India’s AAP and Spain’s Podemos: Distributive Justice and Rise of the New Populist Left

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.” – John Rawls in ‘A Theory of Justice‘.

In the Spanish capital of Madrid and about seven thousand kilometers away, in Delhi – the Indian capital, significant ground surges are being felt in the political arena, surges that may very well mark the beginning of reformation and abolishment of unjust institutions in their respective spheres of influence. Both India’s AAP (abbreviation of ‘Aam Aadmi Party’ – Common Peoples Party) and Spain’s Podemos (translated from the Spanish as ‘We Can / We Can Do It’) rose to national political prominence with unprecedented rapidity, united with the central rhetorical and political position of zero tolerance for all forms of corruption, especially political corruption and corruption in high office. With regard to this, I choose not to use the term ‘Populist’ in my commentary title in a pejorative sense, but more to hint at the ground surge popularity seeded by a certain kind of political rhetoric founded in distributive justice and egalitarian ideals.

A Podemos rally in Madrid, Spain (Photo source: A Podemos supporter: “It is the only way…, to kick out all of those politicians who are taking everything from us. They even try to take our dignity away from us. But that they won’t take that from us” (Reuters)

An AAP rally in Delhi, India (Photo source: An AAP supporter: “for the first time there is a party that gives us poor people a hearing. It’s the beginning of hope” (TNN)

Significantly both AAP and Podemos are the offshoots of popular national uprisings – India Against Corruption (2011-2012) and Indignados / 15M movement [translated from the Spanish, ‘The Outraged’] (2011-2012) respectively, both movements seeking equality and end to rampant political corruption while protesting via civil resistance and sit-ins. From what was initially a loosely structured network of activists, in both cases, later galvanized into producing two charismatic and unconventional political leaders in the form of Arvind Kejriwal (b.1968) and Pablo Iglesias Turrión (b. 1978). Kejriwal, a former civil servant and Turrión, a political science professor, were unlikely candidates as catalysts for the arrival of the most interesting development in politics in both India and Spain respectively, in many years. Any populist movement requires a charismatic leader, and Kejriwal and Turrión, with their ‘irreverence’ (can be dubbed as anti-elitism, especially the political elite) and unorthodox style, and ‘get-up’ (Turrión sports a pony-tail, Kejriwal a muffler), captured the popular imagination.

Arvind Kejriwal (Photo source: “The people of Delhi have dared to root out corruption in India’s politics.” (NDTV)

Pablo Iglesias Turrión. (Photo source: “If people don’t do politics, others will do it for you. And when others do it for you, they can steal your rights, your democracy and your wallet.” (The Guardian)

In both Kejriwal’s AAP (f. Nov 2012) and Turrión’s Podemos (f. Jan 2014), the electorate finds a legitimate alternate front of political engagement, having been provoked into civil resistance because of democratic deficit and failing public office accountability brought about by years of non-energized bipartidism – in the case of Spain, the PP (Partido Popular / Peoples Party) and PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español / Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) and in the case of India, the INC (Indian National Congress) and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party / Indian People’s Party). Podemos is officially left / radical left of the political spectrum; AAP on the other hand has never been officially aligned to the political left in India. But in their political rhetoric, they distinctly resonate common resolves – of serving the people, and not private interests; outrage over corruption; protesting cut-downs and misuse of public funding; accountability and transparency, among others.

In carrying this argument forward, here I present sections of the translated founding document of Podemos titled “Mover ficha: convertir la indignación en cambio politico (Make a move: Convert outrage into political change), and those familiar with AAP, will clearly see the common resolves:

Excerpt 01: “As in so many other countries, the confusion is being used to turn private debts into public ones, for the transfer of common goods developed over decades to private interests, and to dedicate what remains of public resources to the funding of narrow and private business interests. We are faced with a financial coup d’état against the peoples of the south of the Eurozone. Those who are in charge are selling off the country and our future in pieces. The rise in repression (with more authoritarian laws, the rise in fines in a situation of economic impoverishment, and even, obstacles to the exercise of civil and political rights) is the final element of a landscape dominated by the deepening of social and gender inequalities and increased plunder of natural resources. It is not strange to see the apparent pessimism and defeatism among sectors who, however, would need only a spark of excitement to exit the trap of despair.”

Excerpt 02: “The return of the repression of women’s freedom, the curtailment of democracy at the local political level, the greater control over communications media and the control of the judiciary seek to create a scenario where fear suspends democracy. Forms on the pathway to authoritarian regimes wrapped up in electoral processes ever emptier of content. Does it make sense that the 90% of the population suffering the brunt of these policies should have no access to tools to create a brighter future? But it is not true that we are consigned to defeat. Despite their efforts, we can see that this wall is not unbreachable, and that, from below, it is possible to put a stop to these processes that are dismantling our democracies. Today our demand for a politics that goes back onto to the streets, that talks like the majority of people who have had enough, is a reality. Our demand for a greater generosity from representatives, for a greater horizontality and transparency, for a return of the republican values of public virtue and social justice, for the recognition of our plurinational and pluricultural reality is more real than ever.”

Excerpt 03: “We need a candidacy of unity and of rupture, led by people who express new ways of relating to politics and which will entail a real threat to the two-party regime of the PP and PSOE and those who have taken our democracy hostage. A candidacy that in addition to stewardship of what is public, proves able to involve the majorities in the configuration of their own future. A candidacy that responds to the young people who are invited to get out of the country, to workers who day by day see their rights diluted, to women forced to go back to demanding what should obviously be theirs, to older people who are finding it was not enough to have struggled and worked for a lifetime. A candidacy that advances from spaces already conquered and manages to go beyond the present paralysis. A candidacy that makes the move that turns pessimism into optimism and discontent into popular will for change and democratic openness.”

The rapid rise of AAP in India and Podemos in Spain, has the established political elite in both the countries in a bind and back to the drawing board, for they are having to out-think and out-poll a young, agile, grass-roots mobilized political opponent, who also use their social media presence and official websites with considerable competence. It remains to be seen of course whether these candidacies of ‘unity and rupture’ finally do manage to light that “spark of excitement to exit the trap of despair” for the years to come.

– Milindo Taid (Spain, February 03, 2015)

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