India’s 16th General Election will be the most important that it has held in its 66 years of Independence. It will also be the most dangerous. For Indian politics is in the midst of a gigantic 90-degree turn away from the politics of caste and entitlement, towards the politics of class. If this shift is not managed well, it has the capacity to destroy the democracy of which we have been justifiably proud for the past six decades.
If one were to judge from the spate of opinion polls that have been held in recent weeks, the euphoric statements of media anchors, the surreptitious realignments being made by regional parties, the failure of a Third Front to be born, and the swelling return flow of foreign financial investment, the results of the forthcoming General Election are a foregone conclusion. The BJP and its allies are bound to win; Narendra Modi will most probably be India’s new prime minister; industry-friendly policies will once again be adopted and growth will pick up once more. To say that virtually the entire propertied class of India, not to mention foreign governments and investors, are praying for this to happen would not be much of an exaggeration.
There is only one fly in this ointment. It is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). At present, most people consider AAP to be not much more than a fly, for it has fought elections only for the Delhi Assembly — hardly the typical state or constituency in the country. That may be why the opinion poll published last week by NDTV, the most reliable of the many that have been published so far, has given it only four seats and given the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance 232.
But AAP is not a fly. A more apt description would be a dark horse in a dark room. One senses its presence; one suspects it may be larger than it seems, but since one cannot actually see it, one does not know how large it is or how fast it is growing.
As of this moment, we can only guess where AAP is going, because AAP itself is still feeling its way ahead in the new, and alien, territory of electoral politics. But small or large, it has already shifted the arena of political contestation, and begun to redraw the conflict lines in Indian democratic politics. The most radical change it has wrought is to introduce class conflict explicitly into Indian politics. Closely related to this is its decision to forego traditional appeals based on caste, creed and ethnicity, and base its own appeal solely upon issues of governance.
AAP’s manifesto for Delhi fully reflected both departures. “AAP will make no promises to you. Instead it will ask you to make a promise. This time you will not cast your vote on the basis of kinship. You will forget caste; you will drive away the distributors of alcohol and money.” It listed 35 areas in which reform was urgently needed and spelt out 201 specific reforms. But it warned the people that they would achieve very little if they did not participate in all aspects of its implementation and monitoring. Its final paragraphs were: “AAP has not come to ask you for your vote. If there is anything we ask of you, it is to have faith in yourselves; and to listen to the voice of your soul. This election is not about the victory or defeat of political parties; it is about victory or defeat within ourselves. In front of the voting machine, we must think of the future of our children, the future of our city and our dreams for the future of our country.” This is not the language that voters have been accustomed to.
In the 90 days since the Delhi Assembly election, Kejriwal’s political credo has evolved. Initially it did not contain an explicit element of class. His attack was on corruption, crony capitalism and a clientelist democratic system — evils that the professional middle class is every bit as opposed to as the poor. But in Delhi, he found that the response to his party had come overwhelmingly from the white-collar and working classes. A study of voting in the slum colonies of the city showed that all but two had voted overwhelmingly for AAP. What is more, most of this vote had come in the last two hours of voting — the time when the working class usually votes. As a result, his statements and actions have become explicitly geared to mobilising the ‘have-nots’ — those who have either not benefited from the acceleration of growth in the past two decades, or have become its victims through a loss of land, income, status or security.
Kejriwal’s 49-day experiment with government in Delhi is widely regarded as a mistake that has cost him credibility among his own supporters, not to mention the wider electorate. At the India Today conclave on 7 March, former Delhi Police chief Neeraj Kumar read out an SMS that jeered at Kejriwal savagely for having “run away” from the challenge of running a government. But, in retrospect, it is beginning to look like a brilliantly calculated move designed to expose the sham that democracy has become, by showing how readily all political parties sank their differences and joined hands to repel boarders the moment they sensed a threat to their monopoly of power. He seems to have succeeded because an instant (and no doubt wildly inaccurate) opinion poll carried out by a TV channel within hours of his submitting his resignation showed that if an Assembly polls had been held then, 67 percent of the respondents would have voted for AAP.
In the weeks since he resigned as Delhi’s chief minister, Kejriwal’s assault on the crony capitalist State has become more focussed. He has simplified his message by rolling the Congress, the BJP and big business into one easily recognisable bundle. And he has personalised this bundle by giving it a set of names — Narendra Modi, Mukesh Ambani, Gautam Adani. While intellectuals may disapprove of this facile and overtly populist stratagem, its impact on the ordinary public cannot be wished away. Kejriwal is building his party and (one hopes) his alternative model for democracy, upon the pent-up anger of three generations of Indians who have been preyed upon mercilessly by a corrupt and criminalised State. The Delhi election showed them that they did not have to suffer its depredations helplessly. Today, they need symbols to attach their hatred to.
