RISE OF ‘COMMON MAN’S PARTY’

Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

Saturday, February 22, 2014 – Dismissed as an irrelevance by many, the Aam Aadmi (Common Man’s) Party (AAP) surprised its critics by winning 28 out of 70 seats in the Delhi assembly polls. The party became the sole beneficiary in the national capital of the collapse in public esteem of the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, winning over the slum dwellers and the religious minorities that were the primary vote banks of the Congress Party. However, its tally would have been lower had not the Bharatiya Janata (India Peoples) Party scored a series of self-goals. Till the final weeks of campaigning, it was led in the city by an individual who had been removed from the 1998-2004 Vajpayee government for reported improprieties.

As the Vajpayee government was itself seen to be riddled with graft, although not to the elevated level witnessed during the time of Manmohan Singh, that a politician was deemed too dodgy even by its relaxed standards proved to be the undoing of Vijay Goel, who had been anointed the chief minister designate of Delhi by BJP National President Rajnath Singh, who was himself appointed to his prestigious post after his predecessor, Nitin Gadkari, had to quit on corruption charges relating to the funding of a slew of companies controlled by him. The six years that Vajpayee was Prime Minister saw a reversal of fortune for many in the BJP, who got lifted out of penury into great prosperity. Gadkari,who comes from a simple family of modest means, these days flies around in corporate jets and has a lifestyle that is even better than that of a billionaire in the US, with fleets of cars and servants Gadkari became a rich man after being appointed a minister in Maharashtra, a state where money flows into the pockets of officials and politicians in abundance. While Rajnath Singh does not show off his wealth the way Gadkari does, there are hundreds of instances where individuals have spoken about him and his close family members in less than admiring terms. His perceived lack of probity is perhaps reason why the BJP lost the state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh when he was the chief minister, and why it lost national elections comprehensively when he served his first term as BJP President, this current stint being his second. In Indian politics,nothing succeeds as much as failure, and Rajnath Singh’s dismal record in office did not prevent the BJP from once again making him its boss.

In the 2014 Delhi elections, nearly two dozen nominations were reportedly auctioned by select BJP leaders to well-heeledcandidates, almost all of whom lost.An urban constituency has far greater awareness of the merits or lack of it of acandidate, and by choosing candidates with a spotty record, the BJP assured itself of a low tally, getting a dozen less seats than what it had expected. The replacement for Vijay Goel as chief ministerial candidate of the BJP was Dr Harshvardhan, an honest but wholly uncharismatic figure. In an age where television makes or mars political careers – look at the trajectory of Imran Khan in Pakistan – the selection of an uninspiring albeit honest leader in Delhi to replace a person regarded as sleazy was not enough to persuade voters to go away from their attraction towards the Asm Aadmi Party and its catchy slogans.

The AAP has fashioned a series of policy initiatives geared towards key voting blocs, and this was used by them to become second only to BJP in the Delhi assembly. Now the AAP has gone national, and has attracted a battery of known and distinguished names to fight the elections. The middle class, which till now stayed away from electoral fray, has become emboldened to fight because of the Delhi victory of the AAP.

Well known individuals such as former Central Bureay of Investigation Director Joginder Singh (who was the only CBI chief to succeed in getting crucial information in the Bofors gun deal case), environmental activist Medha Patkar, Civil Rightscampaigner H S Phoolka and Psephologist Yogendra Yadav are among the many luminaries being fielded by the AAP in the coming polls. The new party wants to show up the BJP and the Congress Party as being birds of a feather, in the grip of vested interests and filled with corrupt leaders.

The most powerful businessman in India is Mukesh Ambani,who has built a multi-storeyed residence in Mumbai for himself and his wife and children at a cost of more than a billion dollars, making Antilla the most expensive residence in the world. Mukesh is an affable individual with extensive media interests, but this did not stop AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal for going after him as having secured a very high price for the sale of gas from what was one a state-owned offshore field. The fact that both BJP as well as Congress leaders have been silent on the gas deal has given oxygen to Kejriwal’s jibe that both are in thrall to the powerful Ambani family, of which Mukesh is the senior member. Given the legal system in India, it is likely that the Gas Price controversy will go the tortured way of the 2G Spectrum controversy, and that the next government will find itself hard pressed to defend the gas deal against the criticism coming from the AAP as well as from a section of civil society.

These days, many civil servants have ceased to be afraid of retaliation, given the weakening of once powerful individuals andinstitutions, and are leaking information to activists that it will be difficult for courts to ignore. By going after India’s most powerful businessman,an individual with access at will to the very top of the governmental pyramid, the AAP is presenting itself as the best – indeed the only – effective antidote to the hated two “C”s, Congress and Corruption, and as the best bet for the third “C”, the Common Man. Had the BJP freed itself of its Vajpayee-era legacy,it would have easily met the AAP challenge. However, just two months before the general elections, the party appears to be floundering against this attractive new challenger. Now that it has destroyed the Congress Partythe AAP is turning its sights on the BJP.

—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.

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