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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 40, September 21, 2013

Five Star Movement and Aam Admi Party: Can the Two Occupy Political Space for Long?

Sunday 22 September 2013


by Tamanna Khosla

The Guardian has an interesting article on the surging sentiment for the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy. The voters are sick and tired of the current parties and are rallying behind Beppe Grillo, the leader of the M5S. The Indian newspapers are full of stories of the new political party—the party of the Mango people led by Arvind Kejriwal. The sentiment here in the India is no different then the one in Italy. The Italian voters are no different from the voters in India and so are the Italian politcians who are no different from the sleazy Indian politcians. Berlusconi is the example of the high-handed leadership which has cost the country dear; there are parallels with the Congress and BJP in India where families have subverted the system to their advantage to no end.

Both the movements provide an appealing alternative political model.
The Five Star Movement has been growing exponentially since it began in 2006 as an online community based around Grillo’s blog, the most popular in Italy, as well as social networks. Sympathisers later organised meet-ups to discuss issues ranging from green economics and technology to local development, economic sovereignty and access to knowledge. In 2007, Grillo organised the first V-day, standing both for the Italian swear word “vaffanculo”, and vendetta. He also launched the “Clean Parliament” initiative to ban politicians with criminal records from being elected. Similarly the Aaam Admi Party’s manifesto too propagates the need for clean politics. Today, its key points are oriented toward issues of social justice and equality, such as living wage for the unemployed, free Internet, opposing the privatisation of water and basic services, and limiting and monitoring war and military expenditure. The Aam Admi Party also focuses on rising prices, and the nexus between politicians and big power companies. The Aam Aadmi Party exposes the nexus between Sheila Dikshit and Electricity Discoms using documents obtained through the RTI. In 2004, the water bill of a middle class family (who consumed 45 kl water per month) was Rs 74 per month. This has increased to Rs 1355 today, an eighteen-fold jump in nine years. Why? Records indicate that it is due to huge corruption scams in the DJB. It also includes fiscal benefits for social enterprises to improve the stagnating economy.

Analysts say the Movement’s rise has absorbed those who had grown increasingly disenchanted by the failure of democratic institutions, and who would have otherwise opted for more radical choices, such as the extreme Right. Members describe it as a viable alternative to Berlusconi’s controversial Right-wing politics and the Left, criticised for making compromises to avoid losing political perks, such as high wages and retirement bonuses. They believe the Movement is finally tackling the political ills long ignored by the prevalent forces, particularly political parties and the mainstream media. The failure of the current political and economic model is due to corruption, a consolidated system of lobbies and clientelism. Paola Pinna, a candidate for the Lower House, says the Movement is looking for inspiration in other movements worldwide.

“We don’t follow existing models, but of course we have looked at civil society movements here and abroad, and we share with them a bottom-up approach and a strong motivation to take part in politics directly.”

If the Movement was to look at the Aam Admi movement, there is no central high command in the Aam Aadmi Party either. The party structure follows a bottom to top approach where the council members elect the executive body and also hold the power to recall it.

”Aam Admi party’s Arvind Kejriwal’s strategy is with an aim to provide gram sabhas more say in law making and making higher judiciary accessible to the common man. We are saying that it is the system that has become very corrupt and needs to be changed immediately. Our aim in entering politics is not to come to power; we have entered politics to change the current corrupt and self-serving system of politics forever. So that no matter who comes to power in the future, the system is strong enough to withstand corruption at any level of governance. Aam Aadmi Party wants to make politics a noble calling once again.

“We want to create a system where the political leaders we elect and place in Parliament are directly responsible to the voters who elected them. Our party’s vision is to realise e dream of swaraj that Gandhiji had envisaged for a free india—where the power of governance and rights of democracy will be in the hands of the people of India.”

Both parties have crowds roaring “Let’s send them all back home”, or “Surrender, you have been surrounded”, addressing mainstream politicians. These are a common sight at Grillo’s or Kajeriwal’s gatherings.

“One of the critical and potentially dangerous attitudes of Grillo’s supporters is their assumption that they’re voicing the ‘real needs’ of society, accusing those who do not understand or support the movement’s battles of being naive and ill-informed. If you accept the principle that one is worth one, like our Constitution says, you have to accept that theoretically every-body can run for politics, not only renowned professors, lawyers, doctors, or the alleged experts and showgirls that live completely disconnected from reality.”

