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Outsider as the New Insider: From Italy to Indonesia to Thailand to India: From Beppe Grillo to Arvind Kejriwal

Outsider as the New Insider:  From Italy to Indonesia to Thailand to India:  From Beppe Grillo to Arvind Kejriwal

By Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury

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% 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 organize 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 revolutionize the very idea of politics in the country.

Its MPs are different from the classic image of politicians. They are young (37 years old on average, as against 55 in the previous legislature), highly educated (88 per cent are graduates) 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 December 8 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 toward 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 percent of the vote and 40 percent 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 favor a yes. And so it turned out, with the party declaring a 75 percent yes vote from individual respondents and a 90 percent 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 program of municipal management and decentralization of political power envisioned in its manifesto (Porto Alegre-style “mohalla” or neighborhood 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 & 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 government 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.

The Jakarta Model

But Kejriwal confronts many challenges as an aspiring national politician in a substantially rural country undergoing an extensive and risky urbanization — urbanization that as yet holds little prospect of development or prosperity for a majority of the urbanized. In that sense, his true model is not Johnson but another Asian politician from nowhere who also sings the glories of decentralization and advocates “bottom-up” governance: Joko Widodo, Jakarta’s governor.

Widodo, better known as Jokowi, came to politics after a successful career as a businessman, and is his country’s most preferred candidate in this year’s presidential elections. Along with Surabaya’s mayor, Tri Rismaharini, he is a product of the kind of decentralized governance that India is lurching toward and Indonesia has already embraced. Pitted against a heavily centralized state and elite domination of the economy, both Jokowi and Kejriwal are working against the old top-down model of economic growth that opens up “massive disparities between the center and the periphery and rural and urban areas.”

Many of their supporters belong to the “floating mass” of workers from villages. From Thailand to Turkey, liberalized and globalized economies have created new urban middle classes, which in classical modernization theory have been expected to democratize their countries. But we have yet to take on board the impact of a bigger, much less understood and politically more significant demographic: urban migrants connected to their homes in the hinterland through the flow of remittances, investment, culture and ideas, and steadily politicized with the help of print literacy, electronic media, job mobility and mobile phones.

In the metropolis, these first-generation migrants lack the political networks or sturdy ideological loyalties that determine their votes at home; they can be persuaded to vote for anyone who seems to promise relief from corruption and injustice. In many cases — such as the Anatolian entrepreneurs in Istanbul, rural elites from coastal Andhra Pradesh in Hyderabad or rural magnates from Karnataka in Bangalore — they have accumulated enough power to shape domestic politics, with important continuing effects.

Thai Alliance of the Rural and Urban Poor

The most famous and significant Asian representative of this demographic is, of course, Thaksin Shinawatra. His peculiar — some might say, malevolent — political genius was to forge an alliance between the rural and urban poor, who had long been ignored by traditional ruling elites, thus clearing a new space in Thai politics. With its superior voter base in rural northern Thailand, Thaksin’s party has, since 2006, routinely provoked an anti-democratic backlash among Bangkok’s middle class and royalists.

India has quietly undergone an even greater demographic shift than Thailand’s. The population census of 2011 revealed a faster rate of urbanization than any of the previous decades. To take one example: mobile phone subscribers grew from 45 million in 2002 to almost a billion in 2012. The rural can no longer be seen in isolation from the urban, except in very remote areas.

The consequences of this new fluidity for many established parties have been serious. Those working with the old dichotomy of rural-versus-urban, such as the Congress Party, have been caught napping by rapid socioeconomic and demographic changes, and have declined irrevocably. The old Left’s plans to mobilize agrarian classes and the proletariat have produced diminishing returns as landless laborers move into the informal economy of urban areas. Even parties relying upon primordial caste and religious loyalties have struggled, after their initial success in the 1990s, to secure a reliable base among an increasingly diverse and demanding mass of voters.

