Years ago, in my college days, I had read Herman Hesse’s classic novel Siddhartha, which left a deep impression on my young mind. The main protagonist in the story begins by saying: ‘Nothing ever changes. Everything remains the same.’ The novel ends with him doing a 360 degrees turnaround and say: ‘Everything changes. Nothing remains the same.’
That, in essence, captures the mood across India today, particularly in the capital city Delhi, which has created history by almost voting in a rank new entrant in the country’s political landscape. With the results of the assembly elections to four states showing a clear win for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in two states, a scrapethrough in one, and a collapse just before the finishing line in another, it is obvious that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is the hero of the day.
What is absolutely amazing – but truly shocking for the Congress – is that the incumbent party has been totally decimated in the prestigious city-state, after a record three terms. What is more worrying for the ruling party is that this shocker has come after riding on a wave of pro-incumbency in the previous three assembly elections.
Delhi is the seat of power in India – literally the heart of the vast sub-continent. It is the city where mighty empires have risen from its ruins, and fallen back in the ruins as spectacularly as they rose – right from the hoary days of Hindu mythology to early Hindu kingdoms to Mughal rulers, down to the British empire. It is the city that holds the key to the country.
And though losing the capital city does not mean losing the whole country, it is indeed a terrible loss for a party that had mistakenly started believing that the capital city was in its pocket for good. The outgoing chief minister Ms Sheila Dikshit had become the darling of the capital’s populace, after a series of popular infrastructure developments – most notably the Delhi Metro and CNG fuel for vehicles – improved the quality of life for ordinary citizens substantially.
The Congress assumed it had created a recipe for recurring success, and started living under the illusion of invincibility. However, ‘when illusions are gone, you may still exist, but you’ve ceased to live.’ (Mark Twain)
That was the party’s problem. It had buried its head firmly in the sand like an ostrich, refusing to see the reality around it that was changing with every passing day. The turnaround probably began with the Commonwealth Games (CWG) mess in November 2010, and reached its nadir during the Delhi gangrape in December last year.
The shoddy preparation for a world-class event – that had threatened to give Delhi a miss – was a huge wake-up call for the ruling party. Coming as it did in the wake of numerous other scams, the party should have been alerted that something was seriously amiss in its outward rosy projections. But it chose to ignore the warning signs, happy in the belief that nothing can shake its entrenched roots. That was a huge, huge mistake.
I was living in Dubai in 2010 when I read in the local English papers about the doubtfulness of the CWG happening in Delhi. It was a matter of great shame for the patriotic NRIs to explain to cynical ‘outsiders’ that India does manage to get its act together at the last minute – which it did, but at great cost to the international image of the world’s second fastest growing economy.
The rot that had set in the Congress was inevitably going to take it downhill, which the party probably mistook for ‘speed’ and ‘performance’. It so happens that people outside the party can see things in a much clearer perspective than those within. So, it would have been prudent for the Congress to at least listen to sane voices that meant well. It didn’t, and that proved its undoing.
While the Congress has suffered worse reverses in the past and bounced back, the story of the day has been the stupendous success of AAP, which has literally wiped off Congress from the capital city. But how did this drama unravel, and since when had the ball started rolling?
In early 2011, when I had just relocated to India, the Arab Spring was sweeping across the Middle East, while the Indian Spring had only just begun. A fledgling movement called India Against Corruption was gingerly testing the political waters of the country through the youth in university campuses. Anna Hazare, though a force in his Maharashtra village of Ralegan Siddhi, was not so well known across India, barring the educated class.
It fell upon Arvind Kejriwal – himself a little known entity then – to cobble together a group of like-minded people to take the fight for a clean political system to the centrestage. He joined hands with Kiran Bedi – far better known than himself – and eventually got in others like Santosh Hegde, Shanti Bhushan, Manish Sisodia, Shazia Ilmi etc.
The conglomeration was pretty vague in March 2011, except for the fact that they were all tired of the monumental corruption plaguing the country, and earnestly wanted a change. Anna Hazare’s successful campaigns for change in his village and state motivated them to persuade him to work for something bigger on the national stage.
When they stormed university campuses across the country in the spring of 2011, they only wanted the young students (18-21) to vote for change and reject the status quo. What this change was they were not so sure. But within a span of a few months, by summer that year, they had almost made up their minds. It was going to be a bill that allowed for an ombudsman to clean up the system.
The campaign kicked off from there at a very nascent stage, first by working with the established political parties for change. It was a combination of both idealism and naiveté that spurred them on to something bigger. A stonewall of indifference by vested interests pushed them on to the streets.
And once they hit the streets – of the capital to begin with – there was no looking back. The tremendous response they got from ordinary masses wherever they went spurred them on further. At many places, they were completely taken in by surprise at the response they received from all sections of society.
While the battle got bigger, they were criticised by the chattering classes for being anarchist. They were determined to work outside the system to set it right. But though enthused by the tremendous public response, the public opinion – as shaped by the media and intellectuals – always worried them. The goals were still unclear, as their raison d’être itself was being questioned by people who mattered.
On the steam of huge public gatherings, they pulled on till the end of the year, tasting some victories in between. Unfortunately, those gains turned out to be a mirage, and by December the same year, the winter of discontent had already set in, which began to pull apart the fabric of a painstakingly knit anti-establishment movement.
The warts began to appear, and the gulf between the two forces began widening – one that wanted to continue working outside the system, and another that wanted to change the system from within. And thus happened the split between Hazare and Kejriwal. Initially, Kejriwal went rather low-key, stung by allegations of political opportunism.
Then, he began in spurts of guerrilla tactics, unearthing one scam a day. That bout of overzealous activism also fizzled out, and news channels – which made him larger than life – began losing interest in the man. For a long time, he remained confined to the sidelines. It was during such a time that he figured out capturing Delhi was possible, even if difficult.
While he combed the backlanes and alleys of the capital with his broomstick (the jhaadu being his election symbol), he found new and enthusiastic supporters among the common people – and that’s where the name of his party came from.
Many things happened in the interim period between entering the political arena as an independent candidate and forming a political party to contest in the assembly elections from Delhi. All that is of course history now as the AAP celebrates its phenomenal performance in the capital city.
Victor Hugo had said ‘a thousand armies cannot stop an idea whose time has come’. The AAP’s time has truly come. Nelson Mandela, the Mahatma of our times and an icon of change, had said: ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done.’ He had proved to the world that no matter how hard the circumstances may seem, change is very much possible.
Although nowhere in the same league as Madiba, Kejriwal and AAP have also shown that change is possible. That change has now taken place in Delhi, the nation’s capital. Does that signal a change for the rest of the country too? It’s yet early to say. That bridge too may be crossed when we come to it. But last night, my sources tell me, there was a jhaadu dance in the streets of Delhi by AAP workers and supporters on the beats of a landmark disco number from the 1980 Bollywood film Qurbani:
Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye,
Toe baat ban jaaye…. ahaha baat ban jaaye.
- Vanit Sethi spent around quarter of a century working with newspapers in India and in the Gulf before returning home to a more relaxed and peaceful existence in one of the prettiest parts of India. He loves music, food, writing and reading. This is first of his blogs for Caravan.