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Not just a heckler: Kejriwal must show, implement agenda for Delhi

By Dan Hough

Arvind Kejriwal is a brave man indeed. Entering government in Delhi could be the making of his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or it could be its very undoing. One thing is for sure; if the performances of other single issue parties elsewhere are anything to go by, Arvind had better firmly check his seatbelt as he is in for a rollercoaster ride.

Delhi’s regional election has certainly shuffled the pack in terms of India’s party politics. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and particularly the Congress Party are having to deal with a prickly new customer.

AAP's Arvind Kejriwal will take oath as Delhi's 15th chief minister at Ramlila Grounds on December 28.

AAP's Arvind Kejriwal will take oath as Delhi's 15th chief minister at Ramlila Grounds on December 28.

Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP are riding the crest of a wave. Thirty percent of the vote in the Delhi regional election on 8th December has translated into 28 seats and the prominent role in forming the next regional government. Judging by the party’s increasingly popular resonance elsewhere in India, the AAP can also look forward with confidence to the upcoming regional election in Maharashtra as well as the 2014 general election. Kejriwal’s decision to split from his erstwhile anti-corruption ally Anna Hazare and to enter the party political fray now looks like a savvy political move.

However, Kejriwal will know that in many ways the hard work begins now. New political parties benefit from a freshness and a sense that they have not been tainted by the darker side of everyday politics. They can point out their opponents' failings and misdemeanours whilst simultaneously claiming that they stand for a ‘new politics’. But what happens when the first (apparently unseemly) compromise needs to be made? What happens, for example, when Kejriwal tries to do justice to his promise to reduce electricity bills by 50 per cent, only to find that the government still needs to respect other financial commitments elsewhere? Squaring circles like that is tough, but it is the everyday fare of political life. If the AAP tries to act as an opposition within the government, then things in Delhi could get messy very quickly.

If the AAP is going to survive the period before the next general election intact then it needs to master three specific challenges. Firstly, the AAP is (crystal) clear about what it doesn’t like. It is a party that is defined by what it is not. The notion that it is rejecting the old, clientelistic politics that the BJP and Congress have allegedly practised is all well and good, but sooner or later the AAP will have to come up with a more positive narrative of change. That’s something it’s not yet done. It will also have to explain who it rejects much of what Congress stands for and yet is now prepared to work with it in government. Such an explanation is possible, but it will take considerable political skill to make it.

Secondly, the AAP sees itself as a shining beacon of anti-corruptionism, disdainfully rejecting the process of comprising on its principles to help craft consensus-orientated outcomes. Politics, however, is a process where those who disagree come together and find mutually acceptable solutions. Rejecting the process of politics is the stance of the populist, and rejecting the messiness of daily political life will ultimately make the party look like a heckling outsider rather than a serious political organisation. Compromise outcomes, in other words, might well be frustrating, but unless a party wins an overall majority of the seats in parliament then compromises are the very DNA of the political process. The AAP will have to show that it can compromise and yet remain true to its principles. Again, this is possible, but it'll once again take considerable skill to pull it off.

Thirdly, the Delhi election has attracted considerable attention both at home and abroad. But it is only a regional election. A look at the political science of regional election outcomes tell us at least two important things. On the one hand, the incumbent party will nearly always fair badly. It is the incumbent that is (rightly) held responsible for government policy whilst the opposition can gleefully point out all the mistakes that have been made. Where this differs from national elections is that incumbent party supporters are more likely to stay at home – something that is less likely to happen when ‘more is at stake’ in general elections. That Congress suffered badly in Delhi should therefore not come as a surprise. On the other hand, more voters – again because there is ‘less at stake’ – are likely to experiment just a little more with their votes. The national government won’t be changing, so sending out a statement that, say, you’re really not happy with perceived levels of corruption or with the apparent malfeasance of high-ranking politicians becomes a more attractive proposition. Parties such as AAP should therefore be in their element.

If the AAP is going to carry its success into the national electoral arena then it will subsequently have to deal with these three issues. It needs to begin explaining what it stands for over and above ‘tackling corruption’. It needs to work out how it is going – at some point in the medium-term – to develop a working relationship with Congress and, finally, it needs to avoid the curse of being a ‘flash in the pan’ party. Counter-intuitive though it may seem at the moment, the odds are probably against it.

The author is Professor of Politics and Director, Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex.

Updated Date: Dec 26, 2013 12:47 PM

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