The changing landscape of Indian politics

Ian Crosson reports on the Delhi elections last month which brought the Aam Aadmi Party to power against the ruling BJP.

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AAP supporters in Delhi march with brooms, expressing the desire of the poor to ‘clean out’ the government.

It is not just SYRIZA and Podemos who are shaking up some of the more established political parties. In India on 10th February a political earthquake shook the capital city Delhi and across India when the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party) led by a former high profile anti corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal won 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi council elections. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalists who won the national elections in May of last year, was reduced to three seats on the council.

Delhi, the capital territory of India and the country’s second-largest city, has been hit by rampant inflation of utilities affecting poor and working-class people. It was the epicentre of the new women’s movement in India when a young woman was raped and beaten to death in a bus full of people in December 2013. It has seen riots against Muslims as recently as last October. Thus, the AAP’s campaign on the platform for cheaper utility bills, against rampant corruption, improved safety for women especially on public transport, and to improve toilet facilities, gained the support of the poor, who make up 60% of Delhi’s population of 20 million.

During the election the AAP did some very creative things: it distributed leaflets in several different languages, including Urdu, the language of north Indian Muslims, which has been systematically undermined by Indian governments for its supposed association with the Pakistani national enemy. It held face-to-face meetings in neighbourhoods where people could come and discuss their specific local issues, almost in the form of people’s assemblies. And it was staunchly secular, which was very important in a city with a long and sordid past of sectarian violence.

The BJP mounted a very high profile and incredibly negative campaign fronted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself against the AAP and against Kejriwal in particular, who once described himself as an ‘anarchist’. The mainstream media were predicting a very close result so the fact that it was a landslide for the AAP was particularly significant.

The Congress Party, which had been hegemonic in the city until quite recently, failed to win any seats. Their reputation as a reformist and secular force was tarnished over the years by repeated corruption scandals, nepotism, and a sense that they are out of touch with ordinary people.

The AAP was launched in October 2012 on Kejriwal’s slogan, ‘India is being sold and all parties are guilty.’ In response to the election result, he said the people of Delhi had rejected the ‘politics of caste and religion,’ in other words, the politics of the Hindu chauvinist BJP. In recent months there have been forced conversions of Muslims to Hindus and several attacks on Christian churches, to no response by Modi or the BJP who foster the forces of caste and sectarian reaction. It is not hard to see why Muslims in particular, who make up a good 10% of the city’s population, would see Kejriwal and the AAP as a secular alternative.

The AAP won 28 out of 70 seats in the Delhi elections in December 2013 and led a minority council for 49 days. During this time they reduced the price of power and water and led demonstrations to campaign for their policies. However, after 49 days Kejriwal resigned as he said the opposition were using every possible means to smash his reforms. This led to twelve months in which Delhi had no elected council. Kejriwal had previously stood against Modi for the AAP in the General Election for a Lok Sabha constituency in the city of Varanasi last year, but was badly beaten. The AAP had predicted they would win 100 seats in the lower house of parliament but in the end only won four. This recent victory therefore is an astonishing comeback for them and a resounding setback for Modi, who has to swallow his first major defeat since his entry into national politics in 2002 as the Chief Minister of Gujarat state. A week later the PM made his first speech defending the rights of religious minorities to practice their faith, showing he had been chastened by the result.

The left, however, should moderate its expectations of Kejriwal and the AAP even as we celebrate their victory against the forces of sectarianism. The AAP is led by middle and upper-middle class leaders who want to pose a viable alternative to the BJP and the Congress. The slow-motion collapse of the Congress, which was formerly the hegemonic ruling party of India and in the current era presents itself as the party of national progress, moderate neoliberalism and secularism, means that a place is opening up on the national stage for a new centrist alternative to the religious right. Kejriwal and the AAP aspire to take that place. Its centrist tendencies are evident in its efforts to project itself as the ‘secular neoliberals’ in contrast to Modi’s Hindutva neoliberalism. Its propaganda repeatedly claims the party is ‘beyond Left and Right’ and more dangerously, in a place like India torn by violence on Dalits (those belonging to the castes formerly known as ‘untouchable’) and Muslims, the AAP routinely claims that it is above caste and religion. Ironically, this very ideological claim to be ‘beyond ideology’ has won the AAP support from many Delhi-based postcolonial scholars!

But the AAP also has other pulls on it. Its roots are in the nationwide anti-corruption movement of 2011 which had real roots with ordinary people, despite the role of its leader Anna Hazare, who was discredited by his association with the RSS, the Hindutva activist organization of which the BJP is the political wing. People like the environmentalist and social-justice activist Medha Patkar were part of that formation. So the AAP comes out of some social movement (in the weak sense) base and still retains old activists from a left or socialist background in its leadership.

If there is one thing that can be undisputedly proved by the victory of the AAP in Delhi it is this: that the triumph of Modi and neoliberalism in India is anything but a fait accompli. The Left in India ought to find strength from the AAP victory. It must analyse AAP’s class basis and history such as is done here by the Radical Socialists, and it must discuss creative ways to relate to that very base of the AAP who voted for it, in a city where Modi’s neoliberal promises were swept away by concrete demands for better food, cheaper electricity and dignity at work.

Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill Crane contributed analysis to this article.

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