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.

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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.