Millennium Post

A fine political alternative

The past decade has seen the rise of alternative political formations – in both movements and parties across the globe - that are challenging the existing political-economic establishment. Be it the Arab Spring in the Middle East, the victory of Syriza in Greece, the spectacular rise of Podemos in Spain, the Five-Star movement in Italy, the student movement in Hongkong, the movement for Scottish Independence and the success of the Scottish Nationalist Party, and multiple governments in Latin America led by radical leaders like Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), or Jose Mujica (Uruguay). A similar phenomenon was witnessed in India with the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party, from the nationwide anti-corruption movement of 2011-2012. 

Given this international spread of alternative political formations – with virtually no continent being unaffected by it – there is a need to understand and analyse this phenomenon. The 20th century can be seen as a milestone in the history of democracy with the rise of universal adult suffrage in Europe and North America, and democratically elected governments in much of Asia and Africa, after decolonisation. The phenomena of  “alternative politics” of the 21st century <g data-gr-id="84">seems</g> to represent the next milestone in the history of democracy. This rise of political movements and parties challenging the existing political establishments represents some deep fault lines within the very nature of democratic institutions throughout the world.

The theory of democracy intends that governments be run by the majority of the vast masses, as opposed to the autocracies or monarchies that are run by few. In a democracy, “the people” are supposed to elect their representatives, who then form a government. Therefore, by their very nature, democratic governments should represent the interests of the vast majority of people. And yet they don’t. Despite a history of more three-quarters of a century, most democracies are still plagued by deepening inequality, unemployment, lack of access to basic amenities for a large section of the population, as well as harassment and indignity in everyday life for a vast majority of citizens. Why does this happen? This happens due to one of the deepest fault lines in the democratic process, whereby a government is effectively controlled – not by those who cast their ballot – but by those who fund the political process. 

Big Business has taken effective control over democracy across the world. Fighting elections, especially in large countries like India, is an expensive enterprise. Election campaigns are increasingly media and advertising-intensive. These campaigns are funded by large corporate houses, who interestingly are party agnostic. Across the globe, one finds that rival political parties are also funded by the same business houses. In addition to “legal” political funding is the obsequious phenomenon of lining the pockets of politicians and senior bureaucrats.  

And this cronyism helps corporates acquire control over government policy, contracts, and natural resources. As a consequence of <g data-gr-id="64">this crony capitalists</g> and political class nexus, governments do not function in the interests of the common person, irrespective of the party that comes into power. And this is the context that has given rise to a wave of alternative, pro-people political formations across the globe that have risen from movements challenging the existing political and economic establishment.

The Aam Aadmi Party represents precisely the same phenomenon in India. The anti-corruption movement of 2011-12 not only challenged the daily harassment and corruption faced by the ordinary citizen at the hands of not just a callous administration  but also crony capitalism, and loot of natural resources as seen in the 2G, Coalgate, and Commonwealth Games scams. The inability to get the legislature to pass a strong anti-graft bill pushed the anti-corruption movement into electoral politics, and thus the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was born.

The electoral success in its debut election in Delhi in <g data-gr-id="59">2013,</g> and its sweep in February 2015 means that the AAP has overcome one critical challenge before any alternative political formation, that of electoral viability. Various experiments in electoral politics by social movements in India, like the Lok Rajniti Manch or the People’s Political Front, were unable to cross the threshold of viability and hence unable to have a transformative impact on democratic politics. The Aam Aadmi Party has crossed this initial barrier. Yet several challenges remain before it for it to remain an alternative and transformative political force.

First and most significant is the ability to ensure ongoing “clean” funding. The very politics of the AAP is premised upon funding from “clean” sources, as well from individuals or institutions that do not expect quid pro quo and control over policy when the party comes to power. This means that crowd-sourcing is the only funding option available to the AAP in the long run. And while the AAP has run its election campaigns on less than 10 <g data-gr-id="83">per cent</g> the budget of other political parties, the very scale and nature of election campaigns mean that raising money for low-expense campaigns is not an easy task. This is a challenge that lies before AAP as it expands outside Delhi. Voting patterns in India are often determined by caste and community. Any attempt at alternative politics needs to move beyond these categories. This is something that AAP has successfully done in Delhi, where people have voted on issues concerning citizens – such as water, electricity, education, heath, women’s security – not on issues of identity. While such an experiment might be possible in an urban metropolis like Delhi where social identities are often diluted, another major challenge for AAP would be ensuring this shift from identity-based voting to citizenship-based voting when it moves into rural and small-town India, where these identities are far deeper entrenched.

Finally, and probably most significant, is the challenge of delivery of pro-people governance in a cohesive and fiscally viable manner. This is the point where most alternative political parties have faltered. Often successful as oppositional forces, political parties that emerge from social movements find it difficult to make the transition to governance. They either end up overspending and being financially irresponsible (like many Latin American governments in 1940s and 50s) or in their efforts to remain “fiscally prudent”, end up implementing the very policies they opposed (as in the case of the 1988 Solidarity Party government in Poland). This is the challenge before AAP, as to how successful it can be at a fiscally sound, pro-people governance.

The Aam Aadmi Party, and the multiple other alternative political movements and parties emerging all over the world, represent an essential trend in democracy – that of making democratic institutions truly, “of the people”. And while many such experiments may face challenges, falter, or even fail, it is in the very nature of democracy for many more to mushroom and grow.

The author is a member of AAP
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