The AAP Rising: What Can the U.S. Learn from Indian Politics?

by Kathleen Goodwin

Usa_india_flag_by_raza786It goes without saying, yet, we keep saying it anyways, that the United States government has had its share of problems in recent months. From the federal shutdown to the Affordable Care Act fiasco, it hasn't been a period to build confidence or pride in the American government. Still, many Americans would find it preposterous if someone were to suggest that the U.S. should turn its gaze eastward in order to learn a thing or two about how a democracy should work. Specifically, to the only other democracy on the planet with more citizens than the U.S. itself. While India and the U.S. may be the world's largest democracies, the similarities may just about end there. The U.S. approaches nearly 250 years as a democracy, and almost a century as a global superpower, while India has yet to achieve seven decades of democratic independence and is unanimously labeled the next world power or the next abysmal failure, depending on the prevailing sentiment any given week. Yes, we in the U.S. may be floundering when it comes to democratic legitimacy and trust in the government, but in India the situation must be infinitely more corrupt, more complicated and just, overall, worse. What could the older, wealthier and more socially progressive United States possibly learn from India? As 2014 gets underway, the two countries are preoccupied with very different political debates and controversies…or so it may appear.

As the momentum builds towards a national election in India this spring, it is clear that Indian politics is facing a turning point where the established co-dominance of the incumbent Congress and its long time right-wing rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), faces a challenge not just from regional parties, as in the past, but from a new national party that plans to contest the national election.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), headed by Arvind Kejriwal, the newly instated Chief Minister of Delhi, has shocked India by rising from a grassroots activist movement to a legitimate political contender on the national stage. Kejriwal became a well-known figure in 2011 because of his involvement in the social activist Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement, which used Gandhian tactics to pressure the Indian government to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill. Yet, that in less than three years this man and the brand new party he created would be edging the Congress out of power in the Indian capital state and that he would replace Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi for 15 consecutive years, may have seemed unthinkable. Since India achieved independence from Britain in 1947, the Congress has enjoyed unquestioned dominance in Indian politics. Few political commentators in India may be entertaining the idea that the AAP will achieve a similar underdog victory on the national stage; it is a largely urban phenomenon and the majority of India and its voters remain rural. The BJP, whose predecessors first began challenging the Congress in 1967 in much the same way the AAP is today, has become the conservative alternative to the Congress and is the conclusive favorite to win the national election this spring and appoint its candidate, Narendra Modi, as prime minister. Still, the AAP, which translates to the “Common Man Party”, is notable for two reasons: 1. Its ideological values— in opposition to both the neo-liberal status quo of the Congress and the Hindu nationalism of the BJP, and instead in favor of a corruption free government that is accountable to Indian citizens and a more socio-economically equal society for all castes and religious groups. 2. Its astonishingly quick rise to prominence— the AAP was established in November 2012, and Kejriwal became the fifth most mentioned political figure on Indian social media by July 2013, according to a post on A notable achievement in an election that is increasingly playing out in the social media space and dominated by youth culture. Modi, who has an incredibly strong following among Indian youth nationwide, is the most mentioned politician on social media sites (followed by Congress stalwarts Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, and Sonia Gandhi).

But what can the rise of the AAP teach the United States? As the U.S. approaches a midterm election in the fall and already deafening buzz surrounding potential presidential candidates for the 2016 election, it is clear that there is widespread discontent with the American government by Americans themselves. More than 30 longtime congressmen and women are retiring from a House whose immature lack of cooperation and productivity has made it clear that policymakers are more determined to play out petty partisan rivalries than protect the interests of American citizens. The Affordable Care Act, one of the main priorities of the man who allegedly holds the “highest office in the land”, has faced so many impediments to successful implementation that it's more of a laughingstock than a legitimate piece of legislation that will achieve its intended goals. All of this is occurring while the American rich get richer and the poor face declining prospects for decent education and access to social services and, consequently, declining chances for socio-economic upward mobility.

It may surprise some Americans that all of the concerns described in the paragraph above also evoke prescient themes in India today. For generations, Indians have had only two real options when it comes to national elections— the Congress and the BJP, who may not win by landslides but unequivocally control coalition governments and the appointments of prime ministers. Yet, neither party appears to be fundamentally interested in the problems afflicting the Indian populace they aspire to lead. Rather, both are preoccupied with defining themselves in contrast to one another and furthering elitist political agendas. Similarly, in the United States, all current political issues are divided by Republicans versus Democrats, where if something is supported by one party it is, by definition, opposed by the other. In India, the AAP was created to overcome this perpetual stalemate between the Congress and the BJP by offering Indians an alternative that is committed to progress and equality for all Indians, instead of divisive and, ultimately counter-productive, rivalries. Is there a need in the U.S. for a new party that can break the bitter binary between Republicans and Democrats that splits the nation along red and blue lines?

My answer is a measured yes. Both Indians and Americans are fed up with political parties that are more concerned with squabbling with each other than governing and protecting the interests of citizens. Likewise, both Indians and Americans are fed up with growing economic inequality and a division between elite politicians and big businesses that determine how the government is run instead of the people themselves. In India, Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP rose out of a movement similar (although admittedly in no way identical) to the Occupy Wall Street movement protesting the injustice of the concentrated wealth and power of the “1%”. While such protests undoubtedly exert some political pressure, Kejriwal recognized that it is elected officials themselves who change policies and enact laws. If Americans are truly ready to stop complaining about the ineffective government and the belligerence that characterizes relations between Republicans and Democrats, then maybe it's time for a new party that is committed to an alternative future for American politics with the potential for a more productive government dedicated to citizens instead of partisan interests.