Surprise package

Published : Apr 16, 2014 12:30 IST

Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal campaigning in Chikballapur Lok Sabha constituency near Bangalore on March 16.

Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal campaigning in Chikballapur Lok Sabha constituency near Bangalore on March 16.

THE entire country may be mesmerised by the high-decibel 3D campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or Narendra Modi’s tech-savvy “ Chai ki Chaupal ”, or Rahul Gandhi’s valiant efforts to keep a deflated Congress afloat, but it is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that is providing the X factor in this round of Lok Sabha elections. Totally unpredictable, frustratingly different and brazenly straightforward, the AAP is keeping everyone guessing about its next move because, after its explosive debut in the Delhi Assembly elections, no one can ignore it.

“We don’t believe in any ideology. We believe in need-based politics. Political parties have been fooling people so far in the name of ideology,” declares senior AAP leader Manish Sisodia, even as he tries to dismiss a group of people who insisted on explaining why the party should consider giving the ticket to a particular community member because they were numerically strong in that particular constituency. “If you are trying to convince me that we should consider this man because he belongs to a particular caste, then you are at the wrong place. It is precisely this type of politics that we want changed,” Sisodia told the incredulous group, as he firmly, but politely, showed them the door.

In this election season, only someone from the AAP can dare make such a brazen declaration. The AAP has emerged as the rule-breaker: having broken, in its short stint, all established rules of the political game. It has not taken caste or religion into consideration while fielding candidates (not a mean achievement as the party has so far fielded over 400 candidates); it has not pandered to religious sentiments while seeking support, and it has not given the ticket to anyone facing criminal or corruption charges. It has declared that even if a day before election anyone brings proof of criminal or corruption charges against any of its candidates, it will withdraw them. All AAP candidates have taken a pledge, through notarised affidavits, that once elected they will not claim entitlements such as cars with red beacons, extra security and huge bungalows. They also promise to enact the Swaraj and Jan Lokpal Bills, bring in electoral reforms, ensure people’s participation in all local works, and not to allow any land acquisition without public consent.

The journey From an anti-graft movement driven by Anna Hazare’s enigmatic charisma to a political party led by Arvind Kejriwal’s earthy pragmatism, the AAP has travelled a long way since its inception in early 2011. In these times of political cynicism, when the common man has been left feeling abandoned by the self-serving mainstream parties, the AAP offers solutions for all ills. As the logical conclusion to the Hazare-led India Against Corruption movement, which originally started off with the demand for enacting a strong Lokpal Bill, the AAP has metamorphosed into an outlet for the political ambitions of the aam aadmi . Its battle cry remains the same as that of the anti-graft movement on January 30, 2011, the day the idea of a change in the system was conceived: “ sinhaasan khali karo, janata aati hai ” (vacate the throne, the people are coming).

Established with a vow to bring about real swaraj , with real power to the people, the AAP, which was officially born on November 26, 2012, promises not only to change the government, but to change the system itself and follow the preamble of the Constitution in “letter and spirit” for a truly democratic government “for the people, by the people, of the people”.

“We are not here to do politics, but change the way politics is done. We will provide an alternative politics which seeks to actually empower the people,” Arvind Kejirwal had declared while announcing the new party on October 2, 2012. He had simultaneously declared that the political format was not the end of the anti-corruption movement, but it was the movement itself, in a slightly changed contour.

From that date to December 2013, it was the stuff of dreams: from a fledgling political party to real power in the Delhi Assembly, the AAP’s journey stunned everyone. It lasted 49 days before the AAP called it quits. Preceding the abdication of the throne, came the protests: the eternal campaigner and rabble-rouser, Kejriwal, despite being the Chief Minister, squatted on the road in Delhi. The party seemed like a group of individuals possessed: men in a hurry. They wanted to change everything overnight and when they could not, they were back on the streets.

What now?

Without an organisational structure, a cadre base to speak of, or any record of governance, what is the party trying to prove by contesting such a large number of seats against such tough, well-oiled, well-heeled and well-planned competition? What possibly could be the outcome of its audacious bid to power at the Centre when it could not even rule Delhi for 50 days? Ruling Delhi is child’s play compared with ruling India. Delhi was only about bijli - sadak - paani -school-hospital. India is a different stage altogether.