How far Kejriwal will succeed in mobilising the have-nots of Indian society remains the biggest enigma of this election. AAP has fought an election in only one small and atypical state so far. From its runaway success we can deduce that it has the capacity to mobilise a substantial chunk of the urban blue-collar, white-collar and professional vote in every large city. But logic can take us only that far. Beyond that we are in the land of intuition, where one person’s guess is as good as another’s.
But in his bid to polarise politics around class, Kejriwal has other allies, of whose existence he is only dimly aware. The best of them is the Congress party. In the past four years, the UPA government has gratuitously destroyed India’s growth by relentlessly raising interest rates in a futile but pig-headed bid to stop inflation. As a result, industrial growth has all but stopped for the past two-and-a-half years. Virtually the entire propertied class is, therefore, living in mortal fear of bankruptcy and is flocking to the banner of Narendra Modi.
Barring a handful of exceptions, the members of this class are not against the reforms that Kejriwal is pushing. For, if anything, they have suffered even more at the hands of the predatory State than the poor. But in the past four years, they have seen the collapse of India’s dazzling growth; they have seen orders shrink, sales slow down, inventories pile up and the cost of maintaining them rise relentlessly as the Reserve Bank of India has pushed interest rates ever higher. They have seen the rupee crash, industry stall, small companies close down by the tens of thousands, and the golden future for their children, they had taken for granted until just the other day, disappear in smoke. Today, they are flocking to Modi because he has a proven track record of being industry-friendly, and because the BJP still contains former ministers who steered the country out of its previous recession (1997-2002) and know how to do so again.
To them, and to the 10 million or so young people who have entered the labour market every year for the past four, and found that there are no jobs to be had, Modi is a saviour. Anything that jeopardises his ascension to power becomes a direct threat to them. This is the other half of the rapid polarisation between haves and have-nots that is making the forthcoming election unlike any other that we have held in the past 65 years.
This polarisation is already well advanced. In last December’s Assembly elections, the BJP’s vote rose by 9 percent in Madhya Pradesh, but the Congress’ vote also increased by 6 percent. The rise took place at the expense of third parties and independents who lost three quarters of their share of the vote. In Rajasthan, 8 of the BJP’s 12 percent increase in vote came at the expense of third parties, and only 4 percent from the Congress. In Chhattisgarh, too, both parties increased their share of the vote at the expense of local parties and aspirants.
But the eruption of AAP is speeding it up. For the Delhi election showed that where there is an alternative to both the Congress and the BJP, the have-nots will prefer to vote for it. Should this happen, the next election will not yield a stable government, confidence in India’s future will crash once more, foreign exchange will rush out, and the rupee will tumble to depths never dreamed of before.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that today, as Kejriwal prepares to take on Modi in Varanasi, the possibility that AAP will cut severely into the ‘Modi wave’ has begun to force heads of Indian and foreign banks and corporations to rethink their options. In the coming weeks, this uncertainty will percolate into India’s middle bourgeoisie and speed up its rush to the security offered by Modi.
There can be little doubt that the BJP under Modi will be able to revive India’s growth. But it is equally certain that he will give short shrift to the dream of accountability and equity that AAP has awakened in the vast urban and rural masses. In the weeks that follow the disappointment of defeat and the loss of hope will percolate from the large to the small towns, and from there into the villages. Modi’s blatant disregard for Muslim sensibilities will further alienate large sections of that community.
In the coming years, therefore, three powerfully explosive forces that are separate and still largely dormant today will coalesce to create a more dangerous confrontation than any India has known. There are the Maoists, the disaffected urban working class, and the Muslim underclass. The further this polarisation progresses, the less space will it leave for democracy to function. For democracy needs a middle space of uncommitted voters who can bring about changes of policy and government by shifting their vote from one party or coalition to another. The guardians of this middle space are the members of civil society, and the flagbearers of civil society are the media.
Today, the extent to which the collapse of economic growth and the acute insecurity it has created in the propertied classes has erased this middle space and endangered civil society can be gauged by the openness with which the media — the electronic media in particular — is backing Modi. This is why Kejriwal’s attacks on the media and its links with Mukesh Ambani have created no sense of outrage, except in the media itself.
Had the emerging polarisation been even-handed — had the new Left that is being born had a clearly articulated programme that addressed the well-grounded fears of the haves as well as the have-nots — the forthcoming election would have seen the birth of a new, deeper, and more responsive phase of Indian democracy. But today, of the regional parties that could have created this Third Front against the BJP’s Goliath, we have only AAP’s David. And, however welcome Kejriwal’s call for honesty and accountability may be, his party is in no position to offer, on its own, the alternative that India’s large, endangered middle class so desperately needs.
Only a Third Front, which is prepared to make common cause with Kejriwal, and simultaneously reassure the middle class that it will get the economy moving again, can halt the rush to Modi that has begun today. But the formation of such a front requires the perception of a common threat. And, as the bickering over seat allocation among its potential allies has already shown, the putative members of such a front have no inkling of the storm that lies ahead.