Ahead of the Delhi Assembly Elections on 7th February 2015, Mukulika Banerjee writes that the election is already proving to be significant as the Aam Admi Party’s campaigning has sparked passionate and popular debates about what kind of politics and society Indians want. The question now is whether the “common man” party can defeat the BJP Goliath at the polls.
Tomorrow, a small but significant election will take place in the world’s largest democracy. Small, because just 13 million voters – more than the Dutch electorate but only 1.4% of India’s – will go to the polls to elect a local government for the territory of Delhi. Significant, because a new insurgent party and its campaigning has provoked passionate and novel popular debates about what kind of politics and society Indians want.
The established national political parties in the fray are the Congress and the BJP. The Congress is in deep decline, so the contest in Delhi is in fact a face-off between the BJP – the mighty and well-financed Goliath whose leader swept to national power in May 2014 – and the slight framed David of the Aam Admi (common man) Party, formed only two years ago on a financial shoe string. [Full disclosure: my brother-in-law is a senior member of AAP, but my interest in Indian elections is longstanding and primarily as a social scientist.]
The BJP’s large well-oiled political machine has rolled through Delhi, an entire cabinet of national ministers and MPs drafted in to campaign. The formidable network of party workers map each constituency meticulously, profiling supporters by genealogy, caste and religion in readiness to appeal to primordial loyalties. They present the well-rehearsed message of PM Modi’s extraordinary leadership and commitment to development as the only answer to India’s problems. This message has served them well over the past 12 months. In contrast, AAP’s campaign is less orchestrated but increasingly gathering support from voters who feel this underdog deserves a second chance. AAP had formed a minority government about a year ago but the Chief Minister resigned after 49 days citing the collusion of Congress and the BJP in the Assembly in obstructing the passing of anti-graft legislation. AAP self-consciously distances itself from establishment politics that is dominated by money, cronyism and intimidation. Instead it offers zero tolerance of corruption, transparency in its own dealings and an issue-based manifesto that focuses on the basic rights of citizens – of water, electricity, health, women’s safety and education.
AAP’s determined focus on the concrete interests of the common man has dragged campaigning into the underbelly of Delhi that was kept well-hidden from President Obama last month. Unfamiliar names – Trilokpuri, Narela, Buradi, Matiala, Kiradi, Karaval Nagar – have entered public discourse. Here live the people – 80% of Delhi’s population – who keep Delhi running, working in the vast informal economy that services the shiny coat of the beast. An astonishing two-thirds of the population live on less than Rs 13,500 (around £14o) per month; in contrast, 7% of Delhi’s population lives on Rs 30,000 to Rs 120,000 per month.
Inspired, journalists with a conscience left their air conditioned offices to cover them, making this faceless mass visible, the three-quarters of Delhi’s population that does not have access to water supply where girls have schooled themselves to need the toilet just once a day. They live in dwellings that are often built on land whose legal ownership remains uncertain, making their existence fragile and insecure. Viewers saw how new roads, icons of development, are built annually over last year’s accumulated sewage and rainwater, raising the ground level and turning homes into subterranean hovels in just a few years. These stories showed that this majority too belongs to the city of Delhi.
So the stakes are big in this small election because it has raised a fundamental question – what kind of politics do Indians want? Do they desire a political establishment that caters to the few who bob on the surface or do they want a party that unashamedly prioritises the needs of the majority below? A politics that cannot account for 75% of their funding or one that aspires to total transparency? A politics that can plaster the city with expensive advertisements or one in which young people campaign with flash mobs and songs? A politics of an electoral juggernaut that demolishes everything in its path or a groundswell of ordinary people that raises David up to look Goliath in the eye? These are the questions that the Delhi campaign has raised and it has forced voters to choose not just between one political party and another, but also between one kind of politics and another. This Delhi election is a contest over opposed ideas of political norms, behavior and morals. While it is true that elections are not sufficient to achieve true democracy, the current Delhi election campaign has powerfully demonstrated what elections can in fact achieve, in any democracy in the world.
This election has showed that Goliath can be challenged, that the established way is not the only way but change requires courage and conscience. This election has shown that the democratic process can throw up alternatives to the status quo, that not all politicians are corrupt, that politics need not be dirty, that the high voter turnout rates in India should not be taken for granted, given the voter apathy in western democracies. The electorate’s commitment to political participation can be rewarded with real alternatives. Elections are carnivals in India, and turn the world upside down for a few weeks. The question on 7th February is whether the underbelly will flex its political muscle and flip the beast, for five years at least?
This article also appear on The Guardian on 06/02/2015.
Cover image: Aam Admi poster on back of auto rickshaw. Credit: flickr/Ramesh Lawani
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About the Author
Dr Mukulika Banerjee is Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at LSE’s Department of Anthropology and Director Designate of LSE South Asia Centre.
Dr Banerjee is a regular contributor to the India at LSE blog. Read more of her posts here.