How the Aam Aadmi Party feeds the middle class fantasy
The polls have offered wildly different predictions for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), ranging from a relatively low seat count to one where it may actually end up being the single largest party.
If the exit polls are correct, the BJP's moment of triumph in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and possibly Chhattisgarh is likely to be hugely tempered by its showing – or near failure – in Delhi. The polls have offered wildly different predictions for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), ranging from a relatively low seat count to one where it may actually end up being the single largest party.
Taking both the outlier polls out – the one predicting six seats for AAP (ORG-India Today) and another giving it 31 (Today's Chanakya) – that still leaves us with a BJP that will probably be the single largest party – if not the winner. But whether it wins a majority in a three-way fight or merely remains the single largest party, the BJP is up against a rising AAP that is clearly making a spectacular showing in terms of voter enthusiasm.
Whatever be the relative seat counts of Congress and AAP, it is the latter that will be seen as the principal opposition party in Delhi.
The seat count does not matter in Delhi because the trend in popular vote is clear. It is anti-incumbent, but the Delhi voter is clearly buying the possibility of creating an alternative to both the principal parties in the capital city. The anti-Congress vote has split down the middle, and this is bad news for the BJP. Without the responsibility of power, AAP is best placed to capture the growing mood of public dissatisfaction further in many places in Delhi and perhaps beyond too. In Delhi itself, AAP can sit smugly and keep carping at what the Congress and BJP do or don't do; it will be preparing for the next Delhi assembly poll and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections without any handicaps.
It would be easy to dismiss AAP as a Delhi phenomenon, but the truth is AAP is the product of a movement, and an idea. It is a product of the new political empowerment of the middle class – a broad, self-defining category that could include the slum-dwelling consuming classes to the higher earning classes that live in government colonies and private rented or owned homes. This middle class empowerment has been driven by the digital media and TV which provide instant amplification and acceleration for a "viral" idea. It is likely to persist at least till 2014 – even if it ebbs and flows over the medium term. It is worth discussing this idea further, but first let us distil the message coming from Delhi and the other states.
#1: The Congress is over for now. It is clear that if the current mood persists till April-May 2014, and it surely will, the Congress faces a rout. It is an absolute no-hoper, except in pockets. The Rahul Gandhi vote does not exist, and the Dynasty will not be able to stem the rising tide of anger against its misgovernance. The Congress's best bet is actually to dump Rahul and get Sonia and Priyanka to drive the next campaign, but bringing out the latter means bringing out another dubious personality to the fore – Robert Vadra, a man whose very appearance could lose Congress votes. Sonia herself lacks credibility for it is her choice of spineless PM that has failed to deliver. It is difficult to see the Congress reinvent itself in a few months, with or without Dynasty at the helm.
#2: The BJP's best decision was on Modi. Announcing the candidature of Narendra Modi before the state assembly elections has proven to be the right decision – not because Modi may have swung too many votes the BJP's way but because it has united the party like never before. Modi's own wisdom allowed him to add the icing on the cake to broadly popular state leaders like Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh. He could have made the difference between an ordinary win in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and a clear sweep. In Chhattisgarh, he may have just about helped Raman Singh's bandwagon towards victory. And in Delhi, he may have stopped the AAP from thumping a party run by Vijay Goel.
Consider what would have happened if the BJP had accepted LK Advani's idea of holding back the announcement of Modi's PM candidature till after the assembly elections. This is what Modi's detractors outside the BJP wanted, and Advani was foolish enough to think it was a great idea. A delay in announcement would not only have made the BJP's state victories less impressive, but also created a confused leadership structure, spurring divisive tendencies in the party before and after the assembly poll.
By announcing Modi, Rajnath Singh and the RSS ensured that the BJP benefits from two powerful forces pulling in the same direction – an empowered central pivot around Modi, and an empowered state-level federated structure that creates a new pipeline of the BJP's next line-up. It is hogwash to claim that collective leadership works; the evidence is that it does not.
Ask yourself: why is it that after five bumbling year of UPA-2, the BJP's collective leadership had nothing to show in terms of the BJP's popularity till Modi came along? Why is it that the collective leadership of Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley failed to deliver the BJP anything in terms of electoral progress anywhere?
Whatever the Sangh's motivations, building a consensus on Modi was its most inspired decision after the one to nominate Atal Behari Vajpayee for PM in 1998, despite the fact that it was Advani who built momentum for the BJP in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Habitual Modi baiters will point to BJP's not-so-spectacular showing in Delhi as Modi's failure, especially since Modi is believed to have had a hand in the replacement of Vijay Goel with Harsh Vardhan as the party's local mascot, but this is bias masquerading as analysis. While one should not overestimate Modi's popularity in Delhi or other urban areas, the fact is when you are up against a rising tide of popular sentiment which AAP has increasingly come to represent in Delhi, you can't have old-style political leaders like Goel heading the party. Modi's backing for Harsh Vardhan probably helped stem the tide. In a three-horse race, it may even help Harsh Vardhan to win this Sunday, when the votes are counted.
If you are fighting an idea like AAP, you need an equally powerful idea – and Modi represents an idea more than just a political party. Take Modi out of the equation, and the BJP would have been lumped in the category of "political parties" – a category with low purchase with the middle classes.
#3: AAP is the BJP's biggest urban challenge in 2014. Currently, the AAP may be limited to Delhi, but, like Modi, it too caters to middle class fantasies. The middle class – which can be defined simply as people aspiring for a better life after moving out of basic deprivation and poverty – has a simple fantasy: it wants to get even with people who will get in the way of their aspirations.
Right now, it is politicians and their excessively corrupt ways who are seen as road-blocks to their progress. From the slum-dweller who feels oppressed by the state even while trying to get basic things done (like obtaining a ration card, a birth certificate, a school admission), to the upper middle class family which finds the streets unsafe for its women and dreams of buying a home fading into impossibility, everyone is in a sense middle class. The middle class wants those who stand in its way “fixed”.
If you consider AAP's rise, it started with the Jan Lokpal agitation. Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal told the middle class that with this legislation, they will end corruption and get rid of “those crooks.” Modi, as an outsider to Delhi who is untainted by corruption and also has some claim to providing better governance, is a personification of the same idea. His promise is that a tough guy will set things right. This helps another middle class hope – that if they have someone or some law to fix things for them, they can focus on improving their lot in life.
Getting someone to “fix” things for them – whether through a legislation called Jan Lokpal, or a strong man like Modi – is what makes both AAP and Modi powerful draws for the middle class, especially in the urban areas. Both are fighting for the same vote, in a sense. The BJP has to rework its strategy in 2014 if it is to ensure that AAP does not spoil its party yet again.
#4: The regional parties also have cause to worry. The problem with our regional parties is simple: they depend on a sectional vote in states, and benefit from a first-post-the-post system where 30 percent of the vote is enough to get you the gaddi.
But AAP and Modi are essentially forces that will loosen traditional loyalties from caste and religion and rebuild them around class. AAP and Modi may not be a challenge to them in 2014, but the idea is not going away.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group