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.

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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.