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India’s anti-graft party face make-or-break vote

AFP

As Indians in the capital voted Thursday in the critical third phase of the world’s biggest election, all eyes are on the Aam Aadmi (Common Man’s) Party, which was founded as an alternative to mainstream parties embroiled in graft scandals.

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Voting in the Indian capital of New Delhi and in key battleground states such as Uttar Pradesh started Thursday as part of the staggered general election process due to last until mid-May. The third in nine overall phases of voting has put the spotlight on the AAP, with India’s newest party hoping to attract voters beyond the Indian capital.

(Click here for the facts and figures on the world's biggest election.)

Founded by transparency activist Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP is now regarded as the third political force in India alongside the ruling Congress Party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“The AAP appeared only in 2012, but it won over a third of the vote in the local elections in New Delhi last year and became the second-largest party in the capital,” said FRANCE 24’s international news editor Robert Parsons. “It would be very interesting to see whether it can translate that into nationwide success.”

In the remote northeastern state of Assam, where voting first started earlier this week, computer programmer Samir Jain told FRANCE 24 he voted for the AAP because, "both the [other mainstream] parties, the Congress and BJP, are the same, which is why we want something different.”

Although the AAP is stronger in the North and West of the country, it is running around 400 candidates across India. “It is impossible to tell whether it will have 10 seats or 50 – but even 10 would be an extraordinary for such a young, local party,” said Ingrid Therwath, South Asia editor of Paris-based magazine Courrier International and researcher at the New Delhi Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities.

'People are desperate for change'

Reporting from New Delhi, FRANCE 24’s Mandakini Gahlot noted that corruption was a major issue in the 2014 campaign. “Anti-incumbency is a big factor here – people are desperate for change,” she said. “There have been recent allegations that [the ruling] Congress Party and government officials received anything between 5 and 10 million dollars in bribes. The government has tried to brush it under the carpet, which has alienated voters further.”

Combined with sluggish economic growth, the Indian electoral climate could favour the rise of “Common Man” Arvind Kejriwal who, unlike other politicians, wears neither traditional dress nor suits and ties. His ordinary style is closer to that of the largely young, urban voters he appeals to.

Kejriwal built his reputation as an anti-corruption activist using new right-to-information legislation to expose mismanagement in the country’s administration.

Right to information act

Amrita Johri, a New Delhi-based anti-corruption activist, told FRANCE 24 in an interview in January that right-to-information requests had been “revolutionary” in unveiling large-scale bribery scandals as well as local graft, such as the embezzlement of food or medicines destined for the poor.

“Today, using the right to information act, citizens can check the stock records. They often see that the goods are reaching the suppliers but they are not given to them,” she explained.

Kejriwal’s involvement in the transparency movement has made him popular, and he is now trying to use this aura to take on the big parties. “He wants to stay above the partisan scrum and pose as the representative of civil society, which is difficult when you are elected to political office,” said Therwath. 

Last year, the AAP scored a stunning upset in the New Delhi local election, making Kejriwal chief minister of the Indian capital and launching him on the national political stage.

But just 49 days after his inauguration, Kejriwal quit, claiming the entrenched political system prevented him from enacting real reforms. His resignation sparked questions over whether India’s newest party was mature enough to govern and could shed its image as essentially a protest movement.

“We need stability. So I won't waste my vote on him,” Jitender Singh, a 38-year-old auto rickshaw driver in a purple turban, told AFP in New Delhi on Thursday.

A slap in the face – and a pardon

But there are also indications that a number of New Delhi residents appreciated Kejriwal’s principled stand – which makes the 2014 race a crucial test of the AAP’s political weight on the national stage.

In the lead-up to Thursday’s poll, Kejriwal shot into the media spotlight yet again, when an auto rickshaw driver slapped Kejriwal during a campaign stop earlier this week. Lali Prasad, the rickshaw driver, told reporters he was an AAP supporter who was disappointed with Kejriwal’s decision to bring down the New Delhi government after Prasad had “worked and campaigned so hard to bring the party to power”.

What happened next saw Kejriwal at his populist best – to the delight of the media.
During a meeting at Kejriwal’s New Delhi residence this week, the anti-corruption politician forgave and embraced Prasad as analysts discoursed on Kejriwal’s approachable, low-key campaigning style.

Shortly after the made-for-cameras embrace, the offending rickshaw driver publicly apologised and proclaimed, “I consider him [Kejriwal] as a god.” It’s the sort of emotional connection that makes Kejriwal a candidate to watch, which is why few analysts are prepared to dismiss the AAP as a political write-off – at least not yet.
 

India's anti-corruption party gains momentum ahead of general elections

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