Despite the beating it has taken in recent days from the media over the shenanigans of Somnath Bharti, the not-so-lawful Law Minister in Arvind Kejriwal's Delhi cabinet, there is no way the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) can be written off as a diminished force, leave alone a spent force.
The BJP may hope it withers on the vine, the Congress may hope that the spoilt brat it has adopted on a temporary basis will not bite it in the butt again, but AAP is here to stay - bark, bite, bad behaviour and all. As the recent opinion polls show, AAP is on the upswing in Delhi and Haryana, and, to a lesser extent, in Punjab and Maharashtra. It has to get many things wrong consistently over a longish period of time to be seen as a loser. It is not one by a long chalk, despite Kejriwal's recent dent in public image over the trifling issue of suspending four cops.
The reason is simple: AAP is not just a newbie political party. It is a powerful idea. An idea that politics will not be conducted as usual, an idea that politicians are servants of the people and not their masters, and above all a promise of excitement and change.
AAP as an idea is larger than the pygmies who currently run the party, and hence the idea itself will outlive Kejriwal and the current leadership of AAP - assuming its leaders do not completely destroy the USP by an extended period of looniness.
In Elections 2014, what the BJP and Congress and, to a limited extent, some regional parties face is the challenge of confronting an exciting idea with a counter idea that could also ignite the voter's imagination. Right now, the only powerful idea on offer to combat AAP is the idea of Modi.
Like AAP, the idea of Modi is larger than the persona of Narendra Modi, who currently personifies it. The idea of Modi is competent governance, and the promise of service delivery to the citizen with a strong leader batting like Superman on their behalf. One can argue that Modi carries the tinge of the Hindutva idea too – but additional attributes/faults will not be decisive in this election.
We will contrast the AAP idea with the Modi idea a bit later, but first let us also understand what the idea of Congress is and what the regional parties encapsulate.
The Congress idea is that of a benevolent feudal dynasty that presides over a big tent under which all can reside. This idea is probably past its sell-by date. If India were a constitutional monarchy, hereditary rule would have some resonance as a unifier amidst the diversities of India, but India is not one and the people are not too enamoured of the idea anyway. It is sycophancy that keeps the idea of Congress alive, not the people.
A related idea of Congress is that of benefactor of the poor - but through a condescendingly feudal attitude. By positioning itself well to the left of the Congress, AAP has essentially demolished this idea. There are now other, more exciting alternatives to this idea.
As for the regional parties - their core idea is simply that they speak the same language in their regions. They are thus closer to their people. Their stock-in-trade is a winning coalition of castes and community/communities - with castes and communities changing sides when one party fails to deliver.
In 2014, the idea of AAP will clash primarily with the idea of Modi nationally – and the idea of the regional face in some states. The Congress is unlikely to be able to hold its own in too many places.
Let’s explore the ideas of AAP and Modi a bit more.
The idea of AAP is about a responsive political leadership, where the people coalesce and agitate to teach their rulers a lesson and demand their dues. It is about freedom and empowerment – not rules and constitutional propriety. It is appealing to those who anyway do not benefit from rules and propriety – which would make AAP a party for the dispossessed and the lower middle classes who have little to lose from supporting the current power structure.
This is why one should not overestimate the antipathy Kejriwal supposedly faced during his Delhi dharna. What the dharna did was to pitch Kejriwal strongly as champion of the powerless, and to the far left of the Congress. What this did was to vertically split the coalition of the middle classes that supported his rise – with the upper end now developing doubts about whether he is their man.
The downside to the idea of AAP is that no one ultimately wants endless disruption. At some point, its attraction wanes. But it won't be the case in 2014.
The idea of Modi is where the upper end of the middle class will probably find succour – as the opinion polls show. Moreover, the idea of Modi is not just about competent governance. It is more than that.
Psychologically, we are all driven by two powerful forces – one seeking greater freedom, and the other seeking safety and security. We need both, but often people have to choose between one or the other at a point of time. In times of anarchy, people choose the safety of a powerful saviour; at other times, they seek freedom. The idea of Modi right now offers the promise of stability and security to people who value this. Modi is essentially positioning himself like a Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.
The idea of AAP promises more skirmishes with authority and the upending of the currently order. The idea of Modi offers those threatened by big change the security of improvement without disruption. Let’s also be clear: the idea of Modi goes beyond Modi. If the BJP does not seek this mantle when Modi moves into the shadows 10 years hence, some other party will claim it.
Put another way, the idea of AAP would appeal to those who feel they have no stake in the current system. The idea of Modi offers security to those who have a bigger stake in the current system. The underclass may like AAP; the upper castes, classes and businesses may prefer Modi. The people in the middle of the two will decide the results in Election 2014.
What about the regional parties who are theoretically secular and hence against Modi? They too face the same choices as the undecided people in the middle.
Regional parties which have no stake in the status quo (like some small Muslim parties of Dalit parties) will go with AAP and a Third Front; those who feel most threatened by the AAP's rise will align with Modi post-election after the results are out. Modi, in short, may have more options than the media imagines. To many regional parties, AAP is a bigger future threat than Modi. For example, Mulayam Singh's SP faces decimation if AAP grows roots in UP. This is why some of his base is shifting to Modi.
The idea of AAP is not going away. If it does not throw away its advantages, and uses its chances in power to change things visibly for its constituency, in 2019 (or earlier) it will be the real challenger for the centre.
Broadly speaking, it is AAP, not Congress, that could become the other (left-wing) pole around which a right-wing BJP will be fighting in future.
AAP and BJP will probably see the rise of class-based coalitions in future than transcend caste and community. We will see it first in urban areas and then the rural areas.
2014 has sounded the bugle for class tussles.