Guest post by Devin Finn
On February 7, when Delhiwallas go to the polls to vote for candidates for all 70 seats in the Vidhan Sabha (विधान सभा) — the union territory’s Legislative Assembly — the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, literally the ‘Common Man’ Party) has another opportunity to prove it knows how to remake politics.
The AAP’s leader Arvind Kejriwal has promised to end corruption and improve the lives of the poor. Hanging in the balance are several fundamental political processes: ongoing efforts to chip away at corruption, an unprecedented movement to combat violence against women, and the possibility that an alternative vision of politics may find support among voters.
Opinion polls indicate a tight race, with party leaders from both prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) and the AAP trading barbs and accusations of rules violations. After a rough 2014, AAP is attempting to concentrate strength in Delhi and demonstrate that it can govern. AAP has sought to contest as many seats as possible, build a widespread political movement in Delhi, and train and equip activists who can exploit social media to generate precise and effective messaging. Even if AAP loses, will politics be the same?
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The AAP campaign labors in the shadow of its brief administration a year ago. In a serious upset in December 2013, Delhi voters elected Kejriwal by a considerable margin to his New Delhi constituency seat, and handed AAP the reins to the city, albeit dependent on outside support from the previous governing party, the Indian National Congress (भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस). After only 49 days, however, Kejriwal resigned: he had promised to do so on principle if lawmakers failed to pass the Jan Lokpal, a parliamentary bill that would mandate an independent ombudsman to curb corruption.
Most Delhi voters and political analysts I conversed with during last spring’s election season asserted that Kejriwal’s resignation was no way to change politics. This was perhaps borne out by AAP’s electoral humiliation in the national vote in April and May 2014. Spreading itself thin, the fledgling party won just four seats out of over 400 it contested. Meanwhile, the BJP gained 51.9% of all seats and a comprehensive mandate.
Still, it is those ’49 days’ that both haunts and enlivens the AAP campaign. Kejriwal has apologized to supporters for reneging on the opportunity to lead the Delhi government. While he lost significant political capital by staking his leadership on the bill, Kejriwal now knows that he must play the political game for real. He has tried to demonstrate that in less than just two months, the concrete initiatives that AAP put in motion were on the right track, including establishing an anti-corruption hotline and 5500 new auto rickshaw permits. Rahul Kanwal thinks this could be an asset:
The poor actually liked those 49 chaotic days. That was when electricity and water bills had halved and the neighbourhood cop and bijliwala were too scared to ask for bribes. The day Kejriwal’s government fell is the day the ravenous agent of the state was back on the poor man’s door asking for his monthly hafta.
While the #49DaysNostalgia lends an air of experience to today’s AAP effort, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as Kejriwal likes to say. The question is whether voters are willing to support AAP after its two serious missteps in 2013 and 2014. At least three major issues are at stake.
First, the movement to root out corruption requires renewed commitment from a broader set of actors. If Kejriwal becomes chief minister once again, he has promised to push the Jan Lokpal through Parliament. The omnipresent broom, the AAP’s party symbol, reminds voters of its defining promise to clean up government, but the party has shifted its focus from protesting outside government buildings to changing the system from inside.
For the AAP, eliminating corruption means exposing abuses of power and multi-billion dollar scams, but it also means making basic services accessible not only to impoverished Indians but all citizens. AAP has long demanded that power and utility companies operating in Delhi should be audited. Until that process concludes, the party argues, all residents’ electricity bills should be cut by half. The party portrays water as a right, making it the government’s obligation to provide affordable water to every household in Delhi.
Still, shadowy politics maintains a strong hold. Seventeen percent of candidates from all parties have criminal cases against them, including 33 percent of AAP candidates and 39 percent of BJP candidates. Some of these are serious, including assault charges against women.
Second, the movement to combat violence against women in India has gathered steam in the last few years, especially since six men gang-raped and beat Jyoti Singh Pandey on a public bus in Delhi in December 2012. The city has one of the highest rates of rape and kidnapping in India. AAP has made improved CCTV surveillance and street lighting central to its platform. The party has promised a security guard on every bus, ensuring zero tolerance of harassment. AAP has made the security of women an actionable priority and empowered women as leaders and activists. But systemic problems persist, including the 26 percent conviction rate in cases involving sexual assault and violence.
Women who support AAP gathered in Krishna Nagar — the constituency from which BJP chief ministerial candidate Kiran Bedi herself is running — for an Aam Aurat ‘common woman’ rally on February 4. Still, only ten percent of the 673 candidates in the assembly elections are women.
Finally, the AAP seeks to show that another vision of politics in India is viable. Kejriwal’s goal has long been to change the contours of the debate. The party’s objective is to redefine politics by devolving power to citizens who have new political responsibilities. The 27 AAP MLAs in Delhi carried out the Swaraj initiative, through which members of communities suggest and vote on proposals for spending development funds at local meetings known as ‘mohalla sabha.’ This elevates ideas like the de-silting of drains during monsoon season and acquisition of classroom materials as legitimate taxpayer demands. Kejriwal has heightened the party’s attention to improve the lives of the poor by involving them in policymaking. This is work AAP shares with civil society and accountability organizations, by empowering people to rate their elected officials.
The idea of an alternative vision directly threatens the BJP. The ruling party is banking on people’s sustained faith in the status quo, which after Modi’s first eight months, has produced little sustainable reform on political or security measures. Given the success of Modi’s election campaign, one might expect the BJP to be well-equipped to expand its control in Delhi. But the party fielded a weak chief ministerial candidate, and the Delhi BJP leadership proved inept and unprepared for a serious electoral effort. In a television ad, the AAP said its plans for Delhi include making it a global city and a hub for technology, services, and education. If AAP can out-Modi Modi on attracting international investment in the capital, the status quo may be in question.
Whether the revolution of ‘the common man‘ can shake up the system and change politics as usual is not yet clear. BJP leaders insist that the Delhi result will not be a referendum on Modi. But Kejriwal and Modi may soon end up sharing prime office space on Raisina Hill.
Devin Finn is a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University, where she examines connections between comparative processes of poiltical mobilization and violence, with an emphasis on Latin America and South Asia.