New kid on the subcontinent: Arwind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party

All eyes are on India as the world’s largest democracy prepares to go to the polls on Monday 7 April. While Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi have received the most international media attention ahead of the general election, Vasundhra Singh introduces a third candidate whose people-powered, anti-corruption agenda has been making waves in the national capital.

 

Arvind Kejriwal, anti corruption movement leader, addressing the media.

AAP leader, Arwind Kejriwal, addresses the media. © Joe Athialy/Creative Commons License

It is safe to say that this year has been the most turbulent for Indian politics, as the National Congress – which ruled Delhi for the last 15 years – was finally given the boot in December’s state elections, following an unprecedented run of scandals and corruption charges. What was surprising was that Congress was replaced not by its main rival – the right-wing, nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) – but by a new party, born from the anguish of the everyday Indian, known as the AAP (Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, Party). Fed up with the ‘Big Two’ Delhiites put their faith in the AAP’s humble leader, Arwind Kejriwal, and the party was elected to form a minority government, with Congress support. Suddenly change was more than just a word thrown around in interviews and speeches: it had a face and a name.

A former civil servant in the Indian Revenue Service, Arwind Kejriwal’s dress, manner of speech and frequent shows of public solidarity (such as spending a cold Delhi night protesting against poor policing) all enhance his carefully presented image of the ‘anti politician’, sticking up for the little guy at every opportunity. The AAP logo is a broom, symbolising the party’s aim to clean up Delhi politics, and it is this that led to their most ambitious project, the Jan Lok Pal Bill.

The Jan Lok Pal, or the Citizens’ Ombudsman, Bill was an anti-corruption bill drafted by members of the AAP and other social activists in an attempt to install a body to investigate corruption cases at the highest level in India, including those involving a President or Prime Minister. Numerous protests, hunger strikes, and other peaceful gatherings were carried out by the public to get this bill passed, but it was criticised by Parliament and finally bore no fruit. In Anna: 13 Days that Awakened India,social activist Aruna Roy posited, ‘Vesting jurisdiction over the length and breadth of the government machinery in one institution will concentrate too much power in the institution, while the volume of work will make it difficult to carry out its task’.

As a result of this rejection, Kejriwal resigned from office on 14 February 2014, just 49 days after being elected. This incident has been a classic example of Indian politics: one step forward, two steps back. The poorer middle class was disappointed once again as they watched their hopes for a better future go down in ashes with the AAP.

The AAP was always a controversial party, and despite widespread initial support it began to see a lot of criticism as time progressed. A self-proclaimed anarchist, Kejriwal was often accused of trying to create an ochlocracy, though he insisted that his goal was to mobilise the people and make them aware of their own power. Many claimed that the party was not equipped at the structural level to rule the capital and that some of its more popular policies, such as reduced FDI in the supermarket sector and free water and electricity supply to previously deprived colonies would have further stunted economic growth.

Nevertheless, the party’s short-lived term in power introduced a new perspective to Indian politics that is becoming harder for the major parties to ignore. Kejriwal showed India that politics is more than just a board game of the elite. He brought back the power of dharnas (peaceful silent protest) and used this to pressure Parliament about various issues. He held a huge public meeting to hear people’s grievances (which eventually had to be stopped because of overcrowding) and a protest to bring the police under the government’s power following the Delhi gang rape case of late 2012. Furthermore, to maintain a transparency in its actions, the AAP published the sources of all its funding on their website, and called for an investigation into the same for all parties including itself, stating it had nothing to hide.

Aam Aadmi Party- militants of the AAP at their "headquarters" in Safdarjung enclave, New Delhi, India

AAP volunteers campaigning in New Delhi. © François de Caillet / Creative Commons License

The AAP might not have fared as well as people hoped but it has paved the way for future developments and has brought a level of previously unseen transparency to Indian politics. While some of their actions can be criticised, Kejriwal and the AAP have shown the people that you don’t have to be from a politically affluent family, or have been involved in government for decades, to be able to make a change. They have shown the people there is a reason that the phrase is ‘public servants’ and not ‘public rulers’.

Even though the AAP was not able to establish itself in the Delhi state parliament it is not the end for the party. As the general elections inch closer the party is going all out campaigning all over India and on 4 April released a comprehensive manifesto, ahead of that of the BJP. Think tanks and the media seem to believe that a win for the AAP is unlikely at this point but if we have learnt anything from the last state elections it is to expect the unexpected. If the AAP does manage to win the general elections Kejriwal and his team can adopt a bottom-down attitude and start the holy cleanse from the top seats of parliament.

 


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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