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India’s Arab Spring in Winter 2014

When Delhi state’s November elections brought the new anticorruption Aam Admi Party to power, calculations about India’s upcoming national elections were upset, and a previously narrow field suddenly widened.

via Shutterstock )" width="637" height="637" />(Photo via Shutterstock)

When Delhi state’s November elections brought the new anticorruption Aam Admi Party to power, calculations about India’s upcoming national elections were upset, and a previously narrow field suddenly widened.

“But if by a ‘strong prime minister’ you mean that you preside over a mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad, [and] that is the measure of strength, I do not believe that sort of strength this country needs, least of all in its prime minister.”

That was India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on January 3, heralding a very combative 2014 for the political Indian. For the nonpolitical Indian, it was nonetheless an ominous portent. The prime minister was warning against right-wing ascension, evoking visions of earlier holocausts, telling India, it does not need a “Third Reich approval,” does not need electoral legality that may place someone who “preside(d) over a mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad” in the position of India’s prime minister.

Chilling words when the New Year has brought India a fresh breath of air even as much of the world freezes. New Year news is that there will be general elections by April to vote out what is being dubbed by the media as an “inefficient” government, headed by Singh, or to give it another term; to bring to power Narendra Modi – alleged to have presided over a religion-selective pogrom – as India’s next prime minister; or to escalate a name that has so far not been discussed to the post.

Garam Hava is an often-used phrase in India. It means hot winds. There is a very acclaimed Hindi film by this name that depicts the plight of the North Indian Muslim who migrated to independent India from British India’s west in 1947, when the country was partitioned into Pakistan and India. However, it is not in the context of any particular community that it is being used these days, it is in the context of the political ambiance in the country that may steer a younger generation of leaders to power in the summer of 2014, or might bring the right-wing to power, or may even create an electoral impasse that makes government formation difficult.

It all began with the state elections in November 2013 – especially the elections for the union territory of Delhi, the state in which the Government of India is based and from which it operates. Why have the Delhi polls been so important for the entire country? The legislative assembly here has only 70, and for the past 15 years, the Indian National Congress (INC) party has ruled this territory. The same Congress party has been in power in the country since 2004, and this made federal administration convenient. It is in this tiny state of Delhi that political change was ushered in by a less-than-one-year-old party, the Aam Admi Party (AAP), which calls itself the common man’s party. By using the words ‘aam admi’ in its name, it, of course, not only hijacked a popular Congress party slogan, it also sent out the message that it is a party of clean common men, not a party of the corrupt politicians the AAP accuses the two major political parties in the country of harboring.

While the Congress Party won just eight seats in the Delhi polls, the right-wing opposition the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 39 seats. However, that did not give it an absolute majority to be able to form government. Not a single elected member of the legislative assembly was ready to cross floors, unlike in earlier decades. In full media glare, it was not possible to buy any member, unlike in earlier times. The BJP said it would not form government unless it won one more seat in a re-election. It did not mind re-election or even president’s rule until the April General elections, when a simultaneous re-polling for Delhi could be held. Minority governments have been formed in the past, with outside support. But this was a unique kind of impasse. The antagonist Congress would never support the BJP.

When the AAP fought the Delhi elections, it said it would ally neither with the BJP nor with the Congress Party. Having said that, and having won 28 seats with neither pelf nor power, just trusting the citizens of Delhi to come out and vote for its candidates on a cold winter day, there was no way it could support the BJP. So Delhi did not have a government for more than a month. All eyes were on Delhi. It is not only India’s heart, it is a test case for all functioning democracies. It is a miniature of politics that can go right (I wouldn’t say wrong) in a larger canvass, if people want it. Like the Arab Spring, it was a people-inspired power. Unlike the middle eastern revolution, it has so far been completely nonviolent, befitting Mahatma Gandhi’s land.

