Party for the People?: The politics of the world’s largest democracy are changing

September 9, 2014 • Glimpses, Print • Views: 1040

By Kartik Srivastava

Sudeep Das, an office clerk migrated to New Delhi from Odisha, a coastal state in the east, seven years ago. There are hundreds of thousands of people like him, who have come to Delhi from states across India. He voted for the first time in elections for Delhi’s Legislative Assembly two months ago. Das works for an honest living and lives a modest life, but he may also be helping to write his country’s political future.

The demographics of Delhi are changing, and the city’s politics are changing as well. The Census of India reported that there has been an average migrant inflow of 80,000 people to New Delhi over the last five years. Gradually, these people settle in the city for better work opportunities. As the land area and resources of cities like Delhi are limited, settlement areas arise in every major city filled largely with migrant workers.

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An AAP rally in India. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

A McKinsey India report in 2010 stated that India’s cities are grossly unprepared for this wave of urban migration. They estimate that over the course of the next ten to fifteen years, 590 million Indian people would be living in cities. Policymakers have overlooked the existence of this massive demographic base. Out of the current migrant population, more than 60 percent work as laborers and small businessmen. Living in the often extravagant setting of New Delhi with limited incomes and relatively basic needs, these people bring with them their own ideas of governance and policies, and vote accordingly.

Indian politics has never been strictly bipartisan, but out of the 67 years since Indian independence, two major parties, the Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have held office for 44. Additionally, voters in rural and urban constituencies have differing expectations from their ministers. Ministers kindle this fire with campaigns that are studded with extravagant speeches and theatrical elements. But at the core of general elections in rural India, where 65 percent of the country resides, lies the art of delivering hefty promises; a somewhat fractured barter system between the masses and their ministers. The electorate seems to stay in the rela- tionship, year after year, mainly because of a lack of better options.As recently as last year, however, the Indian voters were handed an alternative. When elections for the Legislative Assembly occurred in the national capital New Delhi, the voters could choose a third party.

The Aam Aadmi Party (or Common Man Party. Their party symbol is a broom and their acronym AAP phonetically transliterates to the Hindi word for ‘you’) was born out of an anti-corruption movement. Three years ago, the nation saw ubiquitous protests against corruption in government, political parties, and among bureaucrats. This led to an effervescence of a long curbed emotion of angst in the general Indian population that, in the eyes of many, was sick and tired of graft. A group of activists vied with the parliament to bring about a specific piece of legislation with ambitious but debatable clauses. Gradually, the anti-graft movement was put on a parallel track when some of the activists decided to join politics to effect more direct change. The pilot program for this change was to be tested in the Delhi assembly elections—New Delhi, the urban, modern epicenter of the protests and now the stage for a big surprise.

Less than a year later, the party sits at the helm of affairs in the national capital. Even as the nation is digesting what just happened in New Delhi, this fairy tale victory is attracting a lot of interest academically. To begin with, during the campaign, a welfare-politics model was adopted to complement the anti-corrup- tion drive. AAP offered a 50 percent reduction of power prices and essentially free water to a bracket of households that used less than 700 liters a day—the “common men.” AAP also looked to migrants living in Delhi for support. It was as if the ghost of Indian rural barter politics had finally made the jump to the cities. With the promise of a corruption-free government as the base, several arguably populist but perhaps impractical cherries were added to AAP’s cake. And the urban population bought the idea, forgetting the not-so-popular flipside: for instance that the water reforms are being administered by a body that now sits on a debt of $5.7 billion, while it is being overhauled by the state government to address corruption. The essence of this success hinges on an apparent shift in urban politics, which is moving towards a level of discussion that is being called both rudimentary and fundamental—by different groups of people.

“For once I am looking forward to the electricity bill,” Das told me with hope. “This country is changing.”

These political changes are aimed at handing the people of India more power to choose and power to decide, but whether the people of this nation undergoing rapid demographic changes know what they want remains uncertain.

Kartik Srivastava ’17 is a Mechanical Engineering and Economics major in Trumbull College. He can be reached at kartik.srivastava@yale.edu.

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