Posted by: Vikram | January 24, 2014

AAP and the third democratic upsurge

This blog has emphasized the historical truth that Indian democracy is a grand social experiment, the implantation of a democratic government in an undemocratic society. Three days before Republic Day is perhaps a good time to remind us of Dr. Ambedkar’s prescient words,

On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?

The Constitution makers were well aware of these contradictions and believed that a combination of universal suffrage and legally guaranteed liberty would gradually democratize Indian society. Indeed, this has happened, but perhaps it has not happened in the way they imagined and to the extent that they had hoped. Along with the gradual spread of democratic expectations, there have been major ‘democratic upsurges’ which have decisively transformed Indian politics in a few years, but large populations still remain voiceless.

The first democratic upsurge occurred in the 70s with the emergency and collapse of Congress rule. Politically, this had the consequence of a non-Congress coalition ruling India for the first time since independence. Socially, it led to the transfer of political power from the upper caste Hindus who had dominated the Congress since its inception to the intermediate peasant castes, today called the OBCs or the Other Backward Castes. The second democratic upsurge, which began in the late 80s, brought the Dalits into the political mainstream as an independent force. By 2007, the Dalit controlled BSP ruled India’s largest state. However, the economic and social transformation of the second democratic upsurge is far from complete, with the Dalits continuing to face marginalization and violence, mainly from the OBCs.

It now appears that by the early 2010s, metro India’s neo-middle class was ready to enter politics with its own voice. During the India Against Corruption agitation, Ashis Nandy noted that middle class India was now a mass and wanted to play a bigger role in the country’s politics through its media clout. The key intervention of the AAP has been to combine this new middle class clout with the numbers and anger of Delhi’s working class to produce a transparent, non-sectarian urban political coalition.

However, it is important to emphasize that the AAP as it exists currently cannot call itself the third democratic upsurge. On observing India’s social structure and past democratic upsurges, it is clear that the groups most urgently needing a political voice are the marginalized adivasis in Central India, and the variegated populations at the peripheries of the Indian federation, who are living under quasi military-rule. The arrogant and short sighted policies of the GoI, and the emergence of violent extremists as the major political force representing these populations has created an unprecedented crisis in Indian democracy.

Producing the third democratic upsurge will clearly be a formidable task. The peripheral location, and secessionist tendencies of these groups means that the mainstream has come to see these issues as one of national integrity. There are some positive signs however, for example, the formation of the North East Regional Parties Front, and the 39 MPs from there speaking with unison on certain issues. Sooner or later, one hopes, the violence will subside opening up the space for saner voices.

Can AAP play a part in this opening up ? This is a tantalizing possibility, but one that is not very likely. One simply cant see AAP succeeding in India’s peripheries, where issues regarding identity are quite nuanced, and whose politics is quite unfamiliar to the ‘mainlander’ dominated AAP. However, AAP might be able to make an impact in India’s tribal belt. Perhaps the AAP can take an aim at the seats reserved for the STs in states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, where the Maoists have had little impact, and a plethora of NGOs have found space to work with tribal populations. Indeed, a party with MPs only from the metros and tribal areas seems strange. But we must not forget that, the non-sectarian coalition between Delhi’s middle classes and working classes was almost unimaginable a few months ago, yet it now rules Delhi.

In the ideal scenario, one hopes that the emergence of an independent, non-violent political force in some tribal areas will push the Maoists to the political margins in states like Chhattisgarh, and create the space for these communities to have a stronger voice in Indian democracy’s shouting well.


  1. Great post, Vikram. Share you concerns–AAP is mostly a urban party and nothing “revolutionary” is going to come off it. But even if it’s not the third democratic upsurge, it’s still a relevant experiment. And you never know about the ripple effects.

    • Thanks Hades. Lets hope the AAP does as much good as it can. This country needs it urgently.

  2. Good article. Good topic. In my naive outlook: The criterion used to define democratic upsurge is whether that upsurge gives voice to socioeconomically marginalized communities whereas Anna Hazaare movement and AAP gave voice to politically marginalized community: voice to marginalized and hence some kinda upsurge? Can we still call it democratic upsurge, since here political marginalization coincides with lesser economic status (compared to rich), and thus it is trying to democratize that part of Indian society in a way of which our founding fathers anticipated..?

    • Yes, I agree Chetan. AAP is defintely a political growth for the middle class, a shift from just using the media. It could be called an upsurge but a very limited one.

      • hmm..actually i missed to mention this earlier. just like second democratic upsurge was spread out over many years, we can certainly wait and watch how AAP upsurge unfolds…After 10-15 years, we would be able to judge really..

      • Yes, the long term potential of AAP is significant, but we will have to work very hard to achieve it.