This is also very well shown in Kejriwal’s party’s case in India. Grillo himself often refers to the Movement as “an army of citizens with the helmet”, and admits he is unable to lead it. “We cannot keep delegating politics to others. We have to do it collectively, as citizens are the ones who know their country and its problems,” he has said. But Angelis describes a danger in the movement’s discourse of “externalising conflicts”. While Grillo successfully mobilised public anger, Angelis says, the problem is that he is fixated on a message that “all the problems we are facing now are others’ faults, not ours”. The same can be seen in India’s case where Kejriwal sees his party as holier than thou.

This makes it less solution-oriented, he says. “It is an excessive simplification of very complex issues, which is typical of the Internet and social networks, where he who shouts louder gets more attention and more weight.”

But the Movement has detailed several propositions—particularly in response to what they describe as rampant corruption.

“First of all, we are going to take back all the money that has been stolen by the political caste that costs billions of euros per year. That’s a start.” This has been propagated in India by Baba Ramdev’s anti-black money movement.

The Five Star Movement also firmly refuses to rake in any public funding for its political activity, relying on volunteers and donations instead. For its election campaign, it collected more than 500,000 euros from 20,000 small donors. A similar mood is seen in the Aam Admi Party in India. Funds are collected by means of membership money, voluntary donation, sale of party material, cultural programmes etc.

Further, after the movement’s success in regional elections, it immediately gave back 1.7 million euros of public funding, and implemented a 70 per cent reduction on salaries to be allocated to micro credit initiatives for start-ups.

Critics also say the Movement is heavily based on the charisma of Grillo alone. Meanwhile, cynics say it is dangerous to call it a bottom-up civil society movement speaking on behalf of the people, but rather a powerful organisation relying on the best tools and expertise in the fields of technology and networking. The Aaam Admi Party is based on experts from the field as deemed fit by the party, eminent people from India, members from disadvantaged sections like SCs, STs, backward classes and minorities.

Grillo strongly appealed to the young, well-educated layers. His fierce attacks on corruption of the whole political class resonated with gene-rations whose entire experience with Italy’s political parties—including the so-called “Left” —is that they served as ruthless defenders of big business. Similary the Aam Admi Party too excludes corrupt members.

Many of the demands of M5S are borrowed from petty-bourgeois protest movements appealing to students and academics, such as the environmental, Occupy and Pirate move-ments. The M5S calls for a more ecologically-friendly energy policy and for measures to cut CO2 emissions. It has demanded a halt to major projects such as the bridge from the mainland to Sicily, and the Turin-Lyon high-speed rail line. It wants to penalise the use of motorised private transport in towns and to expand provisions for cyclists and public transport.

The real centrepiece of its programme, its economic policy, however, is unmistakably Right-wing. Under the guise of struggle against corruption, monopolies and bureaucracy, it calls for a historic assault against workers and the entire framework of the post-war welfare state. While the M5S claims to oppose the corrupt political class, its target is the social gains of the Italian working class. The Aam Aadmi Party started by the anti-corruption activist is yet to frame an economic policy as per their own admission. The party is idealistic in nature, and has been formed to weed out corruption in the system. Hence an economic policy for the Aam Aadmi Party should be idealistic too. The aam aadmi is the working class population in cities and towns of India, who watch TV, read newspapers and browse the internet. The working class population is affected most by the poor economic policies of the government. Hence the economic policy of the party should be targeted towards improving the lives of the working class population.

The challenge now is to turn from a protest movement into a governing party. Internal democracy needs to be seen in both the new parties. The only difference between the two parties is that the Italian party has gained 25 per cent of the votes, while the Aam Admi Party is yet to face the polls.

If one raises the question—can the Aam Aadmi Party be the largest party in the next Lok Sabha? —it might sound utopian. The Five Star Movement can show the path which started on similar concerns barely three years ago. India too can show the way with new parties coming into the fray. For longer innings these parties would require broadening of the base, be it in social, economic or political policies.

Dr Tamanna Khosla did her Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi on multiculturalism and feminism. She is now working with Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP).

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