The aam aadmi verdict

Written by Kailash K.K. | Updated: Dec 9 2013, 22:15pm hrs
The highlight of the current round of state elections is, without doubt, the extraordinary showing of the Aam Aadmi Party. Its main competition in Delhi, the Congress and the BJP, may regret with the advantage of hindsight not taking the new challenger seriously. The party, launched just around a year ago, has today become the main opposition party in the Delhi assembly. It has not only become the focal point of much discussion but has also taken away some of the sheen from the BJP.

Its beginning in November 2012 was rather shaky. The break with Anna Hazare, the face of the popular movement against corruption, must have been difficult. The need for a party arose from the belief that the existing system favoured the status quo and the entrenched participants did not want radical change. The AAP decided that it would be the change it wanted to see. It quickly went about doing things differently, right from designing its organisational structure to putting forward its programme of action. It also had an internal code of conduct, as well as a statement of how it was different from other political parties.

The AAP hit the ground running and began its campaign almost immediately. The Delhi gangrape case, it must be mentioned, helped it sustain its momentum and also move away from the shadow of Hazare. Arvind Kejriwals much-publicised fast against inflated electricity bills in March this year pushed it into campaign mode. In terms of organising for elections, the party distinguished itself from others in three ways: an open and transparent system of candidate selection, fund collection and manifesto preparation. The rest, as they say, is history.

However, the AAPs success must be put in perspective. The odds that it would fail were much higher than the chances that it would succeed. We know that entry barriers for new parties in systems that use the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system are high. Studies of electoral rules have shown that there is a double negative at work, in terms of both low incentives and high costs. While it may be relatively easy to win a seat or two and this might explain why we see a large number of independent candidates in the fray coordinated wins by a new party over a large number of constituencies are extremely difficult. First, there is the psychological barrier. It is hard to create mass sentiment regarding the possibility of a new party succeeding. Most voters would consider whether their preferred choice was viable, and would rather not waste their votes. Consequently, they would vote strategically, assuming that their favoured choice may not come to power and therefore, the advantage to the established parties is phenomenally high.

From studies elsewhere, we also know that media coverage can make or break parties. Many new parties often do not find space and simply fizzle out. The AAP appears to have managed the media very well. It helped that it had several known personalities within the party. The costs of running an effective campaign, as well as finding party workers, are supposed to be another deterrent. From autorickshaw advertisements to social media campaigns, the AAP got it right. But most important was the fact that it had a dedicated set of volunteers, most of whom were first-time participants in politics. The AAPs internal surveys must have not only played an important role in keeping the morale of its volunteers high but also in breaking the psychological barrier mentioned earlier.

While the entry of parties may be difficult in an FPTP system, ideas put forward by new entrants can always be adopted, adapted and incorporated by existing competitors, thereby removing any novelty. The BJPs tactics in Delhi highlighted how it moved from ignoring the AAP to gradually adopting some of its issues, concerns and strategies. The high entry barriers may also explain why it will be difficult for the AAP to spread across the country. Replicating this model across India would be a stupendous task.

The AAPs success must not be judged on whether it has formed a government, but simply by how its participation has challenged established models of electoral politics. It has shown that new ideas can be introduced and electoral politics can be conducted differently. Its leader took on a three-time chief minister and thus underscored the seriousness of the task at hand. Most importantly, it has shown that money is not everything. What is more important is the message, as well as genuine and committed volunteers. The success of the AAP has shown that established parties, if unchallenged, can act as cartels and even begin to take their support bases for granted. The AAP has shaken up the BJPs moribund state unit in Delhi and given the Congress a lot to think about.

The AAP is probably in an unprecedented position for a new party. Many new parties at the state level have either gone on to form the government or been wiped out. The AAP has, on debut, probably become the main opposition party. This is a challenge and may suit the AAP and its mode of functioning. At the same time, it also gives it an opportunity to learn and transform itself from a party of the ground to a party of office.

The writer is with the department of political science, University of Hyderabad.