  3. Hi, Very nice blog!!
    Everyone must take necessary steps to make India corruption free.
    Arun Kumar Sahoo working for equal rights of all people in our society and Being influenced by Biju Pattnaik he joined as an Odisha BJD leader and work into the main stream of politics.
    MLA of Odisha

  4. Vikram: For me the key sentence in the blog is the following: “The arrogant and short sighted policies of the GoI.” This requires an explanation. Why are the policies of the GoI arrogant and short sighted? What is the advantage to GoI of such policies? Why does the electorate permit GoI to maintain such policies? Why is there so little political or civil opposition to such policies?

    • SA, there are three questions you have asked. I am not sure if I have good answers. But I think they have their roots in the nature of the Indian electoral system.

      If one looks at the seats in the Indian parliament by states, one will observe that no state has an overwhelming majority of seats. UP has the highest proportion of seats at 14.7 %, but all the other major states, have a significant proportion. So, no one state can dominate the central government. What is striking in India is perhaps the level of subnational cohesion that has developed in relatively new political formations, for example Haryana, Rajasthan and MP (Prerna Singh has some interesting new research on how this affects development

      The net result is that the GoI cannot be arrogant or short sighted towards any of these states, observe for example how TN, geographically a marginal state can control India’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. But the case with other margins is very different. Kashmir, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and even Assam matter little in the Lok Sabha. There is also not a nationally visible elite in these states, so they are relegated to the political, geographical and intellectual margins. Once the armour of electoral democracy is effectively neutralized by such cold blooded arithmetic, these regions become fertile ground for the more predatory aspects of the Indian state. Corruption, neglect and once armed conflict begins, human rights abuses follow starting a terrible cycle.

      The case of the tribal belt is similar, but they are more exploited by state governments than the central one, but due to a similar electoral logic.

      As another piece of evidence, note the intense amount of debate around the treatment of Muslims, despite the state treating Hindu Manipuris and Chattisgarhis much, much worse. I feel that the situation is similar in Pakistan, only compounded by the meddling of the army, and the overwhelming pre-ponderance of Punjab, which results in even fairly big sub-national units like KP and Sindh getting marginalized.

      Regarding your second question. Note that if there is a federal issue in a largish state where national integrity is not in question, the electorate, media and civil society do exert enormous pressure on the state. Examples would be the Endosulfan issue in Kerala (, the curbing of mining deaths by regulation enforcement in the Orissa, Jharkhand and the Sri Lankan issue with TN. Where the issue changes to one of possible secession, the dynamic changes rapidly. Note the attitudes towards the Sikhs, before, during and after the Khalistani insurgency.

      Otherwise, I feel that among modern states, especially multi-ethnic ones the Indian state does a decent job at accomodating diversity and ensuring room for expression. For example, very few states allow the building of large memorials for insurgents that contain secessionist quotes, while the insurgency is still running (

    • SA, I think there is one more factor. This might have to do with organizational behavior. If one observes the post-independence Indian state, its major successes have been in conceiving and executing very large scale infrastructure projects (dams, railways, power plants, steel factories, IIXs, ISRO). These have had salutary effects, in particular the country has become comfortably food surplus (we export $ 1.4 worth of agro products for every $ 1 import), reliably and inexpensively connecting the country and producing a semblance of an industrial economy and workforce.

      However, such large scale projects increasingly have less and less of a real impact, but the state is addicted to them, both from the bureaucracy’s perspective of accumulating capital and prestige, an institutional legacy of having executed them for 60+ years with good overall impacts, and the political imperative of doling out patronage. Add to the mix the large resource extraction companies, and you have a recipe for very bad policies. I think this is also the reason why the state so quickly agrees to build expensive, large scale projects like metro rails in the cities, when greater improvements to the quality of urban life can be brought about by investing in education, water supply and housing.

      But it is not that there is no resistance to the state by civil society, the recent land acquisition bill, collapse of mining output ( and indeed the emergence of AAP is driven by such concerns, even though the AAP does not clearly articulate its opposition to such large scale state interventions.

  5. Vikram: What still remains unclear is why the default policy of the state is to be arrogant and short-sighted only to be tempered by electoral considerations. Is it not the state of all Indians?

    And note that ‘short-sighted’ implies that the state is not fully cognizant of its own interests. Can that really be the case? Is the state comprised of ignorant men and women? If so, why are the wise not making it recognize that interest and to change its policies?

    • SA, is there an example of a state that is not arrogant, and only tempered by electoral considerations ? Isnt this one of the fundamental rationales for popular democracy ? The US is a great example. Its foreign policy is exceptionally short sighted, yet it continues to pursue it because few of its voters are conscious of the havoc it is causing in many parts of the world.

  6. Vikram: The question is: Short-sighted from whose perspective?

    And how can one assume that US voters are not conscious? Could it be that they are full conscious and don’t care? Or that it is of so little importance to them that they don’t even bother to find out or to care?

    And if the success of democracy turns on the consciousness of voters, isn’t that hugely problematic? Wouldn’t it be better to have the Singapore model instead? Are the policies of the Singapore government equally short-sighted?

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