Last month, in April 2014, I spent a week in Burhanpur, a part of the Khandwa (M.P.) Lok Sabha constituency, to campaign for AAP candidate, Alok Agarwal, my friend and former colleague in the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). It was the first time in my life that I was actively participating in the electoral political process.
|Photo Courtesy: Shantanu Patidar|
AAP’s Big Contribution
I have always been interested in public policy issues, and my entire work has been centred on public policy, public interest, governance and implementation – in other words, what “politics” truly means. I have also been involved for many years in mass mobilisation; for more than 12 years, I was a full-time activist of NBA, a mass movement and struggle of people affected by the dams on the Narmada river. Yet, I have never participated in any form in electoral politics. (Apart from voting). So campaigning in this Lok Sabha elections has been a big change.
To my mind, this is evidence of one of the biggest and most important contributions of the Aam Aadmi Party to changing the political discourse and practise in the country. That thousands – if not lakhs – of people who ordinarily would not touch the political process with a long pole, came out to enthusiastically participate – campaigning on ground and via social media, contributing and even standing for elections, is a major development. This development – if continued – has the potential to fundamentally transform politics in India. The Aam Aadmi Party has shown that there is a way of participating in elections – and participate to win, to transform the system, not just participate symbolically – in a honest, clean and non-communal manner, based on issues and not exploitation of divisions.
Learnings from the Campaign
The experience of campaigning was very rich for me, and a big learning experience.
One thing I saw is that common people are eager for the candidates to come and meet them, talk to them, hear their problems. People don’t see election campaigns as noisy intrusions into their lives, but rather as opportunities when for once, the high and mighty come calling to their door-steps to listen to them. The people are therefore eager to know the views and stands of various parties, and ready to offer suggestions, ideas, and of course, their complaints.
The campaign – and meeting hundreds of people, listening to them – also brought home sharply the importance of something I knew, namely, that the political process is important to integrate the different, often conflicting, concerns of thousands into the public policy; and how election campaigns in particular offer an important way of negotiating and balancing multiple concerns in society into the broader public policy.
Unfortunately, there have been many distortions and perversions of the process. One of the most talked about now-a-days – corruption - is the way politics and political power has become a means to hand out patronage, privileges and resources to favoured people and groups. But there is another form of it which affects the common people the most, and which came out starkly to me in this campaign.
One of the characteristics of the Indian social-political scenario is that a major role played by the political parties, their workers, their office bearers is to mediate, act as brokers or even unofficial controllers of dispensation of administrative and government services. These are services that should come to the citizens as a matter of right, as a matter of routine, in due course. These are things like water supply, electricity, gas, rations, and certificates of various kinds and so on. But people rarely get them easily and as a right. In this situation, the role of the political party and workers has been to “help” people get these services, often for a consideration which is seen as par for the course. In other words, political parties are seen as parallel machineries to ensure delivery of government services. So people want to know of party workers – will you be there is my water connection goes dry? Will you help me get the nali clean? And so on. The AAP, not having a network of such party workers in most places, is disadvantaged with respect to most other parties. But again, I hope that it is not reduced to playing this role. The long term solution to address this issue is to ensure that the administration and government functions to deliver services in an efficient, fair and clean manner – which one hopes that future governments will ensure. Then politics, and maintenance of power can be disentangled from the dispensation of not just privilege and patronage (which is the larger form of corruption ) but even of the most basic services which should come to people as a matter of right.
Another issue which was highlighted in the campaign was the difficulty of cleaning up the political process. For doing that, the process needs to be imbibed with an entirely different set of values, and also needs people who are driven by larger public interest, who participate in the political process without expectations of direct personal gains. Yet, it is not easy to find people who will work in this manner – partly because for the ordinary people, for the poor, it is difficult to give time for anything other than the activities of basic survival – but also because the larger ethos of the society is such that politics as a means to personal power, personal gains, of patronage is deeply entrenched. There is a saying in Marathi which translates to mean that if there is no water in the well, then you can’t get any in the bucket; or, the water that you would draw in a bucket can’t be cleaner than the water that is there in the well. In other words, the character and values of the people who will come into the AAP will reflect the larger prevalent value framework and ethos of society. We have witnessed this when from time to time AAP has had to face very sharp criticism for the acts and articulations of some its members.
The process of changing these values is a long term process of social change. While politics will play a role in creating social change, the process of social change is much larger and involves many others beyond political processes and players.
The party cannot wait till the social change process is completed. Hence, one of the biggest challenges for the party is to draw people from the same social-cultural ethos, but then create a party framework that helps instill values of cleaner, more equitable and fairer politics. And in turn use this party to help change the ethos and practises at large. It’s a bootstrapping operation of the highest order.
Affection and Support
In this matter however, AAP has a big advantage. I saw that common people seem to have great affection and attachment for the party. All through the campaign, I saw that common people related to the party in a very spontaneous manner, expressing warmth, friendliness, and enthusiasm. I saw the way they reacted when campaigners from other parties greeted them – people responded with courtesy. But to the AAP workers – including people like me who were totally unknown, we could sense a totally different way of relating, a feeling of oneness, a feeling of being one of their own. This was the reaction of ordinary people like auto-drivers, labourers, small tea shop owners, people sipping tea at the stalls and so on.
I think people related in this manner because they are tired of the other parties, and in AAP, they see an alternative which is close to them. I could myself see the difference in the very demeanour of the workers from other parties – who often had a swagger that I guess, comes from being born to privilege or taking for granted that political power is their basic right – and the bearing of AAP workers.
|Photo courtesy: Shantanu Patidar|
I feel that this is something that must have happened in Delhi too, when people campaigning for AAP in the Delhi Assembly elections in Dec 2013 sensed the feelings of the common people for the party, and which is why they were far more confident of and much less surprised than other people by the results. Given the reactions that common people expressed to us in Burhanpur, and also based on the reports that I have heard from some other constituencies – I feel strongly that AAP supporters will be in for a pleasant surprise on the day of counting of votes. This may not mean more seats, but certainly many more votes.
A Good Foundation
Last but not the least, I also saw how these elections have given AAP the chance to reach out far and wide in the country, into its most distant nooks and crannies. Visibility, recognition and credibility are among the most critical things in the spread of any party. These elections have helped AAP achieve in a matter of few months all the three to an extent what other parties take years to achieve.
I hope that the party can build on this foundation for a long term work, no matter what the results of this election in terms of seats. For its clear, while the AAP party song hopes or asserts that – इस बार चलेगी झाडू , I think इस बार चली है झाड़ू .