“We are evolving every day. We ourselves don’t know what will be the outcome after the election. It is hard to imagine what will happen next,” is the refreshingly honest confession from Sisodia. But he is absolutely clear about one thing: this time they are contesting to be in the opposition and not to be part of any government-formation exercise. “In Delhi too, we did not want to form the government but the other parties made it look as if we were running away from responsibility. Since we were the second largest party in Delhi, the onus was naturally on us. We do not visualise such a situation now. We will not be part of any government-formation exercise,” he says. In the AAP’s scheme of things, this election marks a transition phase when no party will get a majority and there will be a coalition government, which will be short-lived. “After a year and half or so, there will be another election, which will prove decisive. Things are too much in a flux right now,” he says.

The rationale for this assessment, it appears, is the criticism the party is facing on many counts, the foremost being the resignation of Kejriwal as Chief Minister. But Sisodia explains, “This was on a matter of principle. We are not here to compromise our principles and enjoy the perks of power. When we realised that the BJP and the Congress had joined forces to stall the Jan Lokpal Bill in the Delhi Assembly, there was no point in continuing.”

The party’s leaders have been at pains to explain to the people that they sacrificed their government at the altar of high principles and if people want a clean and efficient government, they would have to give a decisive mandate to the AAP. But they are also aware that it is too soon for the people to accept them at the helm, hence the clear intention to be in the opposition space for the time being. Clever strategy, indeed, because there is no doubt that they have already captured people’s imagination, especially after Kejriwal’s tour to Gujarat and his expose of the Gujarat model of development.

Targeting Modi “There is widespread corruption in Gujarat. Farmers are unhappy. Their land is being grabbed to be given to select industrial houses, they get a measly compensation, government schemes and departments are as riddled with corruption as anywhere else,” says Kejriwal. He has been stressing that the big media houses have been bought over by Narendra Modi to project his Gujarat model. “This explains the attacks on me, as never before has anyone dared to directly challenge the Ambanis and the Adanis,” he says.

Besides, Kejriwal has shown the temerity to challenge Modi in Varanasi, turning the electoral battle into a keenly watched spectacle because even if the BJP wins 300 seats, a Modi loss in Varanasi will be a huge moral defeat for the Sangh Parivar, something even the BJP leaders admit grudgingly. It is a classic David versus Goliath battle in Varanasi. And if his record against former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit is any indication, the BJP has reason to worry. In Delhi, his fledgling party won 28 seats, limiting the BJP to 31, depriving it of a clear majority. He vanquished the Congress then, which ended up with a pitiable tally of eight, but can he repeat the feat against the BJP?

What, however, is constraining the AAP this time is the fact that it does not have a pan-India appeal despite putting up many well-known faces as candidates. True, its candidates will get a few thousand votes everywhere. But whom will they hurt more, the BJP or the Congress? This is yet to be seen as the traditional rules of the political game are still visibly at play. In the numbers game, the AAP may not make big gains this time, but it will definitely be a big spoiler for the mainstream parties everywhere.


Targeting feudalism

While addressing volunteers a month ago in various villages of his Lok Sabha constituency, Gurgaon, in Haryana, AAP leader Yogendra Yadav hinted at two moot points that would become the crux of his electoral campaign. The polls in Haryana ended on April 10 and the AAP’s canvassing concentrated specifically on two fundamental issues—feudalism and corruption in the real estate sector, something that Yadav consistently spoke of.

“I see two Haryanas today. One is the Rohtak-Sonepat belt where feudal forces rule and exploit the poor. All the development is in that belt. The other is the Mewat region where people are uneducated; they die because of poor health care. Rohtak, from where the Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda hails, is looting all the resources of Mewat. Our lands are illegally auctioned off to stooges of people who rule Rohtak. Does Haryana belong only to the feudal lords? And are we meant only to die?” he asked the volunteers at a public meeting in Sohna town amidst huge cheers.

Throughout March, Yadav’s campaign focussed on these “two Haryanas”. Through this symbolic plank, Yadav engaged with the methods of what he called “loot” and how a corrupt nexus of the business and political classes is appropriating farmers’ income, livelihoods of the landless, and the lives of the poor. Be it Robert Vadra’s alleged illegal land deals, or the vicitimisation of the bureaucrat Ashok Khemka, or the innumerable instances of Hooda’s alleged nepotistic practices, the AAP’s campaign focussed on the linkages between corruption, feudalism, and poverty.

The AAP followed the same canvassing methods in all the 10 constituencies of the State where it claims it has more than four lakh members and has one of its first, fully organised party units. In most constituencies, anti-corruption activists were fielded to take on political heavyweights of the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), the two major political parties in the State.

