban.

National challenges

Since the 1990s, the federalisation of India’s polity has followed a course set by three distinct and significant phenomena. These include the dominance of Other Backward Classes and related caste identity politics following implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations; an effective presence of the Hindutva right wing forces following the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, and the maturation of neo-liberal “developmentalism” following extensive economic liberalisation and globalisation. These phenomena have introduced various State-level dynamics and changed India’s political party system. The AAP has emerged as a political player by addressing a constituency that has been discomfited with the nature of the developmental process which has spawned corruption, crony capitalism and a new elite. But, there are other constituencies — particularly in rural India — which still see the need for patronage and identity assertion as a way out for the enhancement of their livelihoods. It is doubtful whether the AAP’s message can make an immediate political impact here.

Social democratic space

Evidently, the AAP expects that its performance in government in Delhi and an adoption of a more comprehensive political and organisational strategy elsewhere would pay dividends in overcoming this challenge. For now, much focus is on the contiguous States bordering Delhi such as Haryana, and urban centres like Mumbai and Bangalore. Elsewhere, the party has sought to engage with and draw in groups from social movements in various States such as Tamil Nadu and Odisha to expand its political reach beyond readily available support bases in urban pockets. This strategy should keep it in good stead, but the immediate nature of the political party system should compel it to seek more allies beyond the civil society. Engagement and issue-based alliances with other political forces which have a similar anti-establishment message, such as the Left parties, would help the AAP in spreading its message more effectively.

This is more so because there is a social democratic space in India’s national political spectrum that remains virtually deserted. The Congress historically played this role of a social democratic party, acting as a “transmission belt,” as political scientist Rajni Kothari called it, between the government and the people and having a distinct ideological world view. The withering away of India’s grand old party and its reduction into a corporatist party, dominated by special interests and one that seeks to practise social democracy more as instrumentalism and out of political compulsion rather than purpose, is not lost on many.

The mainstream Left had once succeeded in occupying that space in States like Kerala and West Bengal where it translated its radical rhetoric into purposive welfarism. However, the ideological transformation of the Left from a radical, social democratic force in the 1970-80s to just another variant of “developmentalism” (most pronounced in West Bengal) has led to its political decline. Moreover, the left parties could not expand their areas of influence beyond three States due to their lack of political imagination in attempting to win over the many discontents with the present status quo across the country. The regional parties, since the 1990s, have also metamorphosed into corporatist entities themselves despite emerging initially as voices for backward sections that were not represented in the establishment.

Need for a vision

If the AAP constructs a well developed vision on matters of political economy and even international affairs, it would be able to occupy that vacant, social democratic space in conjunction with other like-minded parties. At a limited level, its emphasis on decentralised and participative models of democracy, if put into practice, could bring about better social audits of welfare services and delivery and could enhance the institutions of social democracy that are already in place. Presently, the AAP has relied on an ad hoc approach to constructing an overall vision on economic or strategic matters, with an emphasis primarily on political decentralisation. It has perhaps done so to limit any internal differences between a largely left-of-centre leadership and an activist base drawn from the middle classes. But the sooner it comes up with a thoroughgoing vision that places it as a firmly secular, social democratic party and one that suitably addresses the uniqueness of India’s diverse political economy, the better it would be for the party to increase its support base and influence. In other words, the AAP has to come up with clear views on how it seeks to tackle issues related to the concentration of wealth, crony capitalism, “jobless growth,” crisis of the peasant economy, etc. It must also delineate its views on more purposive ways of “identity recognition,” and eliminating hierarchies and discriminations based on caste, gender and ethnicity.

The AAP’s rise as an anti-establishment force and the opening up of a social democratic space in India’s polity is not unrelated to global trends. In much of the developing world, a similar process had emerged in recent decades, as an outcome of the discontent with what is broadly defined as neoliberalism. If in Latin America this took the form of a “pink tide” against the elite, the anti-establishment emphasis sought to open up new spaces for democracy in the Arab world. These developments and the national challenges the party faces make it all the more imperative for the AAP to have a larger world view than it currently has.

( Srinivasan Ramani is senior assistant editor with the Economic and Political Weekly.)

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