Can India’s Fight Against Corruption Be Won at the Ballot Box?

Arvind Kejriwal, a rabble-rousing, fearless anticorruption activist, has launched his own political party. But, given the murkiness of India's political culture, is that the right route for Kejriwal's cause?

  • Share
  • Read Later

Supporters of activist Arvind Kejriwal hold Indian flags as they listen to a speaker at Parliament Street in New Delhi on Nov. 26, 2012

India’s public soul-searching over the pervasiveness of corruption in society took center stage again with the formal launch of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a new political group formed on an explicitly anticorruption platform. On Monday, whistleblower turned politician Arvind Kejriwal officially kicked off the new party, which he will lead in the greater capital region’s elections next year. AAP is the latest in a string of groups pledging to battle the corruption that many say is endemic in India’s halls of power, but it is the first promising to take the fight inside those halls.

The very name of the AAP packs a pointed punch: protecting the interests of the aam aadmi, or common man, has long been a promise of the ruling Congress Party, and one that Kejriwal is suggesting — in no uncertain terms — has been broken. Kejriwal has announced that he plans to spend 2013 touring the country to expose the alleged misdeeds of Congress and India’s main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. He’ll also have to work fast to recruit voters: Delhi elections are scheduled to be held at the end of next year, and national elections, which AAP may also be gunning to get in on, are scheduled not long after, in the first half of 2014.

(PHOTOS: Indians Protest the Arrest of Anna Hazare)

Speaking to the press and supporters over the weekend, Kejriwal said the AAP will seek, among other things, to increase citizens’ access to the justice system, to bolster the role of local governing bodies and to enact into law the much debated Jan Lokpal Bill, which would establish an independent body in the national government to investigate corruption. “Aam aadmi will now contest elections, aam aadmi will vote and aam aadmi will sit in Parliament,” Kejriwal told the press. “This party will change the way politics and political parties function in the country.”

Not everyone is so sure. Congress, for its part, has slammed the new politico for appropriating the aam aadmi tag with which their party has long been associated; one member said it exposed the fundamental “intellectual bankruptcy” of India’s newest player before it even got started. Others too have questioned whether Kejriwal is fit for the fray. Forbes India called his vision for greater equality in governance, as outlined in his book Swaraj, “a disastrous mix of idealism, naiveté and blindness bordering on the idiotic.” In November, members of India Inc. fought back after he and other members of India Against Corruption (IAC), an NGO, accused several prominent businessmen, companies and political figures of squirreling away money into Swiss bank accounts, as well as HSBC of aiding money laundering. Several of the accused have denied the charges, including brothers Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries Ltd. and Anil Ambani of Reliance Group, who denied all wrongdoing and released statements that the allegations were made at the behest of “vested interests.”

Some wonder whether anticorruption activists ought not wade into the muddy waters of Indian politics, particularly in a country where the power of protest on the streets still has tremendous currency. In September, Kejriwal and fellow anticorruption campaigner Anna Hazare parted ways over the former’s conviction to enter politics. Hazare, still the most recognizable face in civil society’s fight against corruption in India, believes the cause is better served outside the political realm and prefers to support candidates from the sidelines.

(MORE: Why Anna Hazare, Scourge of India’s Politicians, May Join Their Ranks)

Others argue that founding an entire political party on tackling corruption is myopic, as it fails to address the more fundamental social problems at the root of petty bribes at the railway station and multimillion-dollar scams alike. “It doesn’t make sense for an organization engaging in an issue, which is so intensely political, to claim they are apolitical,” says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a political commentator in New Delhi. He says while it was “almost inevitable” for Kejriwal and his IAC colleagues to engage in politics, the group’s focus on the single issue of corruption has proved to be a limitation. “When you talk about corruption, you also have to talk about political reform. You have to talk about regulatory mechanisms. You have talk about health care, education — the works.”

Guha Thakurta says the powerful thing that IAC — and now AAP — has done is to tap into a zeitgeist. “Corruption is not new or unique to India,” he says. What’s been different in recent years, he says, is the scale and brazenness of the high-level scams that have come to light, at a moment when life for most Indians has been getting tougher with high food prices and inflation. “The reason why people like Arvind Kejriwal have struck a chord is because they have been able to articulate the anger and frustration over these acts of crony capitalism.”

Supporters of Kejriwal and his cause also argue that the slow progress of the anticorruption movement necessitates a more articulated political engagement. The Lokpal Bill, for instance, has been stalled in Parliament without movement for many months. (The law is once again on the table in the winter session that is under way now.) “Anyone who tries to effect a fundamental change in any one aspect of our public life will have to take on politics,” Yogendra Yadav, a professor and associate of Kejriwal, opined last month in Outlook. “If politics is about shifting the balance of power in a society, then not resorting to politics is not an option.” It’s impossible to say at this juncture whether or not the AAP will inspire enough votes to get through any of the points on their new agenda. But if Kejriwal and his colleagues manage to keep corruption on the national agenda, it could be worth the fight.

MORE: Yet Another Fast by India’s Anticorruption Crusader

PHOTOS: India Goes on Strike