Hope, said one writer, is tomorrow’s veneer over today’s disappointment. And, in the reigning atmosphere of despondency about the future, no single event has done more to re-kindle hope in India’s ‘aam admi’, or the common man, as the eponymous party has in these past weeks with its most unexpected victory and ride to power after the recent state elections.
Not since the victory of the Janata Party in the watershed 1977 general elections that saw the end of the despotic ‘Emergency’ regime of Indira Gandhi has a political party captured the public imagination — and emotional mindspace of hope — like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has done. And, like the Janata Party then, it has raised unprecedented expectations about change and a break from the vitiated past.
The year 2013 has been, arguably, one of the worst years for the Indian spirit. Business sentiments were depressed, the rupee’s value was plunging, jobs went scarce, prices of daily consumption items were soaring, corruption was widespread and people’s faith in governance stood severely eroded as public conversation revolved around the effete leadership of the prime minister and despair about the future of the nation. With Indian media tapping into the mood of negativism with gusto, the fraternity of Indosceptics abroad even proclaimed that the country was fast headed towards joining the ranks of “failed” nations.
It is at this time that an unpretentious young man — young at least by Indian political standards — began challenging the system and vowing to “sweep” the Augean stables of entrenched corruption with a promise to deliver the harried citizens from the stranglehold of a venal politician-bureaucrat nexus.
Initially, few took him seriously and dismissed him as yet another tall-talking political wannabe. His choice of the ugly broom as his party’s election symbol, publicised cleverly at the back of the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws — whose unions, fed up with Delhi Police’s tyranny and venality, were the first to repose faith in him — was looked upon with sneering disdain by much of the chattering class.
The commentariat were indulgent, but sceptical towards him and his claims, because few expected his rookie party to get even into double digits in their attention-grabbing debut. How could they shake off the political hold of the two established parties who had not only dismissed him as a quixotic wonder but even mocked his somewhat iconoclastic vision?
The election results stunned one and all, but not perhaps the ‘aam admi’ who voted for him. Pointers were there, but many of us failed to read the tea leaves. My housemaid of 25 years, staunch Congress voter for decades, switched loyalties for the first time because the ‘jharu’ people promised to improve their quality of life in the dingy and deprived slum neighbourhoods where they lived without basic civic facilities, where water was a premium commodity, power was erratic, drains were always choked and streets never cleaned. What was a revelation was they were influenced in their thinking by their college-going son who said the party had captured the imagination of the young in Delhi and promised “change”.
The neighbourhood ‘presswallah’, who came from Sangam Vihar, a settlement of working class people like him who mainly lived outside the pale of civic attention, also voted for the ‘jharu’, believing, after years of being cynical about political promises, that this was perhaps a man who, by his simplicity, plain-speaking on burning issues and his total identification with the everyday travails of the citizen, could be trusted.
His first three months will be the acid test of governance for a trained mechanical engineer-turned-tax collector-turned activist for open governance. People are ready to give him time, as long as he shows he is sincere and means what he says. His first moves at forswearing security and shunning the trappings of power have been well received by the people who are watching his every move — not just in the capital but round the country and perhaps even across the world for his novel experiments in participative democracy. People are seeing AAP across social media as “inspirational”, an “agent of change”, and a “phenomenon… a turning point in the history of India and the world”.
It is a huge responsibility that Kejriwal and his band of idealistic supporters are now burdened with — the responsibility of having to deliver on his promises. Perhaps he will succeed in some, fail in others, as he comes face to face with an executive that is inherently resistant to change. His bureaucrats will give him every reason why something cannot be done, rather than something that can be achieved. They will put every spoke in his wheel as he attempts to make the changes he seeks, and the changes the public wants.
His party may fall victim over time to internal bickering — like the Janata Party did and fell apart. AAP is yet to set the Ganges on fire, but its brand of “honest politics” and its disdain for the “politics of privilege and entitlement” may open up hitherto unexplored vistas of political entrepreneurship across the country and make avenues for political consolidation of “alternative politics” in the coming election.
“In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?” asked Barack Obama, before his re-election last year. If Kejriwal has managed to infuse into the national discourse a politics of hope that supersedes the politics of cynicism, it would be a good start to the new year.
(28.12.14. Tarun Basu is the chief editor of IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)