Why Old Politics Is Out in New Delhi

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Chandradeep Kumar / India Today Group / Getty Images

Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal gestures as he addresses the public in New Delhi on Dec. 22, 2013

The National Capital Territory of Delhi is set to get a new leader, with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) head Arvind Kejriwal to become its next chief minister (CM). Kejriwal and his upstart anticorruption party defeated three-term Congress CM Sheila Dikshit in state elections earlier this month in an impressive debut that signaled urban voters’ weariness of politics as usual in India.

Kejriwal, who at 45 would be Delhi’s youngest CM, campaigned on a platform of ending an era of corrupt politics in India while tabling populist initiatives like free water for all Delhi households — to appeal to the “common man,” or aam aadmi, for which the party is named. The party symbol is a straw broom, a ubiquitous household item that alludes to AAP’s promise of including the poor and working class in the political process. “This is not a change of government, but a true change of regime,” says Mohan Guruswamy, founder and chairman of New Delhi think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives. “[Kejriwal] is actually promising a different way of doing things.”

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Delhiites certainly heeded the call, showing up to vote in unprecedented numbers on Dec. 4. AAP won 28 out of 70 state-assembly seats, a close second to the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won 32. But with no party able to claim a majority, weeks of uncertainty ensued, until AAP and the incumbent Congress Party, which managed only eight seats in a major defeat, announced Congress would lend its support and give the young party the slim majority it needed to form a government. “We have not promised unconditional support to AAP,” outgoing CM Dikshit said, according to reports. “Let’s see if they deliver.”

Kejriwal may be sworn in as early as Dec. 26. The party leader served as a bureaucrat for several years before leaving government to work as an activist and campaigner. He went on to work with activist Anna Hazare to fight for a national anticorruption law, which came to be known as the Lokpal Bill and was passed by Parliament this month in a major victory for the soon-to-be CM. Kejriwal and Hazare, however, have parted ways, due in part to Kejriwal’s deciding to take the anticorruption fight into the political arena by forming AAP in November 2012.

Many may question Kejriwal’s teaming up with a party he has spent years condemning. Others will wonder if he can deliver on the promises he has made to voters, particularly as his party’s energies are divided between governing for the first time and making inroads in national elections scheduled for this spring. But while some doubt the short-term feasibility of his pledge to slash water and electricity prices, the political sea change AAP offers may prove more powerful in the long run. “There is some method to [Kejriwal’s] madness,” says Guruswamy. “He is giving people who had no say in the system a voice. They might like that.”

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