The AAP faces a tough battle in Haryana as its anti-corruption campaign directly translates into a broader anti-caste fight against the Jat-dominated politics of the State. Raising its voice against feudalism meant directly taking on the Jats. Similarly, the pitching of the Green Revolution beneficiaries of Rohtak and Sonepat against the poor of Mewat has chased off Jats from the AAP’s fold in Haryana. Political observers believe that the AAP hopes to win a substantial number of non-Jat votes, of Yadavs, Dalits, and Muslims, through its anti-corruption campaign.


Rural woes

Throughout the north Indian States, the AAP’s political strategy is to respond to the regional socio-economic dynamics fuelled by the ruling party at the State level. This it does by linking corruption with the most perceptible problems in the mindset of the people of the State. Thus, while in Haryana the AAP, through its anti-corruption agenda, is directly taking on the nepotistic Congress rule and its Jat support, in Punjab it is focussing on the agrarian distress of the last decade.

Since Punjab is a primarily agrarian economy, the AAP is raising the issues of corruption in the agricultural sector. While it does so, it also implicates Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s family and its nexus with corporate houses as one of the primary reasons for the agrarian distress. Corruption in governance is an issue that everyone talks about in Punjab. Sumel Singh Sidhu, campaign-in-charge of the AAP in Punjab, said: “The AAP is a different party. Its objective is to cleanse the political and administrative system without any ambition. Punjab’s economy is in doldrums, women face a hostile atmosphere, and liquor and drugs dominate social activity.”

Issues that attract popular attention, such as the illicit drug trade, police repression, the Badal family’s monopoly over many businesses and the Congress’ role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, are being raised by the AAP. While the Congress’ main electoral strategy is to take on the Badal family and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine is focussing on Narendra Modi’s name in its campaign, the AAP emphasises clean governance. In a direct attack on Modi, the AAP has fielded Himmat Singh Shergill, an advocate who is fighting the cases against the eviction of Sikh farmers from the Kutch region of Gujarat, in Anandpur Sahib. Surprisingly, both the Congress and the SAD are silent on the displacement of Sikh farmers in Gujarat.

In urban constituencies, the AAP relies on its popularity among students and the youth. And in these constituencies, it is questioning the validity and truth of the Gujarat model of development sold by Modi’s public relations machinery.

Uttar Pradesh

Making a statement

The AAP faces its toughest battle in Uttar Pradesh, considered to be the “make or break” State in parliamentary elections. However, unlike in Haryana and Punjab, where it has a fully functional party unit, the AAP does not have an organised unit in the State. According to the political observer Sudhir Panwar, the AAP’s fight in the State is limited to three constituencies—Amethi, Varanasi, and Ghaziabad. Amethi and Varanasi are symbolically important as the AAP candidates Kumar Vishwas and Arvind Kejriwal are contesting against Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi respectively.

Ghaziabad is also visible nationally because Shazia Ilmi, another prominent face of the AAP, is contesting against the BJP’s V.K. Singh, former Army chief. Lack of adequate time to handle polls in such a big State and lack of proper planning forced the AAP to use conventional political tools to nominate its candidates. “Caste and religious equations in constituencies and factors like visibility of the candidates became important for the AAP while choosing its candidates,” said Panwar.

With U.P.’s electoral politics said to be divided on religious lines at present because of a concerted campaign by the BJP and the Samajwadi Party in the last two years, the AAP’s primary election plank of anti-corruption has not managed to gather much support. Consequently, the focus of the party has remained on giving adequate representation to different communities rather than attacking the dominant forces. The lack of organised support has led to some candidates quitting during the campaign. Moreover, people in rural constituencies, the most important chunk of U.P.’s electorate, have not been able to figure out the difference between the AAP and other mainstream political parties.

Kejriwal intends his party’s fight in U.P. to revolve around personalities, a shift away from the AAP’s declared position. Because of this, the party unit’s sole focus is on three constituencies.

However, it has made significant political statements through the selection of its candidates. Twenty-four per cent of them belong to the Muslim community, and this makes an anti-communal statement in the highly communalised environment. Many candidates were also chosen from the extremely backward Dalit community.


Valiant effort

The ripples caused by Kejriwal in Delhi were felt as far away as Maharashtra. After the AAP’s announcement in January of subsidised power in Delhi, the Maharashtra State Cabinet took a hurried decision of its own. Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam demanded that his party lower power tariffs, and a committee was hastily appointed under State Industry Minister Narayan Rane to examine the possibility. The State government was instantly attacked by the opposition for playing politics.

