Originally published on Niti Central.
Nearly 20 months after he first captured public imagination with his advocacy of the Lokpal Bill via Anna Hazare’s fast, Arvind Kejriwal has finally made the transition from a brilliant tactician to perhaps a patient strategist with the launch of his new party. By appropriating the ‘aam admi’ label from the Congress, while Kejriwal may have betrayed the tactician inside him, one would question the strategic wisdom of using a phrase that has limited resonance beyond the Hindi heartland. Nevertheless, it is a new beginning for the movement that he so tirelessly worked on for the past many months in full public gaze and for many years prior. One has to admire Kejriwal for the boldness of aspiration if not anything else. He is seeking to offer a substantial alternative to both the principal national parties while doing so by transcending regional, caste and identity politics.
There is much this columnist has disagreed with in Kejriwal’s movement — both on the substance of their solutions and their methods. Yet this is a moment to be celebrated by all those who wish well for the future of our democracy, irrespective of our ideological moorings or partisan leanings. For the first time we had a mass movement, despite the fact that it was mostly an urban phenomenon that did not have to resort to violence, did not have to shut down businesses, did not have to pelt stones or burn buses to be heard. Also for the first time we had an issue — howsoever flawed the solutions it sought may have been — that did not have to appeal to language, religion, caste or region to draw participation.
The idea of a Lokpal is deeply flawed but the movement it has spawned gives us reason to believe that it is possible to construct a new political movement without cynically resorting to all that has divided us for the past many decades. The birth of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party gives us that hope.
Political odds are quite heavily stacked against the Aam Admi Party. Its appeal beyond the mega cities is in question. Even within the megacities its ability to marshall a vote base in competition to traditional identity-based Constituencies remains to be tested. Then there is the question of whether the Aam Admi Party can attract new participation by drawing more urban citizens to vote. Or will it merely cannibalise votes from the BJP against the Congress or vice-versa? It is one thing for the new party to seek to differentiate itself by lumping both the BJP and Congress as being indistinguishable from each other, but quite another to sit on the fence come 2014 when everyone will be forced to take sides.
One hopes that the Aam Admi party does not end up merely being a net divider of votes to put back in power those who it sought to remove in the first place. There is a danger with the path the Aam Admi Party will likely take — of it ending up on the wrong side of history.
For a movement that transcended many deep fault lines, the Aam Admi party is also perilously close to rupturing new fault lines with its ‘you are either with us or against us’ dares and its anti-business class-warfare rhetoric. Transcending one set of fault lines only to create new ones does Kejriwal’s newborn party no good. One may even concede that the tactics adopted previously by the India Against Corruption movement and since by Kejriwal in the weeks leading up to his new party, were a necessary evil for his upstart party to overcome what were otherwise steep barriers for any new political formation. This columnist had earlier discussed at length how previous attempts at new urban political formations had faltered for one reason or another. The real test for Arvind Kejriwal lies in his ability to make the transition from the tactics that perhaps were necessary to get where he is, to the strategies that will get him where he needs to go.
It is in the wide gap between his past tactics and his future strategies that we will have to look for clues to find out if we are really witnessing a ‘silent revolution’ as some would have us imagine or if this is going to be a mere footnote in the History of upstart Indian political parties, littered as it is already, with a long list of highly forgettable political experiments.
On a personal note I suspect I may not get to vote for the Aam Admi Party any time soon, given its immediate focus on the Delhi Assembly election in 2013. Even if presented with the opportunity on a future ballot, I perhaps may not vote for the Aam Admi Party. But I would like to wish it well in the naïve hope that its birth marks the beginning of a new culture of politics, both in the choice of methods for a political formation to be effective, and in the demographic composition of constituents for a political party to be viable.