Leader of the AAP Arvind Kejriwal at a rally in Varanasi in May 2014. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty
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What is behind the resurgence of the AAP, India’s radical anti-corruption movement?

The Aam Aadmi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal, has won 67 out of 70 seats in Delhi’s elections.

This week, something amazing happened in India’s capital city Delhi: a radical anti-corruption, anti-establishment party won a landslide victory in the state assembly elections. The Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal – a self-proclaimed anarchist – won 67 out of 70 seats. The last three went to Narandra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was the BJP’s first major setback since it won its own landslide victory in national elections last year. Delhi’s 20 million voters have given the AAP an astonishing mandate to rule. “This is a victory of the people, a victory of truth,” said Kejriwal in a speech to a crowd of supporters. “I hope that we can make it a place where the rich and poor peacefully co-exist.”

This is not the AAP’s first astonishing victory in Delhi elections. In the December 2013 state assembly polls, the party made an impressive debut, and Kejriwal became chief minister (as he looks set to do again). However, he lasted only 49 days in power, resigning after his anti-corruption bill was blocked by opposition politicians. This short-lived spell in power was hugely undermining, and the party – initially hailed as the great new hope for Indian politics – performed very poorly in the 2014 general election.

The AAP’s astonishing comeback is largely due to Kejriwal’s campaigning tactics. He launched his bid to regain Delhi as early as July, with an on-the-ground, personal campaign, which saw him go to every area and slum in this sprawling metropolis to beg forgiveness for resigning in haste. The prevailing sense in India is that politicians are aloof and arrogant, so this ground-level atonement was highly effective. Kejriwal and his party, then, are clearly capable of winning elections. But what is this party actually pledging to do, and where has its support come from?

The AAP has its roots in India’s anti-corruption movement. Kejriwal was active in the protest movement that gained traction in 2011 and 2012, working closely with the prominent activist Anna Hazare. The party was born out of a disagreement with Hazare and other activists, who believed that the movement should be kept politically neutral. Kejriwal and his followers argued, instead, that direct involvement with politics was necessary. The AAP was formally launched in November 2012 and was officially registered by the Election Commission in March 2013.

On its website, the AAP sets out its grand aims: “Our aim in entering politics is not to come to power; we have entered politics to change the current corrupt and self-serving system of politics forever. So that no matter who comes to power in the future, the system is strong enough to withstand corruption at any level of governance.”

Of course, vague promises to stamp out corruption are not enough to govern Delhi, a complex megacity beset by inequality and major problems with water, electricity, housing, air pollution, and traffic. The AAP’s manifesto sets out its roadmap for Delhi. Its commitments include self-rule for Delhi’s neighbourhoods, with hyper-local committees in charge of decisions about schools, health centres, and food banks; a 50 per cent reduction in electricity bills, although the manifesto does not say how this would be achieved; a range of measures to improve safety for women, including better street lights and transport services; universal access to affordable drinking water; reductions to the cost of everyday living, with measures such as cutting the cost of private education and health care.

These are all admirable promises, and they have clearly struck a nerve with a major cross-section of Delhi’s population. The AAP won more than half of the popular vote; the highest of any party in Delhi ever. This suggests that support for the AAP came from across different socio-economic and religious groups. Kejriwal has always remained popular with the underprivileged voters who make up around 60 per cent of Delhi’s population. But it seems that it was not just the poor and religious minorities, such as Muslims, backing the AAP, but also the Hindu majority and the professional classes. Some of these voters are reportedly anxious that the BJP has failed to control its radical fringe of Hindu hardliners.

For all the appeal of the AAP’s message, the manifesto is noticeably scant on detail. During Kejriwal’s last stint in power, he was accused of behaving like an activist rather than a politician – one notable example was when he slept in the open for two nights to pressurise the federal government to grant him more control over the city police. There is also the fact that rather than seeking alternative strategies or compromise, he chose to resign his whole cabinet when his anti-corruption bill was blocked.

Kejriwal’s supporters – and there are clearly a lot of them – argue that he is chastened by this early failure in office, and that he has learned from these mistakes. With the BJP’s rival, Congress, in tatters (this is the first time it has failed to gain a single seat in Delhi, after ruling India for most of its 67 years as an independent state), there are hopes that the AAP could eventually lead a coalition that opposes Modi’s right-wing, economically liberal government.

