The municipal elections in Delhi, capital of India, on February 7th raised interest in a few journals but not nearly as much as they should have done. There is a reason for this. Many countries are struggling to cope with non-traditional parties challenging the establishment and gaining popular support. What happened in India, one of the most important emerging powers, may have consequences neither governments nor compliant mainstream media anywhere wish to contemplate.
You can tell the health of a political system or country by who its party of protest is. If the party people support when they are sick of all the others is a moderate, centrist force the system is healthy. Countries where this is so, such as Australia and New Zealand, are usually the countries you don’t hear many negative comments about.
Where the protest party is more extreme the whole system has a problem. In postwar Italy for example most supporters of the former Communist Party were protestors rather than Communists, and eventually the Tangentopoli scandal, which led to thousands of politicians of all parties being jailed for institutional corruption, showed the world what they were protesting against. This is why extreme parties have always been significant forces in poor and repressive countries.
In India, one of the world’s new economic powerhouses, the voters of the nations capital’s put the Aam Admi Party (AAP), or “Common Man’s Party” into power. It wasn’t even close: the AAP won 67 out of the 70 seats, and unseated the local leaders of both the currently-ruling Janata Party, or BJP, and the traditionally ruling Congress Party, the CPI.
So why have we not heard more about this? India has been built into an emerging power by a self-perpetuating political elite. Now the electors of the nation’s capital have agreed with the AAP that the system they are part of is corrupt and they all have to go.
But in a newly prosperous country that shouldn’t happen. Surely everyone wants the new prosperity? If not, what do they want? If this happens in Delhi, how will the rest of this vast country be affected if the traditional rulers are sidelined?
Protest parties usually gain support in areas which feel they are being overlooked by the central government, or are dominated by ethnic or national minorities. When a capital city is seized by a self-confessed anarchist, as AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal is, alarm bells should start ringing. The mainstream Indian media seems to think otherwise, but that should make the alarms ring even louder.
Old boys in a new country
For many years India’s politics were almost as cronyist as Japan’s. It was run by the Congress Party, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and then his daughter Indira Gandhi, and that was that.
Congress had been the leading political force in gaining the country’s independence, and thus had a powerful grip on the Indian psyche, which it consolidated with a ruthless centralisation of political power in Delhi. Even when the CPI began alternating power with the more right-wing BJP this was more due to personalities than preference: successive BJP leaders only got to that position after years of distinguished service with Congress.
If you were outside the political class and wanted to play a part, you played cricket, which largely explains the mass popularity of that sport in India. Politicians wore different colours, but were all from the same class and owed the same favours to the same people, no matter what policies were adopted.
If India had not been an abstinent country it would have been Congress, and not Felipe Gonzalez’s party in Spain, for whom the term “Champagne Socialists” was coined. The struggle for independence was, ipso facto, a struggle for “the people”, as all Indians of the time thought of themselves as dispossessed, whatever their caste. Therefore Congress adopted ostensibly leftist policies by default. But the result was vividly described by the British Ambassador to India after Indira Gandhi’s return to power in 1980:
“India works very well for 40 million people. The fact that there are actually 600 million Indians is a small inconvenience, as long as its policies are called socialist”.
New boys with old backgrounds
All this created an obvious gap for an anti-establishment party, if one could actually get going in such a top-down system. The AAP finally cracked it by doing the obvious in a more extreme way: its members have roots as traditional as possible, but have rejected the baggage that goes with them.
Its leader Arvind Kejriwal went through the traditional route of establishment politicians – university politics, degree in one subject and government service in a completely different area. But having gained the typical credentials, he took a different route by leading a grassroots campaigning organisation called Parivartan. This dedicated itself to uncovering corruption, including some in the department Kejriwal was working for, and became very good at it.
Parivartan was neither a political party nor an NGO. Thus it was untainted by association, despite its own problems with sources of finance. Eventually it transformed into a bigger body, the India Against Corruption movement, which also remained outside politics in order to attack all corruption equally.
In 2012 Kejriwal and some others decided that they were not getting all the results they wanted and that direct political involvement was the only way forward. The main India Against Corruption movement did not follow him, but Kejriwal’s new AAP took the second largest number of seats in Delhi, the driver of the corruption, in the 2013 municipal elections.
