India's New Leaf

Aam Aadmi Party Election Poster
India's New Leaf - Sirtaj Kaur

Corruption is a cancer that has been consistently weakening the state of India since independence. Nothing functions in India without the payment of a bribe. No file will move from one office to another unless there is a phone call from a VIP asking for the same. All elected officials and bureaucrats are treated like kings, or even Gods, depending upon the situation.

This is the perception of India that Arvind Kejriwal has set out to change. A year into the formation of his political party, called the Aam Aadmi Party (the Common Man’s Party), Kejriwal has taken his position on the Chief Minister’s Chair for the state of Delhi. His aims are simple – to rid Indian governance of corruption and to ensure its efficient functioning. He wants to make life simpler for the common man. For Delhi, he has an 18-point agenda, which includes reducing the costs of electricity and water, strengthening the role of civil society in government through the establishment of Mohalla Sabhas (People’s Councils) in all localities, providing adequate healthcare and education services, and addressing the problems of the Muslims and the Sikhs in Delhi, etc. These are basic issues, he believes, that the common man is aggrieved about.

What is interesting about Kejriwal’s election success story is that he managed to defeat Sheila Dixit, the Congress Party leader who has been the Chief Minister of Delhi for the past three terms, from her own constituency. His party got voted into 28 of the 70  open seats. But it has been a tumultuous decade for the Congress Party, which has been in power in India’s Central Government for the past 10 years. The party has been embarrassed by many large-scale scandals. Its main rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Indian People’s Party (BJP), has done well in state elections, but has also seen its ministers participate in their share of corruption.

Enter Arvind Kejriwal. Before the mass popularization two years ago of the anti-corruption movement India Against Corruption of which he was part, Kejriwal ran an NGO called Parivartan (Change) targeting the Income Tax Department, for which he worked as an officer of the Indian Revenue Services, demanding honest tax assessments and swift reimbursements. He then actively campaigned for the revolutionary Right to Information law in 2005 and received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emerging Leadership in 2005. But it was the anti-corruption movement of 2011 demanding a Jan Lokpal Bill in Parliament that solidified Kejriwal’s status as a voice of civil society. He then decided to form his political party, the AAP, and fought the state elections in Delhi in 2013.

Kejriwal’s election and his winning of the trust vote in Delhi’s Legislative Assembly is undoubtedly a defining moment in the history of Indian politics. He campaigned against corruption rather than for a seat in the assembly. The AAP has turned Indian politics upon its head, telling us that one does not necessarily need to get one’s hands dirty to be a politician. Ideals, which seemed to have been turned into myths, referred to only in text books of social studies in conjunction with the makers of the Indian Constitution and the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, were brought to the mainstream, giving people hope. Kejriwal came like a breath of fresh air, with ideals uncompromising like those of Arjun.

Of course there are those who do not believe in him and his cause, who deem it naive and unrealistic. The critics also claim that the AAP made a deal with the devil – taking support from the Congress Party to get majority to form the government in Delhi. And perhaps, insofar as this is concerned, the charges of hypocrisy are not unfounded. The AAP gained traction by its vehement and bold criticism of the mainstream parties like the Congress and the BJP. The opposition is also wary of the party’s policies of providing heavily subsidised water and power. The economic question of the deficit this will create and the political question of the righteousness of such populist moves remain open and will perhaps act as the golden scales upon which the party’s performance will be gauged.

Despite these valid criticisms, the party’s true victories and contributions must not be undermined. It has moved the Indian polity into believing in the victory of good over the malicious, powerful, and influential. It has made other parties think about these issues, rather than caste, religion, or other forms of fissure politics. How long or successful the AAP’s stint will be remains to be seen. But for now, it has made an Indian believe that a vote is meaningful – that it has the power to bring change.