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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A loyalist rebranded: will Ségolène Royal run again to be the French President?

The French press is speculating about Ségolène Royal replacing François Hollande as the Socialist candidate.

“I will lead you to other victories!” Ségolène Royal told the crowds gathered in front of the French Socialist party’s headquarters on 6 May 2007.

Many at the time mocked her for making such an odd statement, just after losing to Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election. But nearly ten years on, she might just be the candidate the French left needs to win the upcoming presidential election.

There is growing speculation that the current President François Hollande – who was Royal’s partner for 30 years and the father of her four children – will not be in a position to run again. His approval ratings are so low that a defeat in next May’s election is almost inevitable. His own party is starting to turn against him and he can now only count on a handful of faithful supporters.

Royal is among them. In the past, she probably would have jumped at the opportunity to stand for election again, but she has learned from her mistakes. The 63-year-old has very cleverly rebranded herself as a wise, hard-working leader, while retaining the popular touch and strong-willed character which led to her previous successes.

Royal has an impressive political CV. She became an MP in 1988 and was on several occasions appointed to ministerial positions in the 1990s. In 2004, she was elected President of the Poitou-Charentes region in western France. In 2006, Royal won the Socialist party’s primary by a landslide ahead of the presidential election.

She went on to fight a tough campaign against Sarkozy, with little support from high-ranking members of her party. She ended up losing but was the first woman to ever go through to the second round of a French presidential election.

After that, it all went downhill. She split up with Hollande and lost the election to be party leader in 2008. She was humiliated by only getting 6.95 per cent of the votes in the 2011 Socialist presidential primary. She hit an all-time low when in 2012 she stood as the Socialist party’s official candidate to become MP for La Rochelle on the French west coast and lost to Olivier Falorni, a local candidate and Socialist party “dissident”. Royal then took a step back, away from the Parisian hustle and bustle. She continued to serve as the Poitou-Charentes regional President but kept largely out of the media eye.

Royal was very much the people’s candidate back in 2007. She drew her legitimacy from the primary result, which confirmed her huge popularity in opinion polls. She innovated by holding meetings where she would spend hours listening to people to build a collaborative manifesto: it was what she called participatory democracy. She shocked historical party figures by having La Marseillaise sung at campaign rallies and Tricolores flying; a tradition up until then reserved for right-wing rallies. She thought she would win the presidency because the people wanted her to, and did not take enough notice of those within her own party plotting her defeat.

Since then, Royal has cleverly rebranded herself – unlike Sarkozy, who has so far failed to convince the French he has changed.

When two years ago she was appointed environment minister, one of the highest-ranking cabinet positions, she kept her head down and worked hard to get an important bill on “energy transition” through Parliament. She can also be credited with the recent success of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Above all, she has been impeccably loyal to the President.

Royal has reinforced her political aura, by appearing at Hollande’s side for state occasions, to the extent that French press have even labelled her “the Vice-President”. This has given her a licence to openly contradict the Prime Minister Manuel Valls on various environmental issues, always cleverly placing herself on virtue’s side. In doing so, not only has she gained excellent approval ratings but she has pleased the Green party, a traditional ally for the Socialists that has recently turned its back on Hollande.

The hard work seems to have paid off. Last Sunday, Le Journal du Dimanche’s front-page story was on Royal and the hypothesis that she might stand if Hollande does not. She has dismissed the speculations, saying she found them amusing.

Whatever she is really thinking or planning, she has learned from past errors and knows that the French do not want leaders who appear to be primarily concerned with their own political fate. She warned last Sunday that, “for now, François Hollande is the candidate”. For now.

Philip Kyle is a French and English freelance journalist.