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February 16, 2015



Betting on the Aam Admi

In politics, no one case study can be quoted to make a one-size-fits-all point. But even then, in a limited but significant sense, the remarkable victory of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) of the self-styled anarchist-turned-reformer Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi’s recent state assembly elections over the formidable Bharatiya Janta Party holds some important lessons for us here in Pakistan.
The AAP measured up to its popularity, and, for a change, proved exit polls right – and how! It defeated its archrival in a resounding fashion – winning all but three seats of Delhi Assembly’s 70. Last Saturday, Kejriwal took oath as Delh’s 8th chief minister. Most analysts agree that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suffered a hard blow. Modi seems a lot smaller in political stature now. Before the Delhi elections his national aura was imposing. His 20-feet tall image was happily bankrolled by big business, a fawning national and international media that has been consistent in inflating him as ‘the man’ India had been waiting for all this time.
At the polls Kejriwal was handicapped. His last stint in power in the same assembly was just a few weeks long, and those weeks were chaotic and uninspiring. When he resigned, almost everyone was ready to write him off. More importantly, his challenge to Delhi’s entrenched corruption, his determination to lift teeming millions out of wretched poverty and his promises to ease economic pressures on a rising middle class – in other words the whole reform agenda – too looked set to evaporate with his departure from the scene. He was jailed, slapped by a rickshaw driver (whose house he later visited), openly ridiculed and his party suffered a rout in the Lok Sabha elections. But then he made a remarkable turn-around, out-gunning rivals, and capturing the educated hearts and minds of India’s capital. How did that come about?
Well, the claw-back to popularity came on the back of humility and an apology. This muffler-man (part

of his attire), a diabetic vegetarian of 46, came clean on his mistake of abandoning his voters and breaching their trust. He gave a heartfelt apology to Delhi’s residents. One news report quoted him saying this: “Jo bhi ho jaye, humne yeh to seekh liya hai ki kursi mat chhodo (we have learnt one thing: no matter what happens, don’t leave your assembly seat)”.
There was no pseudo-intellectual justification for cutting short his tenure, nor any sophistry used in defence of a stupid move. In the ruthless world of politics, sincerity and admission of mistakes is often seen as a sign of weakness. But Kejriwal proved this wasn’t so. Pitched the right way, sincerity and humility tower above haughty, devious muscle politics.
But it wasn’t just the pitch. It was also the party; Kejriwal’s team reconnected with the grassroots through a determined re-organisation effort. They collectively accepted the fact that mere popularity was not enough to carry on in the public realm. The AAP’s social media team did a fine job of popularising its agenda. Its strategy was not to demonise the opponents and churn out trashy opinions of terra bite size. Nor did it dip the AAP in rosewater. Nor indeed did it make it sound like the best thing that had happened to India since independence. Most media platforms were used to market and project an alternative vision, a realistic hope for change. This resurrected the party’s resonance with the voter and rebuilt their damaged trust in its leadership.
But the AAP’s real strength remains its manifesto, the 70 points that, in compressed form, are just two words: Reform, Deliver. By promising to tackle corruption at every level of public interface with the state and the private sector, and by talking about plans to make the city clean, functional and poor or middle-class friendly, Kejriwal’s party touched a forgotten chord with the voter, whose daily grinding existence had long been forgotten in super-thinking centred on making India a world power.
Such grandiose schemes often ignore the fundamental fact that for an average educated voter a clean street, a tap supplying disease-free water, a policeman catching thieves, a green park in the neighbourhood, a school with teachers who can teach, a hospital that can deal with emergencies, state land that is not controlled by land-grabbers and other such routine things are far more appealing and powerful symbols of competence than strategic illusions of becoming masters of the universe. While Modi’s party was floating in the air sipping with the high and mighty of international politics, dangling grand designs above the heads of the common people, Kejriwal and his associates were happily soiling their shoes in the dirty lanes of the city. The city welcomed the walkers. Its voters slapped down the talkers.
Now this is quite ironic. The BJP’s scintillating defeat despite Modi’s best efforts – including his personal supervision of the election campaign – is an oddity. The party itself claims to be the force of change, the new face of India. Not long ago Congress – which got annihilated in these polls causing bitter internal arguments and embarrassing public spats between its leaders – was shoved out of power by the BJP because the former represented the status quo and the latter represented change.
And yet in 2015 Delhi’s voters seem to take a different view of the BJP. For them the BJP’s claims of being the force of change are hot air. They have placed total faith in the AAP – this new kid in an ancient political town. (The AAP was formed in 2012 and in a way accidently as the Anna Hazare anti-corruption dharna threw up new demands for reform.) Put differently, it took Congress a hundred plus years to see its glory turn to dust, but in case of the BJP a major jolt has come within a decade and that too at the peak of its political strength.
This tells you something about how short the threshold of citizens’ tolerance of vacuous politics has become and how easily their patience gets exhausted with the slow-moving process of change. Political loyalties cannot be taken for granted in this day and age; there is no permanent partnership that the educated upwardly mobile class, or deeply depressed lower classes, build with those they may vote for. Now politicians and parties get judged quickly and severely.
The idea of public representation substantially rests on service and comfort delivery and not on the flowery language or looks of those standing at the podium. Heavens can wait but water supply (or toilet facilities, considering half of India’s 1.2 billion population defecates in the open) cannot. People want these needs to be met now, immediately, not in the ‘foreseeable future.’
There is every reason to believe that the Aam Admi Party would be damaged goods soon if it does not deliver on its manifesto this time round. Of the 70 points of its agenda, almost 64 are well within its administrative and political reach so it does not have to consult the central government on these matters. However, for now it is there in the limelight, a good example of the immense possibilities that exist for those in their respective countries who want to make a difference to people’s lives. Nations that are mired in multiple problems don’t need to hanker after knights in shining (or polished) armour and glib charmers to make things happen.
The challenge of governance is far too complex to entertain the hope that one man or party can tackle it. Those who claim they can fix everything, from sewerage to the economy, are liars or just ignorant of the absurdity of their own claims.
A realistic path to change, a way to carry the responsibility of meeting public aspirations, is carved when people don’t wait for angels to descend and instead take matters in their own hands in a democratic way. That’s what Arvind Kejriwal’s example all about – a common man taking common community matters in his own hands.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @TalatHussain12
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.