The AAP sees its aims as bigger than that. One senior official, Ashutosh (who only goes by one name), told journalists:“The administration is the easy part. Our mission is to change the political culture here, provide a model where an ordinary common man is encouraged to become a stakeholder in our democracy and that is a big, huge challenge for us.” Whether it can be achieved this time round remains to be seen.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

NICHOLAS KAMM / Staff
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Blow-dried and supplicant, Ivanka shows the limits of the power women are allowed in Trumpworld

A new book by the US President’s daughter has surpisingly strong echoes of medieval royalty.

Exactly 500 years ago this month, the apprentices of London rose up, ­angry with Flemish immigrants and the bankers of Lombard Street. The race riot was quelled only when a couple of dukes sent in their private armies. Hundreds of looters were arrested and some were hanged, drawn and quartered. But some rioters were as young as 13 and the city’s residents felt sorry for them.

Henry VIII wanted to look magnanimous, but not weak. And so, at the trial in Westminster Hall on 7 May, ­Cardinal Wolsey first asked for mercy on the youngsters’ behalf. He was refused.

And then three women came forward: Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters Mary and Margaret, the widowed queens of France and Scotland. Faced with three women on their knees, the king relented. “It was a scene straight from the pages of chivalry,” writes Sarah Gristwood in her history of Renaissance women and power, Game of Queens. “An intercessory function, of course, had been traditional for queens, from the biblical Esther and Bathsheba to the Virgin Mary.”

Whenever contemporary politics gets too depressing, I take refuge in history. I always hope I will gain some perspective from people whose problems are very different from my own. Yes, climate change is terrifying; but at least I don’t have scrofula! Yet modern life has a way of creeping back. Late-medieval Europe was full of resentment for “aliens”, for example, who were felt to be prospering at the expense of native populations, even if those tensions were often expressed in religious rather than nationalist terms. It was Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, who expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find such strong echoes of medieval royalty in Ivanka Trump’s new book, Women Who Work. I won’t waste your time by attempting to review this seminal tome, especially as it’s largely constructed out of bits of other self-help books. The advice boils down to: be “multi-dimensional”; don’t be afraid to use “architect” as a verb; feel free to turn down Anna Wintour, when she offers you a job at Vogue straight out of university, because your true passion is real estate. If it’s a busy time at work, as it was for Ivanka on the campaign trail, go into “survival mode”. (“Honestly,” she writes, “I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”) Something for everyone.

Still, Women Who Work gave me the chance to contemplate the point of Ivanka Trump. I’ve seen her far more than I have heard her, which is no surprise, as her role in the administration is largely symbolic. What is Ivanka if not a Renaissance queen, tearfully pleading with her lord to show mercy? She is, we are told, his conscience. When his daughter’s clothing line was dropped by the US retailer Nordstrom in February, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Two months later, her name was invoked again. The First Daughter was distraught – “heartbroken and outraged”, she tweeted – at the sight of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime. This prompted her father to bomb an airbase to atone for the slaughter of what his statement referred to as “beautiful babies”. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence,” her brother Eric told the Telegraph. “I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’”

This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanising, empathetic. Their tears moisten the oak-like carapace of great leaders, showing them that sometimes it’s OK to be kind – but obviously not too kind, because that’s a bit soppy and girly and gay. Women are naturally prone to emotion, of course, unlike sturdy, ­rational men, who get so cross about the way TV news is reporting their firing of the FBI director that they start sending unhinged tweets implying they have incriminating “tapes” of White House conversations.

In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway. (As New York magazine urged acidly on 13 April, “Someone Please Show Ivanka Pictures of Starving Yemeni Children”.) Ivanka’s whole book is designed to render female power unthreatening by making it “feminine”; merely a complement to male power instead of a challenge to it.

To reassure us that she isn’t some frumpy bluestocking, Ivanka has crafted an image of expensive, time-consuming perfection: perfect white teeth, perfect blow-dried hair, perfectly toned body. Her make-up, clothes and home are all styled in unobtrusive neutrals. Together it says: let me in the room and I promise not to be a nuisance or take up too much space, even on the colour wheel. It’s noticeable that no woman in Trump’s orbit has “let herself go”, even though his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has the complexion of a body that’s been found after two weeks in the water. I somehow doubt he ever makes “time for self-care”.

And don’t come at me with all that garbage about a nice frock and a manicure being “empowering”. Look at Donald Trump, the one with his own military: he has a fat arse and uses Sellotape to hold his ties in place. A president is allowed to have appetites – for women, for food, for power. His supplicant daughter gets to peddle platitudes about how you should “bond with your boss”. (Being a blood relative helps, although, sadly, Women Who Work is silent on what to do if he also fancies you.)

Is this how far we’ve come in 500 years? Ivanka Trump might try to sell herself as a modern woman, but her brand of female power is positively medieval.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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