The man who handily unseated three-term incumbent Sheila Dikshit from India’s Legislative Assembly of Delhi last month is a 45-year-old bespectacled Indian Institutes of Technology graduate, Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the upstart Aam Aadmi – Common Man – Party (AAP) and an advocate for freedom-based sustainable development and political transparency.
From his activist beginnings at Parivartan (Hindi word for “change”) in 1999, while still in the Indian Revenue Service, Kejriwal was recognized for “activating the right-to-information movement at the grassroots,” as the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation put it in giving him its 2006 Award for Emergent Leadership, which is widely described as Asia’s Nobel Prize.
Kejriwal used his award money to setup the Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF). This in turn gave birth to the India Against Corruption movement, which shot to fame in 2011 after he, Anna Hazare, and others (popularly known as Team Anna) staged a hunger strike to demand the passage of a Jan Lokpal (ombudsman) bill. The bill was drawn up by PCRF trustees and other civil-society activists to create an independent body to investigate corruption, redress citizen grievances, and protect whistleblowers. The movement galvanized India’s middle class, which is frustrated by endemic corruption, which has cost a staggering 4.32 trillion rupees. Thousands thronged the streets and parks and marched with candles in support of the anticorruption movement.
Frustrated by the fate of that bill in Parliament, Kejriwal led a breakaway faction to seek an electoral solution. In late 2012, on a platform of anticorruption, clean politics, and decentralized governance, Kejriwal – donning a skullcap imprinted with the words Aam Aadmi -- launched the party by that name. Now there was a political organization that stood for true democracy, the right to recall officeholders, Lokpal and its state counterpart, Lokayuktas – and against dynastic rule,.
Setting an eye on the Delhi elections just a year away, AAP faced a tall order: elections in India are a slugfest of anonymous money, alcohol, and freebies. With the frequent lament about the opaqueness of campaign financing, AAP published its list of donors on its website. Thinking outside the box, AAP creatively managed with its modest resources by using auto-rickshaws and Gandhi caps to promote its campaign messages.
It drew its volunteers from the agitated and dedicated urban youth. With a strong team that included former journalists, AAP used the social media to powerful effect by connecting to young people, who form over a third of the voting-age population of Delhi.
And in a novel move, unlike the major political parties, AAP fielded candidates without criminal histories, a strategy that proved immensely successful.
The credible alternative provided by AAP was rewarded with a 30 percent vote share, securing 28 out of 70 seats, to emerge as the second largest party in the assembly. This result has reinstated faith in the robust and crazy Indian democratic system – robust because it has stood the test of time since India’s independence in 1947 (except briefly in the 1970s, when an “emergency” was declared and certain democratic rights were suspended), and crazy because of its multiparty system, which confers on every individual and every organization a right to contest elections.
India is undergoing a political renaissance. Since the 1960s, when L.M. Singhvi first introduced the concept of a Lokpal, this is the first time that an anticorruption movement has become a potent political force demanding competition for honesty among parties. The consequences of the rise of AAP, which no political party can dismiss, are beautifully captured by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the well-known political scientist, in his succinct commentary
The Aam Aadmi Party’s absolutely spectacular political debut is a reminder that India’s progressive moment is ripe for being seized through political creativity and imagination. There will be new experiments with ideas, people and organisational forms. There is now a search for a new politics at many different levels. There is the search for a post-identity politics, which the AAP exemplified. Not only was its vote share spectacular, its cross class and caste basis was also impressive.
However, the picture is not all rosy. There are serious gaps in AAP’s manifesto, which sells an impossible dream to voters: implementation of minimum-wage laws (which prices unskilled workers out of jobs), government dictation of the terms of employment contracts, filling vacant government posts to increase employment, regulating fees of private schools, et cetera. These are just a handful of measures that erode confidence in AAP’s good-governance promise. Missing are the lessons of the Public Choice theory of political economy, market-based reforms, and a realization that incentives matter.
Despite these reservations, the rise of AAP indeed marks a watershed for Indian democracy. AAP deserves the benefit of doubt.