India’s Common Man party oozes charisma on its poll mission

March 19, 2014 8:58 am
India’s Common Man party oozes charisma on its poll mission
By Amy Kazmin in Bhopal, India

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Aam Aadmi party leader and anti-graft activist Arvind Kejriwal, centre, with his candidates on the campaign trail in Bangalore
Clad in jeans, sandals and a block-print cotton kurta, the typical sartorial markers of an Indian social activist, Rachna Dhingra, 38, rides pillion on a motorbike weaving through a Bhopal slum, as she races to meet women affected by the 1984 Union Carbide disaster.
For the past 12 years, the New Delhi-born, US-educated Ms Dhingra worked in Bhopal with survivors of the gas leak disaster, which killed 20,000 people, and left more than 100,000 others with chronic health problems.
Now, the activist is on a new mission: to win a seat in India’s parliament as part of the insurgent Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, party, which has vowed a radical overhaul of India’s political system.
“You have seen the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata party,” Ms Dhingra tells some 30 sari-clad women gathered to meet her. “Neither of them do anything for the common man. They appear at election time then never come back.”
Born of a mass anti-corruption movement, the year-old AAP sprung in to India’s national consciousness in December, with its unexpectedly strong electoral debut in New Delhi’s local legislative assembly polls – and its formation of a shortlived state administration.
Now, AAP, led by Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax inspector turned social activist, hopes to tap public anger over governmental corruption, unresponsiveness and inefficiency, to emerge as a significant national force in the next parliament.
The party has so far announced a disparate group of social activists, business executives, journalists, former bureaucrats and other political novices as candidates in 268 of the 543 parliamentary constituencies, though it is unclear whether they have any shared ideology, other than a common zeal to clean-up politics.
They use the celebrity of the other candidate to their advantage. It’s a good strategy that helps them spread their message very, very easily
– Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor Caravan magazine
The upstart party undoubtedly faces an uphill struggle, given strong support for the BJP’s Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, whose slick campaign has persuaded many Indians he is the man to revitalise their faltering economy.
Yet there is little doubt that AAP, which has selected the humble broom as its election symbol, has captured the imagination of many voters, who believe the party should have a role in India’s future.
“They are not going to be game-changers in that the urban vote will shift away from Modi, but I don’t think they are disappearing,” Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Caravan, a local magazine, says of the AAP. “They are here for the long haul.”
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Despite limited funds – the party has raised roughly $2m in public donations since mid-December – compared with established parties’ deep pockets, the AAP has proven adept at guerrilla campaign tactics that draw sustained, and free, media attention.
Who features on the AAP candidate list?
The Aam Aadmi party’s main agenda is to eradicate corruption and criminality from India’s political system. But otherwise, the party appears to be an ideological hotchpotch, whose candidates range from activists that have spent a lifetime campaigning against large-scale development projects to career bankers, business executives and bureaucrats.
On the day that polls were announced, Mr Kejriwal, who led the AAP’s administration in Delhi, was in Gujarat on a “study tour” to blow holes in Mr Modi’s claims of the state’s rapid progress.
Mr Kejriwal even tried to call on his rival in his office, but was stopped by police – a drama lapped up by India’s rapacious television news channels. The AAP has also pitched charismatic, dynamic individuals against big national political figures from other parties, setting up titillating rivalries that generate plenty of headlines.
“They use the celebrity of the other candidate to their advantage,” says Mr Bal. “It’s a good strategy that helps them spread their message very, very easily.”
Though the AAP is fielding candidates across India, analysts say the party is likely to do best in the north, where its senior leaders, including Mr Kejriwal, and Yogendra Yadav, a respected psephologist and main party strategist, have their roots.
The AAP is seen to have the strongest potential in states that are otherwise two-party contests, where both established parties have been tarnished from previous stints in power. AAP has also generated strong interest among Muslim voters, who are fed up with Congress, but unwilling to vote for Mr Modi, due to the 2002 Gujarat riots.
For all its clever tactics, the AAP is battling a significant handicap: perceptions that it failed to take full advantage of its chance in power in New Delhi, before Mr Kejriwal quit over his inability to push his pet anti-corruption bill through the state legislature.
The AAP’s’ 49-day minority government in Delhi was highly volatile, as Mr Kejriwal struggled to make the transition from activist to administrator. The Indian capital even witnessed the bizarre spectacle of its chief minister staging a disruptive sit-in against local police, alienating many of AAP’s middle-class supporters.
Mr Kejriwal’s resignation now casts a shadow over the party’s image as it tries to compete nationally. “We can’t think of Kejriwal because he took over as chief minister in Delhi and then he quit,” says Rolli Jain, an MBA student in Sagar, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, where a local advocate is an AAP candidate.
Even in the Bhopal slums, questions about the AAP’s quick exit dog Ms Dhingra, though she insists that many poor voters are impressed that someone was willing to stand down from a position of power on a point of principle – a rarity in Indian politics.
“We have a lot of support but how much that translates into votes is uncertain,” the activist says. “Our mission is to bring change, to show there is another alternative way of doing politics in this country – clean politics, without corruption and dynastic politics.”

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