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Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), shows his ink-marked finger after casting his vote outside a polling station in New Delhi April 10, 2014. Around 815 million people have registered to vote in the world's biggest election which concludes on May 12. (VIJAY MATHUR/REUTERS)
Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), shows his ink-marked finger after casting his vote outside a polling station in New Delhi April 10, 2014. Around 815 million people have registered to vote in the world's biggest election which concludes on May 12. (VIJAY MATHUR/REUTERS)

India’s urban poor rally around corruption fighter Add to ...

In a poor part of India’s capital on Thursday, a number of New Delhi’s 12-million voters emerged from the police-guarded gates of a primary school turned polling booth with their fingers stained bluish-purple, a sign they had just cast ballots in India’s marathon, five-week general election.

This part of south Delhi is home to many maids and labourers who toil in more affluent parts of the capital. And because of that, the talk among the rickshaw drivers, unemployed housewives and maids outside the gates was not about Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress Party nor Narendra Modi, leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who polls suggest will be India’s next prime minister.

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The topic of conversation here was a former tax collector: Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the newly formed anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, the AAP, who stunned India by winning 28 out of 70 seats in elections for Delhi’s legislative assembly in December.

He won by pledging to sweep away corruption – the party’s symbol for illiterate voters is a broom – and deliver for the downtrodden. In many ways, he did that, but then he surprised everyone again by resigning after 49 days, partly because an anti-corruption bill he helped draft was stalled but also because he wanted to take his party to greater power in India’s national elections.

“I pray to God that Kejriwal wins,” says Meena, a widow with three children who works as a maid, and only uses one name. “In 50 years, the other parties couldn’t do what he did in 50 days.”

The mustachioed Mr. Kejriwal, whose supporters wear the white, peaked Gandhi caps of India’s independent struggle, is now trying to gain enough seats to affect policy-making in this nation of 1.2 billion people.

It will certainly be a struggle. But whatever success the AAP finds, Mr. Kejriwal has already helped reshape India’s political discourse by talking about, and acting on, India’s widespread corruption.

He emerged as an activist during India’s recent anti-corruption movement, in which popular leader Anna Hazare held a “fast unto death” to demand action after a series of scandals. One incident in the telecommunications industry alone was estimated to cost the Indian exchequer $39-billion (U.S.).

In a nation where last-minute inducements like food, alcohol and cash can influence voters, some of those who cast their votes Thursday picked the AAP because of concrete measures that affected them personally.

“Electricity bills came down. Water bills came down. The cooking-gas subsidy was increased,” says Savita, a 27-year-old unemployed housewife. “If we elect him at the national level, he will do a lot more.”

Mr. Kejriwal, whose party posts all donations in a democracy occasionally soured by illicit bribes, scared many bureaucrats out of bribe-taking in Delhi.

“When someone asks me for a bribe now, I write down his name, and then report him,” says Amit Dagar, a 22-year-old AAP supporter, who says he paid a bribe to get his driver’s licence before Mr. Kejriwal came to power.

Mr. Kejriwal’s success so far is an astounding feat in a political system dominated by the Congress Party and the BJP, as well as a host of strong regional parties whose support helps the two main parties lead coalition governments. Mr. Kejriwal would likely welcome a king-making role similar to that of the powerful, regional parties – such as the caste-focused Samajwadi Party in western Uttar Pradesh, where there was also voting on Thursday.

But the urban poor that form Mr. Kejriwal’s base are, in some ways, fickle ideologues, casting ballots on whoever can deliver – and to many, that now looks like the BJP.

Regardless, the very presence of the AAP is a powerful development in Indian politics.

“There’s no doubt that [the AAP’s] emergence reflects the very profound discontent with the political system, with political parties and, of course, corruption and nepotism in political parties,” says Zoya Hasan, a national fellow with the Indian Council of Social Science Research. “Regardless of their performance in the Lok Sabha [lower house] elections, they have had an impact. … They have made the whole issue of transparency and accountability very important, as well as decentralization and giving voice to ordinary people.”

Even though Mr. Kejriwal has surprised everyone before, ordinary people and analysts alike do not see him replicating in national elections his resounding success in Delhi. India is a vast democracy of 543 constituencies and other parties have had decades to build up organizations capable of campaigning across the whole country.

The AAP does have an earnest group of volunteers across India, as well as overseas. Some are even collecting money and organizing support among Canada’s sizable Indian population. “They want to help, they want to stop corruption,” says Anurag Shrivaspava, 43, a technology consultant in Toronto who helped on Mr. Kejriwal’s victory in Delhi’s elections.

He is seen as a common man and has broad appeal among the poor, but he is also new to national politics: His decision to eschew a security detail on the campaign trail, for example, led to him getting slapped in the face by an ostensible supporter. He decried this as a stunt by rivals, but it gained widespread attention at a time many observers wonder how long Mr. Kejriwal’s momentum can continue.

One unknown is whether Delhi’s – and India’s – middle class will continue to support the party, which will only be revealed when votes are tallied on May 16.

One accomplishment of Mr. Kejriwal’s Delhi campaign was luring dissatisfied members of the growing middle class like Sundeep Chug, a 49-year-old Indian Army officer, who saw the AAP as a fresh influence.

“For the first time, AAP has forced the other parties to talk of corruption and governance,” he says, sitting with his wife, who is a doctor, on the outskirts of a rally in Delhi for the party.

His surprising resignation from Delhi’s chief minister’s chair startled many frustrated moderates who thought they had elected someone who could orchestrate a long-term anti-corruption plan. It was a glimpse at the instability that might accompany him to the national level.

In an election Mr. Kejriwal himself has ensured is being fought on issues such as governance and accountability, polls are showing broad support for Mr. Modi, a stern, task-master with a 12-year record of ruling the western state of Gujarat. In some ways, he is Mr. Kejriwal’s complete opposite – trying to end poverty by creating a stable investment climate, and to hit back at corruption with a micro-managed bureaucracy – and he is doing much better on the campaign trail.

“I will probably vote for Modi, but my heart is with AAP,” says Tanveen Ratti, a young product designer, as she sips a beer in an affluent Delhi neighbourhood. “The country now needs a stable government. Modi can give us that. AAP can’t.”

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