Anti-corruption party gains ground as Indian elections loom
The chief minister of Delhi has resigned, probably to contest the national poll. But is India ready to vote in a brand-new party and take a hard line on corruption? Freelance journalist Alys Francis reports from New Delhi.
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The stakes have been raised in India’s national election race. The leader of the country’s new anti-corruption party has dramatically quit his post as Delhi’s chief minister. The country is now waiting on his next move.
Arvind Kejriwal (pictured) handed in his resignation on Valentine’s Day after the Aam Aadmi Party struggled to get an anti-corruption bill passed. Although the 45-year-old former tax official denied he was making the move with an eye on the general elections in May, the talk is he could throw his hat into the ring as a candidate.
Kejriwal announced AAP would contest the national poll, facing off against the main contenders — India’s oldest party, the ruling Indian National Congress, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party — just weeks after he sensationally swept to power in Delhi’s state election, in a coalition with Congress.
The former activist has only helmed the Indian capital for 49 days, but he managed to stay on the front page of the country’s newspapers for the duration. He won over the public by halving electricity bills, giving households 20 litres of free water and taking aim at India’s VIP political culture, making it so ministers have to wait at traffic lights like everybody else.
But AAP eventually upset India’s elite when its Law Minister, Somnath Bharti, led a midnight raid with a trailing news crew in South Delhi and demanded police arrest some “Nigerians or Ugandans”, despite not having a warrant. Bharti said residents had told him there was a drugs and prostitution racket in Khirki Extension that police were refusing to act on. Officers took four Ugandan women to hospital to be tested for drugs, but they reportedly turned out to be students, and two filed complaints.
Bharti was branded a reckless vigilante, but AAP, which formed last year on the back of an anti-corruption movement, stood by the Law Minister. Kejriwal went on to sleep on the street for two nights near Parliament demanding the suspension of three officers and more control over the police, which fall under federal command in Delhi. The chief minister’s protest, known as a dharna, brought the centre of the capital to a standstill, shutting metro stations and threatening to disrupt India’s much-loved Republic Day parade. Kejriwal reportedly brushed off critics at the time, saying:
“Some people say that I am an anarchist and I am spreading disorder. I agree that I am an anarchist. I am India’s biggest anarchist.”
Last Friday, BJP and Congress ministers blocked AAP’s Lokpal bill, which would have created an independent body with the power to investigate politicians and civil servants suspected of corruption. The opposition argued it was unconstitutional to introduce legislation without a federal stamp of approval, but political watchers said Kejriwal’s refusal to seek approval was part of an ongoing power struggle with the federal government.
The chief minister addressed the assembly — “I will consider myself fortunate if I have to sacrifice the chief minister’s post and my life to eradicate corruption” — and handed in his resignation hours later.
Some political watchers believe Kejriwal had long been seeking to ditch his chief minister role to focus on the national poll. “He is more keen to arrive at the big political stage then really interested in resolving issues and problems,” said Satish Misra, a former political journalist and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
Others believe his resignation was unavoidable; AAP’s hold over Delhi has always been tenuous, resting on the support of eight Congress ministers. The Times of India opined:
“From day one he knew that he did not have a five-year term, but only six months. After Lok Sabha elections Congress would in all likelihood pull the plug.”
Political commentator Harsh Shrivastava believes AAP supporters empathise with Delhi’s former chief minister. “[They] understood that the system that he rails against hadn’t let him function, even to introduce a bill to prosecute corrupt people,” the chief operating officer of the Centre for Civil Society said.
One such supporter, 27-year-old East Delhi student Jaya Sahdev, says she voted for AAP and would vote for them again if given the chance. “Even if it is posturing, I am fine with this, because nobody has acting this way in centuries in India,” she said. “[Kejriwal] wants some change, he has a small vision, and everyone is against him.”
Shrivastava predicts AAP’s martyrdom in Delhi, which is now under President’s rule, will help it in the national poll.
Meanwhile, Kejriwal has remained elusive about whether he will stand, saying only: “No final decision has been taken.”
AAP announced its first list of candidates on Sunday, pitting Hindi poet and literature professor Kumar Vishwas against Congress’s expected prime ministerial candidate, Rahul Gandhi. But the party remained silent on who would go up against BJP candidate Narendra Modi, quietly referred to as “India’s next prime minister” in diplomatic circles.
The BJP’s own campaign received a boost last week when India’s United States ambassador, Nancy Powell, met with Modi, chief minister of the state of Gujarat. The US State Department said the move was merely in line with its “outreach to senior political and business leaders” and no change in policy. But the BJP claimed it was a stamp of approval for the 63-year-old, who was denied a visa to the US after being accused of having a hand in riots in which thousands of Muslims died.
As for Indian National Congress, which is facing a fierce anti-incumbency mood after a series of corruption scandals, its expected prime ministerial candidate, Gandhi, has continued to struggle to win over the public.
The Gandhi scion’s first formal TV interview in the campaign, his first grilling behind the lens since entering politics 10 years ago, was branded a flop. The 43-year-old stuck to parroting his message about empowering women and youth so steadfastly that often it seemed he was involved in completely separate debate from Times Now’s interviewer. He answered a question about inflation by saying: “I think women are the backbone of the nation. They need to be empowered.”
On India’s increasingly divided political stage, no party is expected to win a majority come May. The question now is whether AAP’s move in Delhi will help it disrupt BJP’s grab for power. Or whether Kejriwal will go down in history as the man who shook the establishment in the nation that is pegged as the world’s next superpower, and, on a lesser note, helped spark a minor fashion trend in the Gandhi cap.