Looking back and ahead at the turn of the year, it is difficult to avoid the Dickensian hyperbole - these are the best of times and the worst of times. The reasons why 2013 touched a nadir remain fresh in the mind. The great Indian growth story, which set the 2000s apart from the rest of independent India's economic life, came unstuck. With this went out of the window the thought that, as a BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) member, India was carrying global growth forward. As if this weren't enough, inflation raged stubbornly, creating nightmares of being stuck in the rut of stagflation, not knowing how to get out without going through severe pain. The gloomy picture was completed with a run on the rupee and return of restrictions on gold imports. As the ground was laid for the rebirth of gold smuggling, the morbid thought was that a new movie could be made, "Return of Haji Mastan". The outlook on the political and social fronts matched the gloom hanging over the economic field. The central government ceased to be and the Opposition mounted a defiant offensive to capture power, led by a leader accused of aiding and abetting a severe communal riot. As if to prove his critics right, the aspiring national leader despatched a key henchman to Uttar Pradesh, and sure enough a communal riot followed. The spectre of a repeat of trauma of the Rath Yatra and the Babri Masjid demolition loomed large. If there could be some argument over whether the economic and political scenes were as bad as they looked, there would be no dispute over the social scene touching rock bottom. In the year after the Delhi gang rape, stories of attacks on women refused to leave the front pages of newspapers. Moreover, two prominent citizens - a crusading editor and a retired Supreme Court judge - faced allegations of sexual harassment. So, "the worst of times" yes, but where are the signs of "the best of times"? In fact, from the ruins of a severely flawed Indian experiment signs of a new beginning can be emerging - the rise and initial triumph of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Since corruption is the root of all evil in independent India, only a political movement based on fighting it and seizing power could offer a workable cure. And this is precisely what has happened through the stunning electoral verdict delivered by the people of Delhi. A democracy cannot survive unless the processes central to it come up with political solutions to fight systemic ills.
In Delhi, democracy has worked, a new political formation has emerged to address a severe ill, and the beginning of a peaceful revolution has unfolded. Where else in the developing world do you get a system like this? In this baptism by fire - the system successfully passing an agni pariksha - lies the hope of 2014 signalling the coming of the best of times. Of course, AAP rule in Delhi may flop. Remember Janata Party rule after the Emergency and the failure of the V P Singh interregnum? But there are two reasons to hope that things will be different this time. One, past failures teach their own lessons and the AAP carries within it the political memories of those mistakes. Shanti Bhushan, who was part of the Janata experience, is a key member of the AAP leadership. Two, the political finesse with which Arvind Kejriwal and others broke away from Anna Hazare to create a political party, evolved a platform and fought a successful campaign indicates that they know how politics works. For the AAP, running a credible government will be as difficult as winning a major election, but right now the odds seem even that in Delhi it will not go down the nullah. It faces two challenges before the national elections that are due in a few months. One, give proof of the ability to govern credibly in the first 100 days in office; two, acquire a political and economic platform. A movement can be run on a one-point agenda like fighting corruption; a party aspiring to power and governing needs more. The AAP has to spell out which sections of the polity it seeks to represent and the economic road map that will enable it to deliver to its constituency. It has to fight the general elections on this platform. The AAP may come to grief. That will yield its own lessons on pitfalls to avoid in the future. But right now there is every reason to hope that the political system has proved its ability to reinvent itself and move towards the best of times.