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From Beppe Grillo to Arvind Kejriwal

From Beppe Grillo to Arvind Kejriwal
There has been a series of political forces emerging in various European and Asian nations which have arisen from outside traditional political domain and yet occupying significant mind-space with a promise of substantive change in the ‘system’.

Few would have bet a penny on the Five Star movement when, barely four years ago, it was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo. The Five Star movement is the single largest party in the lower house with more than 25 per cent of votes in what were perhaps the most surprising elections in Italian history. In Delhi, in last December, the same has almost been repeated and Aam Aadmi Party when it became the second biggest party in the house from zero in just one year.

Five Star Movement in Italy


The Five Star movement – which strongly rejects defining itself as a political party preferring, instead, to call itself a ‘free association of citizens’ – does not have physical headquarters or a constitution (it has a ‘non-statute’, though). Its ‘offices’ are hosted in Grillo’s blog and its local units were formed by the blog’s readers, who voluntarily began to organise activities related to the five issues represented by the five stars – public water, sustainable mobility, development, connectivity and environment. Each unit deals with local issues and forges links between society and local institutions.

However, the most important issue that explains a lot of the movement’s success is the fight against corruption and the promise to ‘send home’ the existing political class. The contrast between the declining economic situation of a sizeable part of Italy’s middle class in the wake of the austerity measures taken by the government in the last year and the incapability of the political class to take even small symbolic action to curb its inordinately long list of benefits, including the highest salaries in Europe, free telephones and transportation, and the richest pension scheme in the world – all kindly offered by taxpayers-electors, who in turn saw their pensions curbed, salaries frozen and the price of gas increase, not to mention abysmally high rates of unemployment – was unbearable to a sizeable part of the electorate. The anger that brought thousands of people to the streets in Greece and Spain was successfully transformed into electoral capital in Italy in an unconventional – no representative of the movement ever showed up on TV – but effective campaign that promised to revolutionise the very idea of politics in the country. Its MPs are different from the classic image of politicians. They are young, highly educated and, most importantly, none of them has ever served as an MP.

The movement is promoting a completely new idea of democratic representation. First, all candidates were chosen by movement activists through primary elections held online rather than by the party’s high command. Second, the MPs do not see themselves as people’s representatives, but rather as their spokespersons. Elected members will subject all important policy decisions to online referendum and will explain and justify all votes in parliament through daily broadcasts on YouTube. Third, all MPs will be allowed to contest elections only once and they will propose a bill to make ineligible whoever has served for more than two legislatures. There was little else the exhausted Italian electorate needed to hear.

Greek Direct Democracy & AAP

Delhi has got the same seeds of change with the formation of AAP after the stalemate reached in the anti-corruption Janlokpal law movement started by Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare with the current AAP team as his lieutenants.  The beginning of the change has already begin. The Aam Aadmi Party has got 28 seats on 8 December of all first-time legislators in Delhi assembly and initially decided to sit in the opposition. With the first outstanding entry of AAP one thing is clear that the ‘common man’ is here to stay. Even when they came to power for less than two months, all their ministers were hence first time ministers.

Indian democracy took a turn towards ancient Athens when AAP went to the people a second time in an attempt to resolve a political dilemma. The fledgling political outfit that earlier had won 30 per cent of the vote and 40 per cent of the seats in elections in the city-state of Delhi brought up the notion of ‘direct democracy’ in defense of its decision to hold a referendum in Delhi on the question of whether it should make a bid to form a minority government in the capital.

Brazilian Porto Alegro Model

In its manifesto, the AAP has borrowed from Brazil’s Porto Alegre model of local government by popular consent. This makes it appear all of a sudden that the world’s emerging markets are also emerging as the sites of new developments in democratic thought and practice – as indeed in the practice of authoritarianism and capitalism. New energies in India and Brazil are reworking forms of representative government that have settled into stasis in the developed world.

The referendum itself was a double-pronged affair involving a range of traditional and 21st-century forms. It offered the citizens of Delhi the option of going to a set of public meetings that would return a single ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer by popular vote, or of sending in their answers by text message or on by phone. Some skeptics questioned, in my view wisely, the wisdom of such a referendum and the claim of ‘the will of the people’ established by its results. After all, those who had voted for the AAP might be logically expected to be more willing than others to participate in such an exercise and to favour a yes. And so it turned out, with the party declaring a 75 per cent yes vote from individual respondents and a 90 per cent yes vote from 280 public meetings. There was much debate, however, of the wisdom of the AAP’s move, which involved a political version of sleeping with the enemy.

Indeed, political innocence and experience (to repurpose William Blake’s thought-system) could be seen jostling one other. A fascinating set of calculations and political tradeoffs were behind the AAP’s move to form a government and the Congress’s decision to support it, involving idealism and pragmatism, and the looming shadow of national elections in India.

The installation of a government in India’s political capital city-state gave AAP a chance to usher in and test the feasibility of the radical new programme of municipal management and decentralisation of political power envisioned in its manifesto (Porto Alegre-style mohalla or neighbourhood committees to make final decisions on local administration, untied funds disbursed by the state governments to these committees rather than money allocated for specific purposes, free water to those households consuming less than 700 liters a day, reduced power tariffs) and to appoint an anti-corruption authority with wide-ranging powers, called the Jan Lokpal, for which it had long pressured the major political parties without success.

Congress Gameplan and Fallout

That, the Congress anticipated, would enable the AAP to short-circuit the rapid rise of Narendra Modi, the leader of the main opposition party, the BJP, whose development record in the western state of Gujarat and rhetoric of ‘strong governance’ have won him a substantial constituency among young urban voters – a large new following distinct from the BJP’s traditional upper-caste, predominantly north Indian vote base. A few months ago, with the Congress-led coalition government appearing moribund and directionless, it had looked like Modi was going to run away with the game in 2014. But it’s that same Modi wave that likely led the AAP to choose the course of forming a minority gwovernment over a new election in Delhi, as such an election would likely be tacked on to the national elections and might be overwhelmed by issues of national significance – such as Modi’s attempt to turn it into a virtual referendum on himself. Every shade and nuance of political idealism and realism, calculation and compromise, was on view in this story, and what this ferment portends is that India is going to be supplying some of the most exciting stories of 2014.

But the story on ground went on to a different course. With the Congress and BJP coming together to shoot down AAP bill on Janlokpal, AAP government resigned and is now in the field fighting national elections as Delhi Assembly had been put under suspended animation for now, much to the chagrin of the outgoing government.

‘Urban Villagers Are Asia’s New Force’


Pankaj Mishra calls it the new Asian force of the urban villagers. The urban poor toiling at the lowest levels of Delhi’s economy preferred Kejriwal, as did the affluent class that longs for a technocratic government and a smoother integration into the global economy. ‘It does indeed seem that a fresh episode in Indian – and Asian – politics began last year with Kejriwal’s victory. Rising on a wave of disaffection with the corruption and inefficiency of established political parties, his Aam Aadmi Party adds an Indian dimension to a worldwide phenomenon: the emergence of external challengers – ranging from Beppe Grillo, a comedian, in Italy to Imran Khan, a sportsman in Pakistan – to entrenched political elites,’ writes Pankaj Mishra.

Kejriwal not only evokes the chief executives of large cities – such as Boris Johnson in London – that stand aloof from their socially and economically backward hinterlands. Presently calculating his chances in India’s national elections this year, Kejriwal has followed the example of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, previously mayor of Istanbul, and leapfrog into national politics.
Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

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