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.

Truth to power: Arvind Kejriwal campaigning in Delhi in early April. Photo: Hindustan Times via Getty
Truth to power: Arvind Kejriwal campaigning in Delhi in early April. Photo: Hindustan Times via Getty

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.

Tags:India