The AAP phenomenon and what it means for us

Dr Rahul Pandey
In the past several days I have been a part of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)'s campaigning in Matiala constituency of Delhi.  In this small period I have been witness to some inspiring processes and moments – motivation and hard work of persons volunteering for AAP; responses of people from various strata to AAP’s canvassing; decentralized and chaotic yet, in some ways, organized management of AAP’s campaign activities at the levels of constituencies and wards; and AAP’s unique model of local and democratic governance with a hint of Gandhi’s vision of ‘Swaraj’ or ‘Self-rule’.

Several of the mainstream media conducted opinion polls predict 7-10 seats for AAP.  Surveys by AAP and its various supporters project 25-50 seats. 

Whatever be the actual seats that AAP eventually wins, one thing is clear – it is in the process of triggering a change.  This change is both an education in and an unleashing of a latent societal-political potential of the people of Delhi, and by some extension, the Indian society.  Only time will tell whether this change will sustain or not.  But a lot of hope has been infused among the people.  Let us briefly look at some aspects of the awareness generated and the change that is visible in Delhi.

A sense of political empowerment
Most importantly, many citizens – both in urban and rural Delhi – are experiencing a feeling that ordinary individuals like them have created AAP, highlighted the common problems of their daily lives, and this time they can make a difference to the election result by voting as well as canvassing.  There is a sentiment that a positive alternative has emerged from a group of ordinary but strong principled persons.  The realization that such an alternative can actually be created and that its electoral success can be influenced by our participation in the election process, has inculcated a sense of political empowerment amongst us, the common citizens. 

Several factors have reinforced this realization – Arvind Kejriwal’s next-door-man image; AAP selecting local candidates through a participatory process; drawing up of constituency manifestoes through feedbacks from local residents; AAP candidates mingling freely with the people; and the volunteers – coming forth spontaneously from each area – doing intensive and persistent canvassing from door to door, street to street, marketplace to marketplace.  All this has had an infectious effect on a lot of citizens.

The power of voluntary spirit and grassroots organizing
Since the days of Anna’s Lokpal movement, followed by Arvind and team’s decision to enter electoral politics, many committed people have been voluntarily giving regular time and hard work almost on a daily basis.  This number has only swelled in the recent months.  Current mix of volunteers in every area of Delhi is diverse, comprising urban middle class working persons, housewives, students, and those with semi-urban and even rural backgrounds.  Although there might be unstructured organizing at the grassroots and a few cases of ego-conflicts and individuals motivated by vested ambition, the selfless desire to contribute to the process of positive societal change pervading in the majority of AAP volunteers has overridden all minor hassles and given a cumulative momentum to the movement.  Every committed volunteer has reinforced other volunteers; every group of volunteers in an area has lent strength to such groups in other areas.

Underneath the chaos of bottom-up volunteering is a foundation of decentralized organizing strategy 
Even before AAP got registered as a political party, every committed volunteer was assigned a local area – typically a ward or an even smaller unit within a constituency – and entrusted with the tasks of contacting every family, identifying a coordinator among every set of ten families, and meeting them to discuss local issues on a regular basis.  For instance, a middle-class housewife from urban Dwarka has been visiting a low-income semi-urban colony every day since the past sixteen months.  Besides giving time, she has been bearing her daily expenses like commuting.  There are many like her.  And none of them is a paid member.  As another example, the orientation program held on 29th November for 65 AAP volunteers who are its in-charges of the polling stations in Matiala was a well organized three-hour event in which the constituency’s campaign manager and other senior members explained the Election Commission’s guidelines and patiently responded to the station in-charges’ queries.  The station in-charges in turn held separate meetings with their polling booth agents at mutual convenience.

All these meetings were fully coordinated locally with no representation but only loose guidance from Delhi’s central coordinating team.  As expected, all polling station in-charges and booth agents of AAP in a constituency are volunteer citizens from the same area, and most of them are going to perform this duty for the first time.  In contrast, many of the station in-charges and booth agents of Congress and BJP are hired by cash or kind payments.

Clarity on what matters for the people and what to expect from the government
Before deciding the manifesto, AAP held meetings with local volunteers and in wards in every constituency to solicit inputs from citizens about pressing local problems and needs.  This process had imperfections as it was carried out under severe time constraint, but it yielded initial lists of issues for inclusion in the constituency specific manifestoes.  More crucially, the issues highlighted in the manifestoes, together with the down-to-earth approach of canvassing by AAP volunteers, have resonated well with the local citizens.  Besides clean governance promise of AAP, the citizens could hear the promises to resolve a list of civic problems which they have been facing hopelessly for a long time.  For instance, the citizens of Delhi have been promised free water supply up to 700 liters per house, cheaper electricity and improved government schools, and the residents of Matiala have been additionally assured a government hospital and resolution of their particular problems like legalization of self-drawn residential flats in certain societies.  These are essential services which a government is expected to provide to its citizens at affordable cost and good quality, without which the majority of people are forced to bear the brunt of private service providers.  The private services are affordable only for a few and expensive for most of the citizens or simply inaccessible for some.  Further, AAP has propagated that after getting elected to power it will hold meetings with residents in every area to seek suggestions, and will go largely by those, on how to spend area level budgets every year. 

This decentralized, people-centric approach of AAP stands in stark contrast to the centralized, top-down and unilateral imposition based approach of the Congress, BJP and other mainstream parties.  AAP’s emphasis on the need for essential services and decentralized governance has explicitly undermined the ills of both the governance approach and the issues highlighted by the mainstream parties.  While the Congress may be talking about some of the similar issues of the people, like food security, land acquisition and employment, its utter corruption, inefficiency in implementing promises, and feudal-dynastic governance style have severely damaged its credibility.  The BJP has probably been worse, with its inherently communal outlook in addition to Congress-like corruption and centralized governance approach, not to speak of the overtly autocratic governing style of its PM candidate.  A significant contribution of AAP is that it is making people look at the possibility of a far better and liberating alternative to the Congress rather than cling in desperation to an equally bad or worse alternative.

The vision of localized, democratic governance
The decentralized and democratic governance approach which AAP is advocating has elements of Gandhi’s idea of ‘Swaraj’.  In this approach, citizens at every local granular level will participate and have a strong say in the decision-making process about the issues which concern them.  For example, AAP has proposed to divide Delhi into about 2700 mohallas which will form the granular governing units.  Only the decisions approved by the people at the level of mohallas will be eligible for acceptance at the higher levels.  This is bottom-up, people-driven governance.  In other words, democratic process will be followed not just in the event of elections, but also as a routine in the normal periods of governance.  AAP volunteers explain this model during interactions with citizens, and it is received with enthusiasm.

Although AAP has triggered these positive societal-political processes, it remains to be seen if and how long they will sustain.  There are daunting barriers to be overcome by AAP on both external and internal fronts.  Some gaps and imperfections are already visible, which is normal to expect at this early and fast-paced stage.  So far the positive aspects dominate on the whole and are providing the momentum.  We earnestly hope that this will continue to strengthen in the future.

Dr Rahul Pandey, Citizen News Service - CNS
1 December 2013
(Dr Rahul Pandey is a former faculty member of IIT Bombay and IIM Lucknow. His areas of interest include operations research, supply chain management, operations strategy, energy, environment, climate change, biological evolution, physics, sustainable development, economics and industry, and social change)