It is in this fast-altering political landscape that Kejriwal’s party has arrived. Modernization theorists may continue to wait for a democratizing middle class, and leftists are unlikely to abandon their faith in working class revolutions. But Kejriwal’s advent is one sign among many that, contrary to received wisdoms of the 20th century, the urbanized villager may turn out to define the future of Asia, believes Pankaj Mishra.

The Corporate Response to AAP

Conventional wisdom has it that corporate India is waiting for its messiah, Narendra Modi, to lift India from the (relatively) low-growth swamp in which the country seems stuck—with an indecisive government unable or unwilling to figure out the next steps. The other conventional wisdom is that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) can’t be good for business, given the populist slant of its early pronouncements—free water to metered homes, audits of power companies, regularizing slums (which would give slum-dwellers the power to say “no” more forcefully the next time a company covets the land where they live).

And yet, in the weeks following the AAP’s performance in the Delhi election, at least four prominent corporate executives have decided to cast their lot with the party—Sameer Nair, former head of NDTV and Star TV, Infosys board member V. Balakrishnan, aviation entrepreneur G.R. Gopinath, and banker and former head of RBS in India, Meera Sanyal.

To be sure, the AAP has attracted other prominent Indians too, including H.S. Phoolka, the lawyer fighting cases representing victims of the 1984 pogrom of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and Medha Patkar, who has kept alive the plight of those displaced to make way for the Narmada project. To that, add the politics of Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav. Put it all together, and it might seem that the Centre cannot hold and things will fall apart.

Or, it is the equivalent of a large hall in which articulate Indians have got together, frustrated by the status quo—the party in corner A mired in corruption, tired of ruling, and unable to shake off its dependence on a dynasty (even though Rahul Gandhi appears to be a reluctant candidate for prime minister, and dynastic politics is not its monopoly); and in corner B, a party bizarrely choosing a tainted leader because he can rouse masses with exaggerations and some misinterpretations of history, in pursuit of temporary electoral gains.

Unwilling to side with either, these corporate executives have opted to write their version of what India should do, on this tabula rasa called the AAP. There’s no guarantee they will succeed. But they have no faith in the two available choices.

If you were to list Indian businesses which have donated to the main parties, and name the businessmen who frequent Modi’s “Vibrant Gujarat” summits, you will find one discernible pattern: some of them are owners or part of family businesses. Not all, but a number of them.

Now take a look at the executives who have joined the AAP. These professionals like clear rules, transparency, accountability, and simpler procedures. They are technology-driven pragmatists. And individually they or their companies have performed well.

But in case of large part of tycoons’ success is also because they know how to manage the intricacies of the movement of files within Lutyenstown. Contacts with key bureaucrats are important here, as are phone calls of the sort that Neera Radia tended to specialize in. Know-how matters, but so does know-who. They know how the system works. The AAP, in theory, wants to change that, and so the others see hope in it.

That hope may be misplaced, unless the AAP immediately reviews its economic thinking. The AAP is a Rorschach test. Major parties see it as a spoiler helping slow the BJP’s march or the Congress’s defence. Libertarians don’t like its subsidy culture; communists are alarmed that corporate India likes the AAP. And its supporters believe the AAP will transform the nation.

Solution-based Approach & High Expectations

The Aam Aadmi Party is in favour of a solution-based, commonsensical approach to problems and seeks to escape the trappings of the Left or the Right

In retrospect, it is clear that the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP tapped into popular resentments bubbling under the surface. The emotions found release with Mr. Kejriwal’s promise of systemic overhaul and transformative politics. The stampeding crowds at the AAP’s offices, the rush of the who’s who to join its rolls and the frightened responses of its political rivals, all speak to the newcomer’s emergence as a harbinger of hope in a political environment sullied by greed, graft, waste and incompetence.

Yet the danger with excessive expectation is that it can quickly turn into disillusionment and despair. The AAP faces two potential pitfalls. First is its near free-for-all style of governance, evident in such hasty and baffling decisions as turning the Delhi Secretariat into a Janata durbar (since dropped) and calling upon people to sting corrupt officers. Without a proper structure and discipline, these well-meaning solutions can degenerate into tools of vigilantism, leading to a blurring of lines between liberty and licence.

