For my generation, Aam Aadmi Party’s five-year journey has been a microcosm of democracy itself – its beauty, possibilities, fears, vulnerabilities and failures – in real-time action.The first two years of this decade put to us an existential question our democracy had not seen for decades: what is politics? Two interpretations were on offer. The sceptics scorned, “So all they wanted was to do politics.” The optimists hoped, “They can do so much good when they join politics!”
Politics, it seemed, meant two different things.
For the first group, it was synonymous to what it had led us to: bad things. The second camp thought politics meant what it intended to do in the first place: good things. When five years ago, Arvind Kejriwal told us he would join “politics”, the definition divided us. We got stuck between the hopelessness of politics’ actual outcomes, and the hope in its original intent.
Under this dilemma between cynicism and hope, and under two differing interpretations of politics, rose India’s newest political party, the Aam Aadmi Party, on November 26, 2012.
For me, then a young student in his early twenties, just beginning to discover politics, those were intellectually stimulating days. Denying that this was the biggest democratic experiment in India since 1980 is tough, irrespective of its ultimate result. A man had challenged the government as an activist, and failing to do so, had decided to take the elusive route democracy so matter-of-factly boasts of in civics lessons: the test of the electorate.
Democracy is like the “boy who cried wolf” story children often hear. Its single-biggest mythical USP that it boasts about to children is that it provides “power to the people”. But every time it cries wolf, it turns out to be a false alarm: people are always left on their own, crushed under the toes of two giant parties.
The ability of people to actually overthrow rulers was improbable, but not impossible. The mind went numb in excitement and hope when I, at 21, saw that the improbable wolf that democracy had boasted about for years had actually arrived.
Rarely do ideal definitions show up. There is no age but 21 when idealism happening in reality can be so stimulating – and motivating.
But how could one dismiss politics as a slur – was a question I could not fathom then. After five years of AAP, I may understand the cynicism better, but the events I saw unfold at 21 made me, and many other young voters, optimistic for a long time to come. The AAP’s failure or success does not take away from the fact that the circumstances of its birth were democracy at its best.
What has happened since then were lessons for democracy on how to handle a situation unexpectedly gone ideal.
When the AAP contested its first Assembly elections in Delhi in 2013, winning 28 seats out of 70, the joy went up. Activist Kejriwal had overthrown a mighty Congress government to emerge Chief Minister. This time, it was not just for a day as it was in Nayak, the last (and only) time my generation had seen democracy at its most unbelievably thrilling.
Thrills are, by their nature, momentary. The fantasy didn’t last long, the perfectness lasted shorter.
I, and I hoped the party too, had realised that people overthrowing governments need administrative experience, political tact, more wisdom and less vanity to succeed, and they must take responsibility. I, as a still-fascinated 22-year-old now, had faith that the party wanted to be great, but its political immaturity had failed it and us.
Faith shivered, and thrill gave way to shock, between February 2014 and May 2014. Kejriwal vs Narendra Modi seemed like an avoidable fight after Delhi had been won and lost within months. Deploying random candidates all over India in the general elections seemed like an experiment gone dirty and compromised.
For a young Indian learning the democratic system, there was a new question. Was politics, by its nature, destined to be bad rather than good? If these were just baby steps gone awry and the well-meaning party was taking the right lessons from its mistakes, would the voters give a second chance?
For decades, political leanings ran ancestral. But in the early 2010s, as our politics evolved with AAP’s, many youngsters, including me, found ourselves scrambling to defend or reject our support for AAP in the face of ridicule.
The phoenix, and the thrill and hope, did rise again, and this time, got five years to make mistakes and learn at ease.
Mistakes kept making news at an alarming frequency. Successes got sidelined by ridicule and annoyance. Kejriwal the Messiah often became Kejriwal the Madman. Work in health and education was praised, but the state of intra-party democracy disgusted voters no end. The journey, now quieter and better, continues.
For my generation, Aam Aadmi Party’s five-year journey has been a microcosm of democracy itself – its beauty, possibilities, fears, vulnerabilities and failures – in real-time action.
The best this group of youngsters can imagine is that the party is a sincere growing baby, that its mistakes were understandable, and hopefully it learned from them. But five years wiser, this generation also knows that the worst is possible too: that the party is one drowning into the noise of bad politics we once feared.
One shudders to think that its failure, if it were to come, will mean that people may never trust democracy’s wolf alarm again.