Eight seats meant a clear rejection of the Congress. So, finally, it was the 48-year-old AAP leader, Arvind Kejriwal, who took office as Delhi’s chief minister on December 29, as 2013 came to an end. Without any parade, pomp or security paraphernalia, his swearing-in took place in an open ground used generally to stage mythological shows. People just trooped in as they do to watch the popular Ramlila (a drama). With 28 seats, AAP in no way has a majority, but it has formed a government in Delhi, perhaps a first in the traditional rules “democracy” follows. The party passed a mandatory floor test on January 2. The eight Congress members supported it, but in no way would even that bring the AAP to the magic majority number. Several other legislators obviously supported it, and these were independent and small party members who had previously sided with the BJP. Having won the confidence motion, Kejriwal, the AAP’s chief architect, announced the APP would fight the April general elections on an anti-corruption plank.

The very next day, on January 3, two-time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held a press conference. Hoping that the Congress Party and its allies (the United Progressive Alliance or UPA) would again form the government in 2014, he said, he would not be the prime minister of India again. Having been a quiet and gentlemanly prime minister, this liberal economist has faced all the flak for the economic slowdown India has seen in the last decade; he has also been seen as ‘inept’, a leader unable to control the crony capitalism and rampant corruption that every sector suffers fromin India today. It is corruption that has fogged all developmental perceptions about the ruling UPA federal government, resulting in the drubbing the ruling party got in the Delhi polls.

Listing his priorities, the AAP’s Kejriwal has said, “Facilities like education, roads, sanitation and service delivery are bad because of corruption. We want to clean up the system. If you agree with the common man’s aspirations, vote for us.” His clarion call has been, Swaraj, freedom. Freedom from corruption. Swarajis a word that touches India’s heart strings.It was used in the early 1900s against British imperialism. It is on this anticorruption plank that AAP will fight the general election. Kejriwal has said, “anyone against corruption is a common man.” He already has popular support. From just a Delhi-based party, this week, he has leapfrogged into the national stage. He is the strategist; he is the master puppeteer of a show orchestrated to be one of the world’s largest – 800 million voters peacefully electing a government. The system itself is a huge challenge, but doable. It has been tried and tested for nearly 70 years now. This time, however, there is a catch.

The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s popularity is at its peak. The Delhi elections have shown that nonetheless, the BJP may not be able to form government.

What about the Congress and its UPA? If Manmohan Singh is not prime minister, who will it be? The media reads it as Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi’s son and Jawaharlal Nehru’s great grandson.This 43-year-old Congress party vice-president is said to be the natural choice for the party. Rahul likes to remain low key. His public utterances have so far not cut any ice with the common man. They have only generated controversies that the party did not need at this time. However, if not Rahul, who can be India’s prime minister if the UPA combination somehow manages to stay in power? In the Congress, there are several aspirants, senior party leaders, among them P. Chidambaram, a very eloquent politician who has held home, finance and foreign portfolios with equal aplomb. Senior partners in the Congress coalition, like Sharad Pawar of the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party), are no less ambitious than wait-and watch partners like Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal United. Another name doing the rounds is a technocrat’s, Nandan Nilekeni. The idea Congress perhaps has is that young voters (more than 70 percent Indians are younger than 50) will appreciate a technocrat prime minister. Nilekeni is a former infosys chief and now in charge of the government’s flagship unique identification program for India’s one billion plus people. The most dynamic leader the Congress can throw up is Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi, a spiting image of grandmother Indira Gandhi, one of India’s boldest prime ministers. But one must remember, the AAP has shown elections can be won without backing dynasties.

What if neither the BJP, nor the Congress Party manages a majority? With AAP fighting national elections, will Kejriwal become prime minister? He says no! AAP leader Prashant Bhushan, a diminutive lawyer, or political analyst Yogendra Yadav could be the AAP prime minister. Or AAP could invite someone completely unsuspected to become the prime minister of a government the AAP coalition might set up. Three months is a long time in the life of a nation where euphoria does not last long. Everyone knows that the 2014 elections will be a complicated numbers game young India is embracing. Where and how the major regional parties stand vis-a-vis AAP will be a deciding factor in how politics flows in India this summer. That all this change is happening within the electoral process is a massive plus point, a peaceful transition to a spring of clean politics. The coming months will tell the world how it goes. Change for change’s sake or meaningful change; what will India embrace?