Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Start of something extraordinary in India

Two years ago, India witnessed its version of the Arab spring in the fiercest extra-parliamentary movement against corruption in its history as an independent nation. We are now seeing the electoral dividends of the movement that many had begun to write off as yet another failed attempt at reforming a robust but increasingly tainted political system.

The Aam Aadmi (ordinary man's) Party, a by-product of the protests of 2011, has emerged as the second-largest party in the state elections in the capital, Delhi, and could potentially break the mould of Indian electoral politics. India's noisy and resilient democracy does not need a revolution, but, for many, the Aam Aadmi victory is the sign of great hope at the end of a year in which the nation's political and economic stock reached a nadir. Using a broom as its symbol, Aam Aadmi promises to clean Indian public life of its muck and has injected the capital's voters with new energy and enthusiasm.

In April 2011, Anna Hazare, a 74-year-old follower of Mohandas Gandhi who was known for his work for rural empowerment, led the protests against the corruption that is almost endemic in Indian public life, and particularly entrenched in traditional political parties. The demand was for the appointment of a constitutionally empowered ombudsman who would have extraordinary powers to deliver swift justice.

While the demand was never fulfilled and Hazare all but retreated to his rural haven, the need for more honest politics became the zeitgeist of an anti-establishment political culture among India's growing middle class. Led by a Hazare protege and former civil servant, the 45-year-old Arvind Kejriwal, Aam Aadmi has defied all odds by emerging as the second-largest party in Delhi and holds the balance of power in the state's legislature.

Few believed the party would do so well, with Kejriwal defeating the capital's most recognised face, its thrice-elected chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, by more than 22,000 votes.
In India belonging to a political family and having huge financial backing were seen as critical requirements in the electoral system. Many parliamentarians belong to political families, many are millionaires, and political parties are widely seen as dependent on ''shady'' or ''black'' money on which no taxes are paid.

Aam Aadmi, by contrast, had no political lineage, raised money transparently, was driven by a spirit of volunteerism, and relied on the social media for political mobilisation. It refused to have any truck with either of the main parties, the ruling Congress or the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and has now declared its preference to sit in opposition rather than form a coalition with either party in a hung legislature.

Many view Aam Aadmi as a sign of middle-class radicalism, which has captured the imagination of the people in a city-state that represents, more than any other part of the country, a middle-class sensibility and middle-class aspirations. In the past few years, while the capital's infrastructure has improved beyond recognition, it has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons: the rape of a college student in a moving bus; the scam involving the Commonwealth Games; and the evidence of crony capitalism with lobbyists making deals to influence the appointment of cabinet ministers. Ironically, the government is led by unarguably one of the most honest political leaders in Indian public life. And yet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has an Oxford doctorate in economics, in public perceptions, is seen as having presided over the most corrupt government in recent years.

While Aam Aadmi has been a game-changer in Delhi, the capital is not India and the party barely has a presence elsewhere in the country. In other states that went to the polls the mood against the Congress was clearly in evidence with the BJP gaining significantly. Caste, religion and traditional political loyalties a well as big money have traditionally played a significant role in elections. But these differences may be less important now than in the past. The internet, mobile phones and television may be building a pan-India spirit against outdated politics and traditional parties. In a country of 1.2 billion, with nearly 500 million aged under 25, there seems to be a new awakening, new aspirations and anger towards a system that fails to deliver. Aam Aadmi in Delhi may hence be just the beginning of new politics in India.

A few months ago, it invited me to join its policy group to prepare a policy document, ''A New Agenda for India'' that would offer ethical policy alternatives. I dismissed this as yet another maverick attempt at taking on the impossible and did not respond with much enthusiasm. It is time to review that decision as India prepares for change.

(Source: The Age)

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