When the largest party could not form a government Kejriwal was asked to do so, but he resigned after a few weeks when he couldn’t get the other parties to support the anti-corruption bill which had been his main campaign pledge in the 2013 elections. Now the voters have shown what they thought of that by giving him an unarguable platform from which to introduce the legislation the other parties are terrified of seeing passed.
India has had more than its share of terrorist bombings. The Aam Admi election victory in Delhi may prove to have more nuclear force than all of them put together.
Babies and bathwater
The AAP is advocating nothing new. It is seeking to introduce practices which are well established in the Western democracies India has always seen as models.
It wants an independent ombudsman who can impartially investigate complaints of government corruption and protect those who make them. It also wants to devolve power to local authorities and populations, change the law so that if the majority of voters choose the “None of the Above” option on the ballot paper no candidate is elected, and give citizens the right to recall their representatives, the process by which Arnold Schwarzenegger ended up as Governor of California.
But the threat posed by these proposals can be seen in the reaction of the media as well as the political old guard. Take this example from The Times of India of 13th February:
“Despite its rout in Delhi assembly polls [elections], BJP will continue to play a crucial role in the city’s development. As the ruling party in all three municipal corporations, and in an effort to remain relevant in the national capital, BJP will focus on the civic bodies as their elections are due in 2017. BJP members say they will have to start preparations from now so that they do not have a face a debacle similar to the assembly polls.”
This was published six days after the AAP election victory, in an article decorated with a photo of the BJP flag. The Indian press is not known for being particularly biased, but is part of the same establishment. Rather than analyse what might then happen in Delhi, the Times of India and other papers puffed the fact that the BJP still has some power in the city to try and trivialise the election result.
The mainstream media’s attitude may have been driven by the fact that the APP ignored it in equal measure. It chose to get its message across through personal campaigning and social media rather than the traditional press, and won. The press was thus identified as part of what the AAP was fighting against.
When people reject the media as well as the political system, any structure of authority is under threat, including those which are now providing many Indians with a better standard of living. In a corrupt system, everyone only gets anywhere by strategically playing along, as former Soviet citizens know very well. Though the AAP’s demands are moderate, their impact could be far more extreme than even the party itself imagines.
How big the rug is
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did his best to appear unconcerned. His response was to meet other BRICS leaders in the hope of developing a mutual trading bloc similar to that of the EU, and concentrate on the usual populist measures which never seem to make much impact.
Some will remember that Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accords, which ended the Arab-Israeli conflict, were signed in 1978, when the U.S. energy crisis was at its height. Carter likewise knew that this international initiative, important though it was, would do nothing to resolve that crisis. The American people cared more about petrol than peace, but he couldn’t deal with the petrol crisis.
Modi makes much of his origins as a humble street trader. Who is going to do business with someone who is part of a system its people no longer believe in? Most international supporters of Ferdinand Marcos fled in the year before he was deposed in 1986 when it was clear that, if he fell, he would drag the Philippine political system down with him, and radical change would be the only option left. Modi will find himself in the same situation unless he can rebuild public trust in the Indian political system as a whole, including the traditional opposing parties.
There are other precedents for Modi’s current predicament. The failure of successive “liberal” governments in Uruguay to represent anyone but themselves, and their collaboration with the military, led to the Tupumaro urban guerrillas eventually joining mainstream politics and forming the Broad Left. They took control of the capital and then the country, on the same platform of sweeping away the system which had monopolised power in the hands of a corrupt elite.
The Broad Left did this without violence, but by then most of the discredited generation were dead or retired, or had been denounced by their own parties. In India it is the people versus a political and media establishment which is still defending itself, and the people have shown they can win by doing things their way.
The other BRICS members will shore up Modi because they don’t want similar movements toppling them. This will play into the hands of the AAP, who will portray him as a slave to foreign interests. This will make the AAP more nationalist than the old parties and take away another chunk of their remaining support. However much the Indian media want us to look elsewhere, the signs of a sea change are clearly there.
If protest does indeed change the face of this emerging economic giant it can also do so in all its partners. Then alliances will not be worth the paper they are written on, because the old elites signed them, and the very notions of “global interest”, “national interest” and “balance of power” will be brought into question, as there will be no system for them to reflect until a new reality emerges. This is not the new order BRICS members are looking for.
All this happened due to voters objecting to government corruption, as all voters do, in any country. So it is not really surprising that the AAP win in Delhi was not given the column inches it deserves. The sicker a person is, the less they want to hear people telling them how sick they are.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.