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan was forced to deny that he was slavishly reacting to the AAP’s actions. Admitting that would have been like shooting himself in the foot. Instead, he preferred to attribute the Cabinet’s decision to a long-standing promise of his own government.

Maharashtra finally decided on a 20 per cent subsidy on power tariffs except in Mumbai. Although it was not the same as Kejriwal’s decision of a 50 per cent subsidy for homes that consumed up to 400 units a month, it did have an impact.

Speaking to Frontline , a bureaucrat wryly affirmed this, saying, “What Arvind Kejriwal does in Delhi has an effect in Maharashtra. The subsidy [in Maharashtra] was definitely an outcome of the AAP’s decision.”

Maharashtra is no stranger to the AAP’s activism. A Rs.70,000-crore irrigation scam was exposed by Anjali Damania, who is now the State convener of the AAP and the candidate from Nagpur. Her fellow-activist in exposing the scam, Vijay Pandhare, has retired from his job as a government engineer. He is the AAP candidate from Nashik. Both are up against seasoned war horses from other parties but stand firm.

The AAP is contesting all the 48 Lok Sabha seats in the State. Initially, the party did not intend to contest all seats, possibly believing that it would not get enough candidates, but individuals began coming forward to walk the talk. Activist Medha Patkar, RTI activist Mayank Gandhi, banker Meera Sanyal, lawyer Phiroze Palkhiwala and retired police officers Suresh Khopade and Sanjay Apranti are all in the fray. Like other AAP candidates, they have no prior political experience.

While voters are largely cynical about the AAP, there is, at least in Mumbai, a grudging appreciation of the candidates.


‘Poor’, inexperienced Identifying themselves with the crusade against corruption, thousands made it to Bangalore’s Freedom Park on March 16 for Kejriwal’s roadshow. But notwithstanding his whistle-stop tour of Bangalore and the voter’s desire for change, the AAP is expected to draw a blank in the April 17 elections to Karnataka’s 28 Lok Sabha seats.

The fledgling party, which is contesting all 28 seats, has been holding roadshows, with candidates going on padayatras , visiting parks, homes, malls and eateries, all in a bid to increase their people contact, while volunteers have been “educating people” on the AAP. The AAP has fielded some well-meaning, “clean” candidates, including former Infosys board member V. Balakrishnan, former registrar of the National Law School of India University Babu Mathew, child rights activist Nina Nayak, former Minister B.T. Lalitha Naik and former Inspector General of Police K. Arkesh, all of whom have tugged at voters’ hearts and mobilised scores of “unpaid” volunteers who have walked the extra mile both night and day, but, realistically, the party does not have the wherewithal (read funds), experience or time to garner the few lakh votes that are necessary to win a parliamentary seat.

Members of the AAP readily confessed that they faced a funds and people (workers) crunch. When told that it would cost them Rs.37 lakh to put up 25 hoardings around Bangalore, they balked. They just do not have the money. There are two other factors going against the AAP in Bangalore (and the whole of south India). One is the fact that the region has not been exposed as much to political activism as the north and is therefore slow to accept change. The second is language. Many of the AAP leaders’ fiery speeches in Hindi are lost in translation.

But, refreshingly, the AAP has chosen candidates not because they are from any particular community or caste, or from tinsel town or, worse, from a traditional political family, but because they are clean.

Speaking to Frontline , Prithvi Reddy, a National Executive member of the AAP, confessed that they “were a little late off the blocks in Karnataka”. Said Reddy: “We are only a four-month-old party in Karnataka, so it has been a challenge in terms of outreach, especially in the non-urban areas. Also, sadly, voters in Karnataka seem to be limiting themselves to choosing between the Congress and the BJP, who are substitutes for each other. It is hard to break into this mindset. But we are offering voters another choice—of electing a candidate with absolute integrity. In short, we are offering a different breed of people.”

He claimed that besides appealing to Bangalore’s large urban electorate (where there are three seats and a fourth in Bangalore Rural), the AAP was also hoping for good support in Mangalore (part of Dakshina Kannada constituency), Dharwad and Belgaum. Party volunteers have also been visiting low-income groups.

Besides the youth and new voters, the AAP is also pinning its hopes on youth from rural homes who come to the city for work going back and spreading its message in their rural homes. Said Reddy: “Most of the youth are cynical and disengaged when it comes to politics. We are trying to reaffirm their faith in democracy.”

By Purnima S. Tripathi in New Delhi. With inputs from Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta in New Delhi, Lyla Bavadam in Mumbai and Ravi Sharma in Bangalore.

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