Saturday, March 7, 2015

AAP as a Start-up and the New 'App' by Anand Teltumbde

AAP as a Start-up and the New 'App'

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The Aam Aadmi Party is quite like a technology start-up that gives established giants a run for their money with its agile business model, nimbleness and ability to innovate. Will it create the new 'App', the new democratic paradigm that people are longing for?

Anand Teltumbde ( is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

Rights, Mumbai. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) created an electoral history bagging 95.7% of the total number of seats and 54.3% of the total number of votes cast in the recent elections for the Delhi Legislative Assembly. This was a record of sorts, exceeded only by three such feats in the past, all in Sikkim, where the Nar Bahadur Bhandari-led Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP), and the incumbent five-time Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling's Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) had both won all 32 seats in one state legislative assembly election each, in 1989 and 2009, respectively, and in 2004 the SDF had won 96.9% of the assembly seats (31 out of 32). Though these records are important as history, the victory of AAP is unique in many ways. First, no party in India has ever won such elections on a plank solely composed of the promise of clean governance, transparency and accountability. Second, better or comparable electoral performances have all come from regional parties on regional issues; none of these parties took on a mainstream ruling party and threatened the mode of established politics.

The context in which AAP's feat has come about, indeed, makes it unique in many other respects. This context is of the virtual ashwamedh launched by the Modi–Shah combine after the last general elections, all over the country, netting them a series of electoral victories, and making them appear invincible. The resultant arrogance induced by each successive win bared their fascist fangs, creating a nightmare for all democracy-loving people. The scary dictum that fascists come to power through elections but cannot be dislodged through them began appearing frighteningly real. It is in this terrible context that the historic victory of AAP becomes uniquely important.

It is natural that AAP's success was widely celebrated by the vast majority of people. After all, the much flaunted victory of the BJP winning 52% of the total number of seats in the 2014 general elections was with a mere 31% of the votes cast; the least any party winning a majority in the Lok Sabha ever got. It meant that 69% of those who voted in that election, who did not vote for the BJP, would have a reason to celebrate AAP's win. The euphoria created by AAP's victory, however, should not blind us to the need for an objective understanding of this win — the positive as well as the negative aspects — so that the gains are not easily frittered away.

BJP's Loss, Modi's Defeat

The Delhi assembly elections might have begun as a routine poll, but it turned out to be a referendum on Modi's rule. BJP had staked its entire strategic prowess in ensuring that it captures Delhi. It is a different matter that in process it went on committing one blunder after another. Riding on the rising Modi wave just after its victory in the general elections in May 2014, when AAP had not yet recovered from the anger in people's minds and was in complete disarray after a spate of blunders it had committed — prematurely resigning from the government on the issue of Jan Lokpal, foolishly contesting the Lok Sabha elections all over the country without any organisational or resource support, Arvind Kejriwal's imprudent bravado in taking Modi head on in Varanasi — the BJP-led government at the centre could have manoeuvred so that the Delhi elections were held soon thereafter, for then the BJP would have had a better chance of winning. But Amit Shah's presumptuousness and Modi's narcissism led the duo to believe that they would easily dazzle Delhi's voters as Modi's record of performance came to be widely disseminated. The winning of successive elections in Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, and Maharashtra, although with a declining vote share compared to that in the Lok Sabha elections, had gone to their heads and they imagined they were invincible. All this was singularly based on the charisma of the "superstar," Modi.

After the announcement of the date of elections, the BJP unleashed its well-oiled propaganda machinery, backed by thousands of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres. As signals from the ground began to trickle in, some stalwarts of Modi's cabinet were marshalled to micromanage the elections. Eventually, the great warrior himself descended on Delhi in his fiercest avatar to crush that small fry, Kejriwal. As though to stress his ashwamedh run, Modi thundered, "Jo desh ka mood hai, wahi Dilli ka mood hai," not having the slightest inkling that this claim could boomerang on him. The strategic arsenal of the BJP comprising Modi, money, mudslinging and "majoritarianism" could not break ice with Delhi's voters who handed the party a crushing defeat, giving it just a paltry three seats in a house of 70, this, the result of a 95% drop from the 60 assembly segments it won in the Lok Sabha elections, and a fall of 13 percentage points in its vote share.

