The following article was published in November 2013. Firstpost republished this article on November 15, 2013.
Across the democratic world, seemingly unrelated outcomes of recent elections – the inconclusive October 2013 election in the Czech Republic, the pre-poll popularity (approximately 30%) of the just one-year-old Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in New Delhi, and the difficulties of government-formation in Germany following its September 2013 election – actually have something in common: the exasperation among voters that existing political institutions, especially mainstream political parties, no longer represent the interests of a growing number of people.
Although still a minority in terms of the actual votes they garner in elections, many such voters no longer feel isolated or helpless because new electronic media bring them together with like-minded persons and groups in the digital space. And on the ground they are organising themselves into anti-political parties such as the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) in the Czech Republic, the Five Star Movement in Italy, and the Tea Party Movement in the U.S. These anti-party parties are also coming together in countries as diverse as India and Germany, with the AAP and the Alternative for Germany (AFD), respectively.
As India moves towards general elections in the first half of 2014, the people’s deep and widespread anger with governance failures is playing out in what is being seen as a preview in the five state elections in New Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, and Mizoram.
State and municipal elections used to be an intensely local affair in any democracy, but in this hyper-connected age they no longer occur in a provincial cocoon, as national-level decisions impinge more and more on life outside the metropoles. This is especially the case when information technology and its offspring – social media – have themselves become consequential actors in articulating anxieties, campaigning, and mobilising voters globally and in India.
As in so many other ways, Indian democracy is an outlier compared to its newer counterparts in developing countries, which are transitioning from one-party dictatorships, as seen most recently in the Arab world. But Indians are chafing at the absence of democracy within political parties, most of which are becoming family fiefdoms. This narrowing of the political space has corroded the polity. Combined with the people’s disenchantment with political parties, including with the traditional Left, the resultant vacuum is being filled by anti-“business-as-usual” conglomerations like the AAP in India and elsewhere.
In India, the interplay of converging life experiences and aspirations with the expanding use of new media contributed two years ago to the massive protests against corruption, led by Anna Hazare. Within a year the movement transmuted into a political formation – the AAP – now upending the forthcoming election in New Delhi on a platform to change the way politics is done. The emergence of the AAP was followed by a directive from the Supreme Court to allow voters to register discontent, not just by abstaining from voting but by marking a ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) choice on the ballot paper. This will make it possible to assess what percentage of the electorate feels disenfranchised by the choice of parties and candidates on offer.
Perhaps the anti-party phenomenon is an evolution of the special interest groups of earlier times, such as the suffragette (voting rights for women) movement in the early 20th century, pushing forward a specific concern such as the environment (the Greens in Germany), ethnic rights (the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey), or caste issues (the Bahujan Samaj Party in India).
The big difference is that those groups were protesting from the outside and agitating to obtain a seat at the table and mainstream their sometimes “alternative” agendas. The new protest groups, including the AAP in India, differ from traditional political parties because they do not yet have a cohesive, detailed programme much beyond hostility to the existing political establishment. Beppe Grillo, whose Five Star Movement won 25% seats in Parliament in its first election foray in Italy in 2013, has famously said they want to “smash” this “establishment.”
Most of the new groups have not articulated what kind of governing institutions they want to put in place; they have only spoken of an amorphous “less-government” agenda. For example, the no-taxation Tea Party Movement in the U.S. was willing to shut down the government, and push the U.S. economy back into recession and the global economy into a crisis. In India, the AAP’s agenda to involve the people in decision-making without specifying how or through which institutions, is another example of the “not this kind of government” platform. At some level, it could be an effort to reinvent direct democracy made to seem tantalisingly possible, using the internet to aggregate public opinion.
Most of these groupings have burst on their country’s political scene and gained immediate prominence by tapping into the anxiety generated by a seemingly bleak economic future. Through a canny understanding and use of social media they have energised younger, well-educated, and sometimes marginalised gender, ethnic, and caste groups.
On the one hand, in the ever-exceptional U.S. these outsider groups aggregated towards the sitting president, Barack Obama. On the other, the AFD in Germany, a party of economists, had a one-point agenda of wanting to exit the Euro. Within months of coming together the AFD won just under 5% of the popular vote, failing to be represented in the Bundestag, but enough to eliminate Chancellor Angela Merkel’s traditional coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), which failed to make the cut for the first time since its inception in 1948. Chancellor Merkel has, therefore, been forced into complex, prolonged negotiations with the Social Democrats (SPD) to form a “grand coalition.”
These new formations often make a good start by transparently raising small contributions to finance their non-traditional campaigns. These are based on a combination of social media and door-to-door outreach, much like the Obama campaign in 2009. Or they use the founder’s personal wealth, such as that of businessman Andrej Babis’s ANO in the Czech Republic.
In India’s massively corruption-ridden election finance process, the AAP claims that around half of its supporters make small contributions, and details of all funds raised are available on the party’s website. It also plans to remain within the laughably small Rs. 10 lakhs guideline of the Election Commission for expenses permissible for each Assembly constituency.
If the astonishing voter support of the AFD in Germany, the Five Star in Italy, and the ANO in the Czech Republic is any guide, the Congress and the BJP should worry that unlike earlier straight contests, in New Delhi this year upstart Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP could give them a run for their money. If the AAP wins some seats in the Assembly come December, it could even begin to change the way politics is done, at least in India.
Ambassador Neelam Deo is Director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations and former Ambassador to Denmark and former Joint Secretary for Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh.
This feature was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.
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