AAP's recruitment drive marks triumph of Indian democracy

As everyone from farmers to corporate titans rush to join AAP, the party is expanding our impoverished notion of democracy. It is not merely for the people -- elect me and I will do what you want -- but of and by the people.

Lakshmi Chaudhry January 06, 2014 14:00:23 IST
AAP's recruitment drive marks triumph of Indian democracy

For the average Indian, politics is a spectator sport. We talk of it at length but do very little. We cast our vote every five years, and spend the rest of the time heckling from the sidelines. In the world's largest democracy, politics is not for ordinary folks, but for those 'other' people who know how to navigate a murky world driven by violence, corruption and intrigue.

And then the Aam Aadmi Party came along, touting the radical idea of a people's party. A party truly open to everyone from auto-walas to activists to intellectuals to farmers to high-flying corporate titans. All are welcome, be it as volunteers, donors or candidates. Come ye, come all. Fill a form and make your pitch.

The response from the so-called cynical, alienated Indian has been astonishing, as the Economic Times reports:

AAPs recruitment drive marks triumph of Indian democracy

AAP supporters. AFP.

From just 5,000 - before the Delhi assembly election results - to the current figure of 33,000, the growth in AAP membership in Lucknow alone is a sign of the party's potential appeal in UP. In Bihar, at 15 camps around Patna and in 37 other districts, AAP volunteers have written out 60,000 membership receipts in the weeks after the election outcome were announced on December 8. Such is the enthusiasm that the newly formed party has run out of membership forms; the headquarters in Delhi has been asked to supply another 20,000. 

In Eastern UP, the offline membership has shot up from 65,250 to nearly 1,45,000 in one month -- and they haven't counted the online enrollments yet. Many of these new entrants are young, educated and idealistic, but they also include, as one AAP party coordinator puts it "lawyers, traders, farmers, and even local politicians fed up with their own parent party joining us." And the level of enthusiasm in rural areas will be heartening for a party long dismissed as a big metro phenomenon.

In his Times of India column, Santosh Desai observes, "The AAP promise is not about a glorious outcome -- it views politics not as a transportation vehicle to a pre-determined and desirable destination but as an instrument whose main objective is to invite messy participation. He restores to politics the idea of fidelity  -- to what people want." Or more accurately, to what people can do. AAP expands our impoverished notion of democracy. It is not merely for the people -- elect me and I will do what you want -- but of and by the people.

Kejriwal's "main contribution so far has been to imagine politics as being distinct from power," notes an astute Desai, but seemingly misses the revolutionary implications of such a decoupling. This is not merely the transformation of politics into a process. In separating politics from power -- rejecting the lal batti perks of victory, insisting on absolute moral probity -- Kejriwal is undermining the single greatest incentive that motivates the Indian political class.

Politics in India is aspirational, but in the most degraded sense of the word. In towns and villages across the Indian heartland, a political career offers one of the few opportunities for mobility for young, impoverished men in a system driven by bribes, connections and quotas. "You could work towards becoming a either the state or national legislature, and siphon off government funds earmarked for literacy and population control projects; if nothing worked out, you could aspire, at the other end, to be a lowly telephone mechanic and make money by selling illegal telephone connections," writes Pankaj Mishra in his book Temptations of the West of the future facing college students in Benaras. A reason why our universities have long been a fertile recruiting ground for rank-and-foot party soldiers who cut their teeth in the rough-and-tumble world of student politics.

Liberalisation may have created more opportunities than before, but a political career remains the most reliable route to prosperity for the underclass. As Congress Rajya Sabha MP Birendra Singh candidly put it, "Politics is a very lucrative profession even if you fail in other spheres of life." Our system rewards all those who possess the peculiar talents required to prosper in its hostile environs, be they peasant or landlord. In India, elections are not political battles over ideas or policy, but a ladder to assured material wealth for its candidates who, as Mishra writes,  “all seek power that in societies degraded by colonialism often comes without a redeeming idea of what it is to be used for, the kind of power that, in most cases, amounts to little more than an opportunity to rise above the rest of the population and savor the richness of the world.”

And this, this is what Arvind Kejriwal seeks to undo. Irrespective of his party's long terms prospects, AAP has already inspired many Indians to think the unthinkable, to imagine elections as a means not to power but to democracy. But our imaginations alone will not sustain us in a system engineered to create and circulate illicit wealth. As Kejriwal himself once declared, the first step to cleaning up politics is to make it unprofitable.

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