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WHILE few, barring the ostrich-like Congress optimists, expected the party to do well in the recently concluded state assembly elections in Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, even fewer anticipated the drubbing the electorate handed out to the party leading the coalition at the Centre. Despite being aware of the disillusionment with the UPA-2 – a weak and fractious leadership; anger at continuing inflation, charges of corruption and a stifling of aspirations; the shiftiness at being held to account; and the list goes on – the depth of resentment against a regime that continues to hold the common citizen in contempt did come as a surprise. Even Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan and Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh are unlikely to have expected such a resounding victory.

But nothing epitomizes the shift in public mood more than the verdict in Delhi. The fledgling Aam Aadmi Party not only grabbed an astounding 28 seats in the 70 member assembly, the affable, three times Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit was bested in her own constituency by the ‘upstart’ challenger, Arvind Kejriwal, even as her party slumped to its worst ever showing, retaining a mere eight seats. In the process, the AAP also denied the BJP, notwithstanding a high voltage campaign by its prime ministerial aspirant, Narendra Modi, a chance for a clean four-zero sweep.

The result has left everyone stunned, political actors and analysts alike, possibly even AAP activists and supporters. That a political party, with limited resources, few known faces, a self-conscious eschewing of caste and community identity, suspect organizational abilities, a scrappily pasted together manifesto, and without a cohering ideological frame, can so successfully tap into public rage and disgust, should serve as a wake up call to more established political formations. Its ability to generate and energize a volunteer force, evolve an innovative campaigning style, a creative use of both conventional and social media combined with mass contact programmes, shows that it is possible to unsettle and rewrite the rules of the electoral game. Above all, what went down well with an electorate tired of the shenanigans of a self-serving political class was the claim of being clean and different, a willingness to subject party finances to public scrutiny as also ‘drop’ candidates ‘accused’ of less than wholesome behaviour. In all this, AAP has demonstrated its ‘difference’ and has been justly rewarded.

All this is a matter for hope. And yet, as the dust settles over the glee of having taught an arrogant and impervious political class a much needed lesson, there equally lurks a sense of apprehension. No one, at the moment of writing, is quite clear as to what we are in for. The first response of the AAP leadership in turning down the offer to form government, leading to fear about a hung assembly and fresh elections, is worrying. Even those sceptical of taking the Congress offer of unconditional support at face value, do not quite comprehend the ‘reluctance’ of the AAP to even discuss the possibility of a ‘common minimum programme’. To assert that merely because the party does not have a majority, it has not received a mandate to govern, delegitimizes the very idea of a coalition government.

Even more distressing is the announcement of a series of prior conditions, some of which no state party can honestly sign up to, to even consider negotiations. But nothing disturbs more than the streak of moral righteousness, accompanied by a somewhat vicious denunciation of all other parties. Note that the focus is on the ‘morally suspect’ nature of other parties, not their agendas or specific policy positions. No matter how ‘accommodating’ one may be to the AAP political project of ‘cleansing Indian politics’, the setting up of impossible to meet prior conditions comes across as a strategy to evade being put into a position of responsibility and lay the blame for a political impasse on the ‘others’.

The AAP has demonstrated its ability as a party of protest. It now needs to equally demonstrate that it can mutate from a single issue pressure group (Jan Lokpal) and mature into a responsible political force. Castigating and accusing everyone else, not just political parties but also the administration, of suspect integrity may (as was done in this case) yield electoral dividends, it also damages our institutional apparatus. The AAP would do well to remember that this is not the first time that an angry electorate has coalesced around a fresh entrant and punished incumbents. The Janata Party in 1977, the Asom Gana Parishad in 1985 after the anti-foreigner agitation, the V.P. Singh-led Janata Dal in 1989 – to name a few – all rode to power on public anger and disgust. They also dissipated equally rapidly. And worse, despite noble aims, left our polity weaker. There is a lot riding on this audacious experiment. Let us hope that, once again, we are not disappointed.

Harsh Sethi