India's newest underdog party can either stay put and develop a sophisticated political ideology, or contest national elections this year. Either way, it needs to make a decision soon.
With the swearing in of its leader, the former tax official-turned-social activist Arvind Kejriwal as the Chief Minister of Delhi on December 28, the meteoric rise to prominence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) -- the Common Man's Party, a political party that grew out of a nation-wide agitation against government corruption in 2011 -- presents a new twist in the rhythmic cadence of Indian politics.
The party's impressive second-place finish in the Union Territory of Delhi elections of December 4 helped it cement its immense popular appeal, a victory made sweeter by their having unseated the ruling Congress government of Sheila Dikshit and leaving it with only eight out of 70 total assembly seats in the Delhi Legislative Assembly. When the first-place Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declined to form the Delhi government because it hadn't secured a majority, the AAP -- in response to public pressure -- agreed to form the government with outside support from the Congress party.
Indeed, the AAP's demonstrated values of public participation, transparency and probity in governance struck a chord with the public, and were given a boost by its victory, which also validated its strategy of focusing on grassroots fundraising and organization over the reliance of its opponents on well-funded campaigns backed by established political networks.
Whether or not the AAP can deliver on its election promises is yet to be seen. Amongst other things, the party has been criticized as unrealistic for its commitment to cut household electricity bills in half in Delhi by providing power at cheaper rates, and nearly 700 liters, or 185 gallons, of free water to every household in Delhi every day.
Despite repeated assurances by Kejriwal that he does not plan to institute a populist government that turns to the public for every decision needed to be made, the party's manifesto of establishing local neighbourhood bodies (termed mohalla sabhas) empowered to make a variety of decisions (inspired by Kejriwal's observations of democratic participation in Switzerland and Brazil) has already received a fair amount of criticism.
But right now the AAP is riding the excitement and hype of heralding what could be a new chapter in Indian politics.
True to form, Kejriwal has worked hard to retain his campaign image as a level-headed, popular leader aggressively opposed to the elitist culture that the country's ruling party and governing class have been accused of, including refusing personal VIP security, travelling to his appointments in a Maruti Suzuki Wagon R (a popular car in the Indian market), refusing to use an official government red-light siren on his car that would give him priority right-of-way on Delhi's roads, and even taking the Delhi metro to work, as he did on route to his swearing-in as Delhi's seventh Chief Minister.
But now it's 2014 and the excitement is turning a corner.
With national elections widely expected to be called before May this year, the AAP's victory signals the possibility of a third-front opening up in the Indian political landscape, and critics are already arguing whether the party should consider contesting the national elections this year, or whether it should remain focused on Delhi.
With mounting pressure on Kejriwal to begin delivering on his election promises, it would seem prudent for the AAP to forego its ambitions in the 2014 elections if only to establish a sound political footing with which to contest the 2019 or 2024 elections.
At the same time, there is an equal and opposite pressure being applied by those who wish the AAP to consolidate its gains in Delhi and leverage the media exposure it has generated to contest national elections and provide a strong alternative to the politics of Narendra Modi.
The country's leading national opposition party, the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party, hopes to unseat the ruling national coalition led by the Congress party in national elections this year. Its Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, a powerful orator and experienced administrator, has been elected thrice consecutively to the post of Chief Minister of Gujarat, a state which has clocked an annual growth rate of more than 10 per cent since 2004.
Modi is likely to remain the front-running opposition candidate for the post of Prime Minister in the national elections, despite being charged by critics and opponents for either turning a blind eye to, or abetting, weeks of widespread sectarian violence that occurred in 2002 shortly into his first term as Chief Minister -- charges that have been overturned and rejected by the Supreme Court of India.
Backed by powerful corporate and religious organizations, and a largely conservative section of Indian society, Modi has struck a chord with the population by promising strong action against government corruption, and decisive, effective political leadership, as evinced by his economic transformation of the state of Gujarat. He has been focused on unseating the ruling Congress Party of Dr. Manmohan Singh, and its patrons the powerful Nehru-Gandhi family, for more than a year.
The increasingly unpopular Congress party government of Dr. Singh -- beset by corruption scandals, charges of incompetence, ineffectiveness and indifference against a backdrop of a tottering economy, rising inflation, a weakening currency and perceptions of a weak foreign policy -- is looking increasingly likely to be voted out of power when national elections are called this year. Dr. Singh has already announced that he will not be seeking a third term in office.
But it is not yet clear whether Modi and the BJP would be elected a clear winner.
If Kejriwal decides to throw his hat into the ring and lead the AAP into the national elections, however unlikely, the choice between Modi and Kejriwal could not be more stark, with Modi favouring a centre-right, centralized political model with a strong executive branch, and Kejriwal favouring a more left-leaning decentralized approach to governance.
With Kejriwal's growing stature in the India media, Modi and the BJP will have to contend with what may be seen as a political alternative presented by the AAP, which can also tap into widespread feelings of anger and frustration with the ruling government and present an alternative to those uncomfortable with the BJP's conservative Hindu nationalist ideology, especially amongst urban voters, youth and minorities.
With the AAP now also considering setting up state units of its party in Uttar Pradesh (India's most populous state), Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Haryana in anticipation of growth, it is likely that any political tussle between the BJP and the AAP will only grow further, while the Congress party gets eaten from both sides.
Expect 2014 to be a year to watch in Indian politics.