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.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".