While many things were tried, including bringing in Kiran Bedi as the party's chief ministerial candidate, she only added to the mounting disaster with her stupidity, to an extent, camouflaging the (dis)credit, for Modi unmistakably stayed as the totem of BJP campaign in Delhi. Even as there are many strands to the victory of AAP, the strongest undoubtedly was the disapproval of the eight-month Modi rule at the centre. It was punishment for posturing in favour of the poor but serving the corporate sector, even resorting to such questionable means as ordinances. It was punishing Modi for his complicity-by-silence with the book burners, film vandals and religious hate-mongers that had a free run after he came to power.

A Neo-liberal Start-up

What is behind the astounding success of AAP? Even in its debut in the 2013 Delhi assembly elections, the party had stunned many political pundits by emerging as the largest legislative party and forming the government with unasked-for-support from the Congress. AAP did not do badly in its conduct. The media and the middle classes failed to comprehend many of its acts but they caught the fancy of ordinary people. While the former denounced Kejriwal's agitational conduct against the police as anarchist, for ordinary people this was a cherished sight to see a chief minister sleeping on the road, daring the biting cold of Delhi while agitating against the police, for them, the most demonic face of the state. The party's conduct was quite consistent with the disruptive idea it represented as a political start-up. But soon it squandered all the goodwill by abruptly resigning from the government, ostensibly pitching its sights on South Block. It was a serious miscalculation to take on the well-entrenched players in the political market. The party came out badly bruised so much so that many pundits discounted its capacity to recoup. But with the exemplary agility of a start-up, it reorganised itself, plainly apologised to its "customers" for its follies, keenly listened to them and tweaked its offering so as to re-resonate with them. It was, of course, aided by the increasing resentment against the misrule of Modi and the monkey tricks of his minions.

Indeed, AAP is a start-up quite like a technology start-up that gives established giants a run for their money with its agile business model, nimbleness and ability to innovate. The self-confident neo-liberal generation in our metros, believing in India's infinite prowess to be a superpower, which they thought was shackled only by the outmoded, corrupt and incompetent politicians, longed for some such thing to happen. They thus enthusiastically jumped into the agitation for ridding the country of corruption through the institution of Jan Lokpal, launched with the help of a mascot, Anna Hazare, a small-time moralist freak. With this successful test marketing, AAP was launched as an anti-politics political enterprise. It instantly became a hit with all the idealists sans ideology. Discarding ideological baggage in favour of new ideas that work may be good in these post-ideological times but there is the risk of slipping into the old ditch. After all, beyond feigning ideo­logies, none of the old political players too had any ideology; what worked have always been some proverbial freebies and majoritarian appeals. Unfortunately AAP does not appear averse to them.

The biggest challenge before a start-up is to scale up or be gobbled up by the big fish. Remember what Microsoft did to Netscape. In the absence of practical ideas about how to scale up, start-ups only end up swelling the coffers of venture capitalists and promoters.

In its manifesto, AAP has promised a 70-point action plan for Delhi, supposedly drawn up in consultation with the people. Many of them entail huge outlays besides political manoeuvres with potential adversaries at the centre as well as in Delhi. As one economist (Ashok Lahiri in India Today, 23 February 2015) conservatively indicated, the required financial outlay is Rs 69,000 crore over five years, or Rs 13,800 crore per year, or a third of Delhi's budget, half of which goes towards salaries and maintenance. The resource gap is too daunting to be belittled. No doubt, AAP would not leave any stone unturned in implementing the plan simply because it knows it cannot fail this time. But it is equally true that BJP is not going to let the laurels come to AAP so easily without squeezing unsavoury compromises. How this dynamics will play out remains to be seen. These ameliorative steps may be necessary but they are qualitatively the same as the parties of yore have been doing all the time. Surely, this is not the way to scale up.

The most doable idea to scale up without AAP losing its brand equity would be to create a new democratic paradigm for the people. Some of the ideas such as eradication of VIP culture and decentralisation of power to mohalla committees have already been on AAP's agenda. They only need to be stretched beyond neo-liberal pragmatism to their radical essence. The essence of democracy lies in negation of differential valorisation of people, be it president or prime minister or anyone else. Their lives are no more important than that of a scavenger or a village schoolteacher. Another and perhaps the most inimical thing to democracy is the personality cult, which is the source of all undemocratic conventions and customs. AAP should be on guard against the cult being built around Kejriwal. It is said that like China's Deng Xiaoping, he too is not interested in knowing the colour of cats, whether they are black or white, so long as they catch mice. Good or bad, he may be aptly reminded that the biggest plus about Deng was that he did not let any cult develop around himself. He let Mao remain a cult figure while reversing whatever he did.

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