The second is the AAP’s refusal to define itself ideologically. As Yogendra Yadav stoutly denied that the party was socialist and said that the “binaries of the 20th century, either Left or Right, do not make sense”. AAP sees itself as solution-based, open to using solutions from the Left and the Right.

The attractions of a solution-based, commonsensical approach are undoubtedly enormous, especially to audiences fatigued by the opportunistic aspects of politics. It is also true that there is a jaded, outmoded feel to politics compartmentalised as Right or Left; secular or communal. More so when parties and politicians themselves feel no discomfort in crossing the divide, often for the flimsiest of reasons.

But can a party function without a sense of history, without an understanding of its own roots and why and how it has evolved to its present? The AAP’s army of supporters may want to treat ideology as baggage and see the party as a grand standalone phenomenon, but that would be delusional because history has lessons to offer to forget which is to risk repeating it with tragic consequences.

Previous movements

Consider the fate of India’s previous anti-corruption movements. Two kinds of popular movements have led to party formation in India — those based on self-respect and identity and the more pan-national ones focussed on political corruption and misrule. The former category is made up of largely regional parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

In the second category fall a series of anti-corruption mobilisations of which two are regarded as milestones in Indian political history — the Total Revolution call of 1974-1975 and the anti-Bofors movement of 1988-1989. Led by Jaya Prakash Narayan and V.P. Singh respectively, both movements targeted the Congress, and the end result of each formed a political alliance — the 1977 umbrella Janata Party and the 1989 Janata Dal coalition — that eventually disintegrated because the leadership mistakenly believed that ideology could be brushed under the carpet. Both accommodated the RSS, believing its involvement to be necessary to fight the ‘corrupt’ congress. But there is a curious back story to this story.

The rightward tilt of the two movements can be traced back to 1971 when the Opposition banded together into a Grand Alliance to fight Indira Gandhi’s ‘destructive’ politics. That alliance was routed.

JP & VP Movements: the Underlying RSS Streak

However, JP’s 1974 Total Revolution call and the then ongoing student protests in Gujarat provided the perfect backdrop for the Grand Alliance constituents to regroup. JP gave the constituents credibility and they gave his movement political muscle. This mutual support resulted in the formation, in 1974 itself, of the Janata Morcha, a loose coalition that went on to defeat the congress in the 1975 Gujarat assembly election. This setback, coupled with her unseating from the Rae Bareli Lok Sabha seat, led Indira Gandhi to impose the Emergency.

The 1971 Grand Alliance was formed by the Congress (Organisation), the Swatantra Party, the Jan Sangh and the Praja and Samyukta Socialist Parties. The Congress (O) was backed by big business, the princely class and the media. The Swatantra Party drew its membership from the princes, wealthy industrialists and extreme right-wing elements. Driven by the RSS, the Jan Sangh had a clearly spelt-out Hindu nationalist goal. The Socialist parties joined this grouping because like the rest they abhorred Indira Gandhi and saw her policies as destructively leftist. The 1974-1975 Janata Morcha, which began as a coordination front for JP, consisted of the Congress (O), the Jan Sangh, the Socialist Party (formed by the merger of the two socialist parties) and the Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD). The BLD in turn was a coalition of seven parties, among them the Charan Singh-led Bharatiya Kranti Dal and the Swatantra Party. The 1977 Janata Party was a product of the merger of the Congress (O), the Jan Sangh, the Bharatiya Lok Dal and the Socialist Party.

Confusing? Far from it, what the narrative establishes is a rightwing continuum. The 1971 Grand Alliance, the 1974-1975 Janata Morcha and the 1977 Janata Party all had roughly the same constituents. The RSS provided the logistical support for each of these formations as it would do more than a decade later for the Janata Dal. Indeed, by 1989, the leading lights of the Janata movement had faded away. But, as before, the RSS and its political offshoot, now the Bharatiya Janata Party, would drive the anti-corruption movement.

