There is nothing novel about new parties upsetting the two-party binary. We have seen that happen through the process of Mandalisation in many states. But all those new parties have come up in the name of one or more identities caste, community, region. The BJP is the Brahmin-Bania party of Hindu nationalism. The BSP is the party of the Dalits, the JD(U) of the Kurmis, the BJD of Odisha. Many of these parties don’t have ambitions to rival the Congress or the BJP on the national stage.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is an exception in that its central ideology is good governance. This helps it escape identity politics. At the same time, the AAP embraces identity politics like everyone else does: its symbol, the broom, was from day one targeted at the Valmikis. Be it Muslims or Dalits or Brahmins, the AAP quietly takes note of identity politics and gives lip service, even as the party as a whole does not identify itself with any one community. The only other party which handles identity politics this way is the Congress.
It is well known that the Congress stays in power through patronage. This is why the urban and rural poor have some loyalty to the Congress they need such patronage more than the relatively empowered urban middle class. The Congress representative gets the common man’s ration card made. He gets things done. That is also the primary approach of the Aam Aadmi Party.
Like a company launching a new product, AAP, sought to identify people’s problems and found that high electricity prices hurt Delhi’s lower middle classes and the poor the most. So it took up that issue to begin with. AAP’s people-centric approach sought to convey an image of a politician who will ‘get things done’. Parties that are not based on identity have a better chance of projecting such an image to all voters.
All the identity-based parties realise sooner than later that they have to be catch-all umbrella parties so the BSP wants Brahmins and the BJP wants Muslims. The AAP’s strategists seem to have learnt this lesson before reinventing the wheel. Many accused the Lokpal movement of being middle-class in character but the AAP has managed to woo both rich and poor. AAP took the Congress’ 2004 slogan about the Aam Aadmi and turned it against the Congress.
Using patronage to side-step identity politics does not mean the party is bereft of ideology. Except that it has many ideologies. Prashant Bhushan on the left and Kumar Vishwas on the right help the AAP appeal across the ideological spectrum. In doing so, the AAP realises that, as an RSS friend of mine argues, Indian society is essentially centrist and eschews extremes. This is again a leaf from the Congress’ book, which can be secular and soft-Hindutva, socialist and neo-liberal, when expedient. Even the BJP in power has to ‘moderate’ itself and even Narendra Modi has to seek liberal approval.
Until Saturday, Delhi was one of those states where the BJP and the Congress were pitched against each other. On Sunday, Delhi became a three-party state with the BJP and AAP as the main contenders. The Aam Aadmi Party was being called the B-team of Congress by BJP supporters. Now it is the Congress that looks the AAP’s B-team!
In other words, the AAP has replaced the Congress. It has done so not just in the sense of numbers. The lack of a singular identity, patronage above ideology, and a centrist balance amid ideological extremes please welcome the new Indian National Congress, circa 2013.
(First published in DNA.)