Truth to power: Arvind Kejriwal campaigning in Delhi in early April. Photo: Hindustan Times via Getty
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Taxman with the common touch: Arvind Kejriwal of India’s Aam Aadmi Party

The AAP’s leader looks like a cross between Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin and has an unwavering, energetic commitment to his cause.

From 7 April to 12 May, as many as 814 million people will vote in India’s general election. In the run-up to the poll, the new Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, translates as “common man’s party”) has risen in prominence. Since its foundation a year and a half ago, it has attracted the attention of Indians disaffected with corruption and disappointing economic growth, and unlike India’s two main parties – Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – it has expanded on a shoestring budget.

Its success rests on its charismatic leader, Arvind Kejriwal, a former civil servant. Kejriwal will be pitting himself against the BJP leader, Narendra Modi, who is widely expected to become India’s next prime minister. Modi, who has been chief minister of Gujarat since 2001, is a charismatic but deeply polarising figure because of his alleged complicity in the Hindu-Muslim riots that took place in the state in 2002.

Kejriwal worked for India’s revenue service until 2006, when he quit his job to work on Parivartan, a charity he founded that operates in deprived areas of Delhi. Diminutive in stature, he looks like a cross between Mahatma Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin: his moustache is Chaplinesque and his glasses are reminiscent of Gandhi. His white cap is his own.

When I met him last year, he was on hunger strike, protesting against the rise in electricity prices in Delhi. He had stationed himself in the brightly coloured one-room house of a Dalit (the caste formerly known as India’s “untouchables”) woman in an impoverished area of the city. Kejriwal was surrounded by his family members, whose support for his cause has been indefatigable.

Although he is diabetic, he had not eaten for two days. I asked, “How are you?” He replied, with a sanguine smile, “Perfectly fit.” It is this unwavering, energetic commitment that has endeared him to many.

Since India’s economic liberalisation programme started in 1991, young urban Indians have been told that their country will inexorably get better. The prospects for many middle-class Indians improved until the 2011 slowdown intervened. For the country’s poorest, the story is very different. India has failed to tackle indigence where it has been most
severe: 8 per cent of the world’s poor live in Uttar Pradesh. This state also happens to be the place from which both Kejriwal and Modi are contesting the elections.

Kejriwal’s promise to deliver more honest government and his party’s investigations into crony capitalism have played well to a populace jaded by a wave of high-level corruption scandals. When AAP performed surprisingly well in the Delhi state elections last year and formed the state government, the party’s rise seemed assured. Yet after 49 days in office, it relinquished power when its efforts to form an anti-corruption ombudsman were thwarted, a move that disillusioned many supporters.

In the long term, this act of “sacrifice” may have increased its mass following. The problem is that reaching out to the masses involves campaigning, which is costly. One AAP leader told me that the party’s campaign budget is $2.6m – a tiny amount in a country of 1.2 billion people.

Indians have historically been fearful of standing up to power but Kejriwal has challenged this view with his bold statements criticising some of the country’s most entrenched elites. AAP is unlikely to become the new party of government, but if Kejriwal can embolden Indians to keep up their demands for greater government transparency and accountability, it could still transform India’s politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war