JP’s blinkered view of the fight against corruption led to the inevitable. The socialists opposed the Jan Sangh’s continuing allegiance to the RSS, resulting in the collapse of the Janata Government. The fall of the V.P. Singh Government in 1989 was almost an action replay, with VP realising too late that his accommodation of the RSS and the BJP gave the latter credibility and a chance to revive itself post its 1984 debacle. The clash of ideologies was written into the script.

Three interesting facts emerge from this. All pan-national anti-corruption movements so far have been against the Congress. All of them have had a strong right-wing content which led them to self-destruct. The Jan Sangh/BJP gained in respect and influence by associating with these movements.

Anna Movement & Thereafter

The Anna movement was uncannily similar to the earlier anti-corruption movements. The JP and Anna movements sought to overthrow the system and were set against the same background of corruption, runaway inflation and an explosion of public anger against those in power. V.P. Singh’s anti-Bofors campaign struck a powerful chord with the people in much the same way as did today’s 2G and other scandals. And like his predecessors, Anna chose to be ideology-neutral, associating himself with Baba Ramdev and holding up Narendra Modi as the ideal Chief Minister. His protégé Kiran Bedi has since come out in open support of Mr. Modi.

Baba Ramdev was Mr. Kejriwal’s first port of call on his anti-corruption journey. It was later that he turned to Anna. But, since forming the AAP, Mr. Kejriwal has evolved in a more progressive direction, which is surely the reason why someone like Mallika Sarabhai has joined the party.

The fight against corruption is critically important. But the neglect of ideology can prove ruinous for this cause. The AAP has a historic responsibility to make a clean break from the past and emerge as a party that can combine systemic overhaul with a progressive, clearly-articulated vision.

Way Ahead: Delhi vis-à-vis India

Delhi is special because it is geographically compact, media dense, more educated and less prone to what is loosely called vote bank politics. The moment we step out of Delhi, we meet the rural hinterlands, where the real questions are about rural India, agriculture and the condition of farmers. And these need the issue of corruption itself to be reframed in each state by AAP. Corruption, the issues of gram swaraj and issues like education and health, these would remain Aam Aadmi Party constants all over India. Besides these, in every state, AAP would need very state specific issues.

“Unfortunately the 20th century built religion around this simple and practical question of what serves the people better, especially on the question of state and market. The experience of the 20th century tells us that there is nothing called as absolutely free market with no state control whatsoever and that state control, state monopoly of everything is a complete disaster. So, the world that we are living in is a world where the markets are here to stay and state regulations are an absolute must. We will go for the best based on evidence and experience. We would rather be known as those who have a given set of objectives and are open to different paths for achieving that objective,” says Yogendra Yadav, Chief Spokesman of AAP, expanding upon the AAP-approach to state and market.

So, way ahead for AAP will depend on how they address these four issues. First is creation of a strong anti-corruption mechanism; second is radical political decentralisation – Swaraj – by way of creation of gram sabhas, mohalla sabhas and serious decision making power to be devolved to them. Third, education — high quality public education; and fourth, health — affordable and high quality medical care — to become defining features of AAP politics.

From Being Outsider to Being the Insider

Much of the positive energy that has come in the last three decades or so has been from outside the political establishment. It has been released by people’s movements, including classic radical movements like farmers’ movements, women’s movements and green movements, those involving struggles for jal, jangal and zameen and new movements like for RTI. While the third space in India’s politics has expanded to include new issues and energies, the Third Force has shrunk in politics. This disruption of the party-movement dialectic led to a moral vacuum and the emptying of politics of real life substantive questions. It should be the ambition of AAP to be the inheritor and heir to this political space.

With contest in more than 200 Lok Sabha seats on its hands, AAP aims to make a strong debut which can vary from 10 to 40 any number depending upon the campaign ahead. But it will remain a force to reckon with in near future.

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