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 Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.