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Thursday, January 16, 2014

AAPidemic: The Socio-Political Epidemic of India

Not a day passes by without any of the leading newspapers of India not carrying a column on AAP by one intellectual or the other. While overwhelming number of these news columns hail AAP as having surpassed expectations and for making a positive impact on political culture of India, these statements usually end with a "but" clause followed by an advice,apprehension,warning on how a particular party line could damage its future prospects. Right from the day AAP was formed to this very day, nearly everyone in the habit of writing, articulating personal opinion to the public, from political pundits to part-time bloggers (including this one) have been speculating self-convincingly that the "next" step of this new party is too risky and may boomerang, yet nothing of that sort has happened. The AAP phenomenon is truly unprecedented but perhaps there is something more, something that doesn't fall into any of the categories we know.

Is it epistemic contempt ?   AAP's successes continue to prove that the experts, who have been studying all the equations, examining the numerous variables so painstakingly are being proved wrong continuously. Electoral results turning out contrary to the psephologist's predictions are indeed victories for democratic system but the entire methodology being proved wrong is quite embarrassing. So despite genuine admiration, a bit of skepticism, cynicism and even hostility continues to creep into columns and  statements on TV. One has to presume that lot if not most of these mixed messages are genuine appraisal. But this too raises another question, why would rational and intellectually honest people hold the opinion that they do.

There may not a a single, satisfactory answer to this question, it is a fact that Kejriwal has continued to represent himself as a common person through symbolic gestures, oration and his government's policies, but there have always been people like him, perhaps it is because Kejriwal has offered less and not more that sets him apart and also triggered a phenomenon that most people find difficult to define. A flashback into the genesis of the movement, may shed some light.

Less than a year back, the media was rife with speculations on whether the 2014 election would take place in the shadow of Narendra Modi or of Rahul Gandhi. Loyal Congressmen anticipated their reluctant messiah to finally lead them to deliverance. Sangh cheerleaders sang of a Modi wave, even tried hard at manufacturing it and therein lay the fault. Waves are laud,powerful even spectacular but have a relatively tiny lifespan and ultimately crash on meeting the shore. In the information age, ideas are contagious. More importantly, positive, constructive ideas are more contagious than highly emotive but shallow ones. The ideas of the Aam Aadmi Party spread like a highly resilient pathogen creating a social epidemic as Malcolm Gladwell would say. As a matter of fact, I believe Modi's campaign managers have tried to create strategy keeping Malcolm Gladwell's best seller, The Tipping Point in mind (but can't substantiate in this post), but can say it didn't turn out that way at all. People joining the AAP in droves without any incentive or even persuasion is symptomatic of spread of a contagious disease rather than political movement.

Gladwell lays down three characteristics of an epidemic-
Contagiousness - This is quite different from carefully thought over behavior, when newspapers describe the idea of AAP going viral, it can also be read as a phenomenon of ideas spreading like jungle fire but travelling beneath the surface. Isn't that  similar to how a biological virus works.

Small is Big- Little causes have big effects. The AAP grew out of IAC, the movement launched to
pressurize the government to pass the Jan Lokpal bill. In itself, it wasn't even tackling corruption in all forms. Anna Hazare's immediate call was to pass a particular bill, no one believed it was a magic pill that would eradicate corruption from the country. Arvind Kejriwal's electoral plank wasn't building India a military superpower or promise of billion dollar schemes nor was it about eradicating poverty at one stroke. He talked about cheap water, electricity, on diverting resources meant for the lavish lifestyles of the VIPs
towards welfare of the poor. These promises also had "Stickiness Factor" but to a  lesser extent. Corrupt politicians storing their ill-gotten wealth in Swiss banks, is big, it does infuriate the public but mostly in that instant or later when there is a context. Kejriwal laying down documents describing how water/electricity price is high because of endemic corruption remains in public memory persistently.

Change Happens in One Dramatic Moment - This doesn't need explanation. The AAP's phenomenal rise began with its impressive performance in Delhi Assembly poll results. Once the party had shown its capability to win election, there has been an avalanche of support, people from every section of population are lining up to join the party.

Epidemics have a limited lifespan too but they also have a way of reshuffling our priorities and restructuring society, thus leaving their marks behind which can be a blessing in disguise. Something similar to epidemiological transition, except that diseases and sickness can replaced by government policies and general social behavior. The biggest epidemic in human history was the the Black Death in  14th century Europe and parts of Asia,which claimed lives of a significant portion of global population. The Plague killed about 30% to 60% of European population but the social upheaval in its aftermath also contributed new thoughts,reforms and ultimately Renaissance. Thankfully, social epidemic is about ideas not diseases and hopefully the deaths will be those of undemocratic practices, corruption and discrimination and the aftermath bring about systemic change.

That would explain why the AAP effect defies conventional wisdom, it may appear chaotic but there is an order that we are able to perceive but not understand (at least I am unable to). Perhaps it is some sort of collective consciousness, not spiritual or metaphysical but purely anthropological with cyber space being a part of it. While similar phenomena are taking place across the world from Cairo to Manila,the happening in Delhi and rest of India is bit different in that there is no precedence to it. The two national parties are making every  effort to discredit the AAP but the most important part they forget or rather, never noticed is that this is indeed a movement of the common people. Established political parties are known to bribe and ferry people in trucks or dumpers to showcase support. Today, lakhs of people from diverse sections of the society are lining up for membership of the Aam Aadmi Party. Parties  distribute TVs, laptops and other freebies for vote but after the Delhi Assembly election results, 5 lakh people actually sent SMS in response to Kejriwal's call for referendum.

What this really means is that Kejriwal is correct when he says even if CM, he is still a common man, representing other common people. The Congress and the BJP attacking the AAP government in Delhi, attempting to bring down top leadership of the party may be a futile exercise, Arvind represents the movement, he  doesn't take credit for it. Before the AAP was formed, Anna Hazare was phenomenally popular during the protests against corruption but he disassociated himself from the newly formed party, the party did not go down but Anna's media coverage decreased but the party's popularity increased. So its time that other politicians, intellectuals, media person understand that this is a socia-political epidemic, it may not last for decades but regardless of who is in charge it will run its full course.    

Note: This post was composed nearly 2 weeks back but wasn't published, it doesn't take into account recent events. But nonetheless, my opinion remains the same :)

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