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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The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.