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Lessons from Delhi

The sheer scale of the Aam Aadmi Party’s victory in the Delhi assembly elections has taken everyone — from the commentariat and pollsters on one hand, and opposition parties on the other — by surprise.

Their 67-seat haul, in an assembly of 70 members (ie 96pc of all seats), has only been bettered thrice before in a sub-national election in Indian history. In 1989, the Sikkim Sang Parishad, won all 35 seats in the Sikkim state assembly legislature; a feat that was subsequently matched in 2004 and 2009, in the same state, by another party — the Sikkim Democratic Front.

Even the once mighty, now-decaying Indian National Congress never quite managed to produce a state election victory as comprehensive as the Arvind Kejriwal-led rout in Delhi.

Even the once mighty Congress never quite managed to produce a state election victory as comprehensive as the Arvind Kejriwal-led rout. What makes this result even more interesting — for election voyeurs regardless of their place of residence — is how it came after AAP had dissolved their minority government just 49 days into their term, last year.

For a rookie, populist party to voluntarily give up their mandate over the issue of one piece of anti-graft legislation, would seem suicidal. To stage a comeback with the same abandoned voters — and that too in the face of the Modi-led BJP juggernaut — is nothing short of remarkable.

For many of its supporters, those 49 days did, however, provide a glimpse of the potential their party had in government. There were positive moves on the issue of crippling electricity tariffs, and on police behaviour, accountability, and predation, especially with auto-rickshaw drivers. After doing what very few politicians have historically done — apologising for a mistake — AAP chief minister-designate Arvind Kejriwal gets another chance to start where they abruptly left off.

Before one draws lessons from Delhi or gets into ambitious comparisons with Pakistan, the usual cautionary notes apply. Political systems in India are fundamentally different from those found on this side of the border.

Political parties, new entrepreneurs, and social activists can not only draw on nearly 70 years worth of experience with electoral politics, but also on the assorted pockets of vibrant, fairly cross-sectional social movements and complementary civil society organisations (CSOs). In short, the Indian citizenry has considerable practice of changing their fate through popular resistance and the ballot box, an idea we here in Pakistan are still (debatably) getting used to.

That said, there are some very clear, theoretical lessons worth drawing from the AAP’s electoral designs, and its party-bordering-on-social movement model.

For starters, even after dropping out of government, the party’s many volunteers continued to work for the largest sub-section of the Delhi electorate — slum-dwellers and the urban poor. By providing free legal help, distributing food, and assisting in the provision of other services, the party retained its relationship with the segment that gets ignored most frequently in South Asia. And to their credit, it clearly paid off. Based on Lokniti-CSDS analysis, out of every 100 Dalit and 100 Muslim votes cast in the city, 68 and 77 went to the Aam Aadmi Party respectively.

Also read: Why the PTI could not do what the AAP has

The other segment where AAP did quite well, in part because of its anti-establishment, anti-corruption posturing, was the young middle class: 67pc of the 18-22 electorate voted for AAP, a figure that’s probably not too dissimilar from the vote PTI garnered from the same demographic in urban areas of Pakistan. Based on this one particular angle, however, Imran Khan’s party is often taken as the AAP of Pakistan (or vice versa). The truth, as it often is, is far more complex.

What AAP has done in Delhi is to construct a social coalition on the lines of providing for the under-served sections of society, combining it with its more abstract anti-corruption sloganeering that appeals to an efficiency-craving Indian middle class steeped in a liberalised, consumerist economy. This, at least in my mind, is the biggest departure from the PTI’s all-encompassing populism, where socio-economic class ceases to be a marker both in rhetoric and in party practice.

Another lesson, and this one is unambiguously relevant for Pakistani progressives and ‘change-seekers’, is how even safaidposh, or affluent members of AAP got down to the often-messy business of actually doing politics at the grass-roots level.

Far too often in Pakistan, ideas of welfare and social inclusion remain just that — unfulfilled ideas. What the Delhi experience showcases is how there is simply no substitute for interacting and organising at the community level. Even in the communalised, polarised environment of a right-wing-ruled India, it remains possible to create an alternative politics as long as political and social activists are willing to do the legwork where it matters.

As written on these pages earlier as well, political parties remain the only institutions capable of creating and implementing transformative, or even reformist agendas. CSOs — NGOs, committees, and other groups of well-meaning citizens — have neither the reach nor the resources required for tasks of such scale. This is especially true in Pakistan where pluralist ideas — so desperately required in such dark times — often take on rigid class boundaries and spaces, preventing their permeation across a wider cross-section of society.

It remains to be seen whether the AAP is able to fulfil its noticeably ambitious agenda in government. The jump between a populist social movement (or an outsider party), and being in the bureaucrat-ridden world of power is often quite wide, given the sort of heightened expectations that tag along. But what is a sure-shot takeaway is that engaging at the grass-roots level, and building durable coalitions that cogently represent the underserved are fundamental to the functioning of representative democracy. Pakistani parties, especially those clamouring for change, would do well to learn a few things from the Delhi experience.

The writer teaches political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. umairjaved@lumsalumni.pk, Twitter: @umairjav

Umair Javed, "Lessons from Delhi," Dawn. 2015-02-16.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Political issues , Political parties , Civil society , Social change , Elections-India , History-India , Politicians , Democracy , Politics , Arvind Kejriwal , Imran Khan , Pakistan , India , AAP , CSOs , PTI