India’s Aam Aadmi Party is vowing to fight the country’s systemic corruption. Indians living in Australia have made the journey to help give them the chance, writes freelance journalist Alys Francis.
This week, Brad Mishra took a break from his job as a corporate executive in Sydney this week and flew to Delhi in India. He’s volunteering for the Aam Aadmi Party — a party formed last year by activists from Anna Hazare’s high-profile anti-corruption protest.
“I thought it was quite important to come,” said the 45-year-old, speaking from a party office in Delhi. “It’s a huge opportunity for India to change and get rid of the corruption that has been so widespread.”
The litmus test for the Aam Aadmi Party — or Common Man Party — comes today as Delhi voters go to the polls in the state election. Founded by Anna Hazare’s top aide, Arvind Kejriwal (pictured above) last November, Aam Aadmi Party’s promise to sweep away the endemic corruption that plagues India has struck a chord with non-resident Indians around the world — including a dedicated group from Australia.
Hazare’s anti-corruption hunger strike sparked protests across India in 2011, but the activist remains opposed to politics, controversially choosing not to take part in the party.
A resident of Australia for 20 years, Mishra started a local support group for Aam Aadmi Party, the Aam Aadmi Party of Australian Indians, soon after the parent party was founded. He told Crikey the group had more than 1000 members across Australia, seven of whom have flown to Delhi to help with the election. Back home, a team of volunteers has been making 700 calls to Delhi each day in an effort to win residents over, while also drumming up support on social media.
The Australian contingent also raised the 1.4 million rupees (A$24,600) Arvind Kejriwal needed to campaign in his consistency. “We sponsored Arvind Kejriwal’s constituency,” said Mishra, who intends to stay in India supporting the party until April.
Sitting in the party’s headquarters in Delhi’s Connaught Place amid a bustling crowd of volunteers and local media, party spokesman Pankaj Gupta said a third of the party’s total 200 million rupees (A$3.5 million) funding had come from non-resident Indians. “That has been a very good source of funding,” he said.
Running as the underdog against India’s two major political parties, Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, Gupta says the level of volunteer support for Aam Aadmi Party is unprecedented in Indian politics. The party’s global support co-ordinator Shalini Gupta estimates that 150 to 200 Indians from the United States, Germany, Belgium and Britain had travelled to Delhi to volunteer for Aam Aadmi Party.
“A lot of people have actually left their jobs — left their jobs, closed their businesses and just transferred themselves to Delhi to work in this movement,” he said. “We have more than 10,000 volunteers working for us every day. When you accumulate all those man days it becomes a huge chunk of effort — that is what has really developed this party.”
One Indian who quit his job at a Melbourne IT company and flew to Delhi to support the campaign is 25-year-old Aman Sharma (pictured, second from the left, with fellow supporters). “I was on holiday leave but they didn’t extend it, so I left my job,” said Sharma, who flew to India seven months ago, leaving his brother in Australia.
Sharma said the party had given people hope that India’s endemic corruption could be weeded out: “Why do we go outside of India, because our political system didn’t give us a good opportunity to establish ourselves here. [Non-resident Indians] are already connected here because of family, and now they feel it’s time to change the political system through this party.”
From big business to the everyday fruit seller on the street and everywhere in between, corruption is a major issue in India — billions of dollars in “black money” is rumoured to be hidden in Swiss bank accounts. Aam Aadmi Party has told voters its first order of business will be to pass a controversial anti-corruption bill currently pending before parliament and take steps to bring the money back.
It’s not the first time a political party has won over Indians by promising to end corruption. In the 1970s the Telugu Desam Party swept to power in the state of Andhra Pradesh but was kicked out after just one term, having failed in its core mission. Asked how Aam Aadmi Party plans to tackle corruption, Gupta admits the party has no plan.
“We haven’t thought of it yet; we have concentrated ourselves on the Delhi elections,” he said. “Only after the Delhi elections are completed will we start thinking about that because the results of the election will give us a lot of direction.”
The election — results will be known on Sunday — is being closely watched as an indicator for how things might go in India’s national election next year, although Aam Aadmi Party has not thrown its hat in the ring to run as yet. Having ruled the state for the last 15 years, Congress has been seen by many as the favourite to win, but the Aam Aadmi Party has rattled the political establishment.