India’s Newest Political Party Takes On Graft

Elections for New Delhi's legislative assembly take place on Dec. 4 and the Aam Aadmi Party is gaining momentum with populist policies. But can it govern?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Raj K. Raj / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal, front left, and other party leaders attend a campaign event in New Delhi on Nov. 23, 2013

Snaking across the streets of Janakpuri in West Delhi, a fleet of auto-rickshaws — the daily transport of millions of middle-class Indians — blares feisty anticorruption slogans while the passengers brandish symbolic brooms out of doors and windows.

The rowdy cavalcade is the perfect visual expression of India’s newest political movement. Barely one-year-old, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or the Party for the Common Man, has swerved off the main road of Indian electoral politics — defined by money, caste, power and dynasties — and toots its way down a path of its own. “We have tried out all other parties,” says Gaurav Singh, a 27-year-old AAP supporter, says. “I want to give this one a chance. Maybe there will be change.”

Many in the capital today share Singh’s sentiments, which is why the party is considered a serious contender in elections for New Delhi’s legislative assembly. The chamber is traditionally dominated by India’s two largest parties, the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But the AAP has “tapped the anger of the common Indian, especially that of the younger generation,” says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a New Delhi–based independent political analyst. “How far that translates into votes remains to be seen.”

The polls are on Dec. 4, with the results due four days later. The AAP is the only other party outside the main two to be contesting all 70 seats, and observers believe a positive result could see a push toward expanding nationally.

(MORE: The Race to Be India’s Next Prime Minister Is Narendra Modi’s to Lose)

Taking on India’s political goliaths is no simple task, however. The AAP’s election campaign budget for New Delhi is a meager $3.3 million as opposed to the $17 million that the Congress Party and BJP are each reportedly spending. Rather than plush offices, this new contender operates out of a rent-free office, donated by a supporter, with the help of volunteers.

“The AAP has challenged our established ideas of how political parties that revolve around dynasties and patronages can evolve in the current phase of neo-liberalization,” says Vidhu Verma, professor and chairperson of the Centre for Political Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “It arose due to the way public confidence in political parties had waned.”

The roots of the AAP lie in the populist antigraft movement of 2011 and 2012, a grassroots protest that spurred the government to introduce anticorruption legislation in Parliament (although this is yet to become law). Anna Hazare, the veteran antigraft crusader who spearheaded that movement, is not part of the AAP because of a refusal to participate in electoral politics, but the party is led by his onetime aides, with Arvind Kejriwal as party boss.

“When we started the anticorruption movement, the idea was that if we put enough public pressure on the government, it will pass the anticorruption bill,” Prashant Bhushan, one of the founding members of the AAP, tells TIME. “That didn’t happen. And we realized that the only way to pressure them was by contesting elections and getting into Parliament.”

The transition from a social entity to a political party, however, has not been easy. Its manifesto is popular but also impractical, including the halving of electricity tariffs among other examples of largesse. Critics say that a coherent vision of governance remains missing. “When Arvind Kejriwal speaks of ‘self governance,’ does it mean more or less government?” Verma asks.

AAP’s real challenge may begin once the New Delhi polls have closed and it tries to figure out how to sustain its appeal. Otherwise the goal of defeating corruption will be as elusive as ever.

MORE: India’s Prime Minister and ‘Crown Prince’ Have an Awkward Spat