India elections: Expect the unexpected from anti-corruption movement


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The Independent Online

India’s general elections, the largest in history with 815 million eligible voters, are under way. Most polls indicate that the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will form the next government with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, and the ruling Congress party of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi will be humiliated.

But while these are the headlines, there is an interesting little footnote: how will the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) fare at its first ever national election?

AAP was formed just a few months ago. It sprang out of an anti-corruption civil society movement and grew into a full-fledged political party, channelling the common man’s (aam aadmi) frustration with the corruption that dogs him at every step of his life. AAP’s symbols, the homespun Gandhi cap and a broom to sweep corruption away, are now ubiquitous.

Everyone expects AAP to do the unexpected. At the Delhi local elections late last year, it did astonishingly well and even led the coalition government. Much of this is due to the party’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal. When in power in Delhi state, he was more agitator-in-chief than chief minister, even sleeping on Delhi’s pavements in the cold of winter as a form of protest. The two months in which AAP “ruled” Delhi were tumultuous, every day producing a new high in agitation politics (and a new low in governance). It was too bad to last, so it didn’t, but only because Kejriwal had set his sights on a national presence in the general election then only a few months away.

Kejriwal and his team’s confrontational methods, and their obvious immaturity, lost AAP some support but many still back AAP’s cause. They feel that Congress and the BJP are two sides of the same coin: crony capitalism flourishes, corruption is widespread, old fogies with antiquated ideas rule the roost and bureaucracy stifles enterprise at every step. This revulsion with “politics as usual” is especially strong among young people who are disillusioned with Congress’s misrule and BJP’s moral policing. It’s also very strong with the educated middle class who live in India’s over-crowded cities, and pine for a political dispensation that will breakaway from the cynicism and money power of politics, with its over-reliance on appealing to religious insecurities.

This appeal has brought together a diverse group of people who would earlier have never gone into politics. From Medha Patkar, who has fought a life-long battle against Gujarat state’s large dams, to Meera Sanyal, the ex-head of a multinational bank, who gave up her cushy job to join the hurly-burly of elections. AAP’s economic policies hark back to India’s bad old socialist days and rail against big business, so they are sweet music to Patkar and anathema to Sanyal. Yet there they are in Mumbai, fighting side by side for parliamentary seats in India’s financial capital. The only thing that brings them together is a burning desire for change.

Estimates of how many seats the AAP will win vary from 10 to 30 out of the total 545 seats in India’s parliament. Even at the highest estimate, that’s not many. But then, regional parties with similar numbers of MPs have had some role to play in coalition governments. What makes AAP different, and what makes other politicians nervous, is that Kejriwal and Co have the knack of making an impact quite disproportionate to their numbers.

However many seats it wins, AAP will certainly stay out of the new government. Then, like a terrier, it will keep snapping at the government’s heels, in an effort to keep everyone clean and honest.