Delhi is changing under the AAP government

Rupees for the party with the broom

India: clean up. But what for?

March 23, 2014 | The anti-corruption party AAP ruled the greater Delhi area for just 49 days, then the regional government resigned. Nevertheless, the new party could shape the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Text: Joseph Keve; Translation: Pit Wuhrer

“I still can't believe it. So India is changeable after all, ”says Ankush Patil, 23 years old and a newspaper seller in Palghar, a city in the Indian state of Maharashtra. “Everyone wants to know what is happening”; he had never sold so many newspapers before.

Dominic Savio is also enthusiastic: "I would not have thought that anything would change politically in my life," says the astonished 26-year-old computer engineer in Virar near Bombay, who was involved in the India movement against corruption years ago. "And now it turns out that the common people can defeat the political day thieves." What one is currently experiencing is "the second Indian freedom movement".

What so upset Patil and Savio was an election result of perhaps historic significance. At the beginning of December, the previously little known Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, the common man's party) in the capital Delhi won almost 30 percent of the vote and won 28 of the 70 seats in the regional parliament. Nobody expected that. Since independence in 1947, two parties have set the tone in India: the Congress Party and the Hindu nationalist people's party BJP, whose power and influence did not leave room for any third party - except for the left, who were only regionally anchored. And suddenly nobodies appear who seem to have only one topic - the fight against rampant corruption.

Stampede in front of the party offices

The AAP was founded in 2012 with a broom as a symbol. At its head is 45-year-old Arvind Kejriwal, a prototype of the Indian middle class: the former activist of the anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare) does not come from a political dynasty (like the Gandhis in the Congress Party), nor does he preach - like the BJP politicians - a religious fundamentalism and it has no riches.

He was a civil servant - and like many of his fellow campaigners, he was tired of living in a political system in which everything revolves around bribery and holding hands: the law enforcement authorities are currently investigating 167 members of parliament, almost a third of the members of the federal parliament. The Supreme Court ruled in July 2013 that all parliamentarians automatically lose their mandate if they are sentenced to two years in prison - but the ruling United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress Party, immediately enacted a law that overturned the highest court judgment . Corruption, it seemed, is no match.

But that could gradually change - also thanks to the AAP, which is currently enjoying a rapid increase: at the end of January the party had ten million members (at the beginning of 2014 there were still 700,000). “Our members come from all walks of life,” says Gopal Rai, member of the AAP's political committee, “and from almost every district in the country. You have lost confidence in the other parties and are hoping for profound changes. "

More than just morality?

It's not just the have-nots who see AAP as an opportunity. Sections of the social elite now also belong to it: The 91-year-old former independence fighter Venkita Kalyanam, who was Mahatma Gandhi's secretary; the sixty-year-old actress and social activist Mallika Sarabhei; the financial specialist Meera Sanyal (52), until recently CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland India; the former TV director Samir Nair (49); H.S. Phoolka, 58, attorney at the Supreme Court; Apple managers, IT supervisory board members, airline founders - they all joined a party for the first time or switched from the congress party or the BJP to the AAP. "Kejriwal and his party have expressed a mood that has been simmering beneath the surface for a long time," said columnist Vidya Subrahmanyam in the newspaper "The Hindu", describing the "stampede in front of the AAP offices".

The election campaign in the Union territory of Delhi with its seventeen million inhabitants was also unusual. For the first time, a party had waived large donations and instead asked for contributions of one rupee each (with the result that within two weeks two million rupees, the equivalent of 29,000 francs, were raised). And for the first time, the candidates of a party committed themselves not to use a company car or company housing if they were elected. Funds from the party are also taboo, says Gopal Mohan, a founding member of the AAP, "after all, MPs should serve the people, not exempt them". Instead, the 28-year-old finances his party involvement out of his own pocket. However, he can also afford this attitude - he lives on the proceeds of two patents that he had secured as a robot technician.

So is the AAP a pure middle-class party that peddles populist content and only knows one topic? Besides a have-nots approach, does it also have concrete political content to offer that corresponds to the interests of the poor and hungry? After all, it does not offer a clear program, as Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Social Democratic Communist Party of India / Marxists (CPIM), criticizes. Transparent governance, decentralization of power, the struggle for civil rights - on all these points the AAP and the CPIM, the largest left-wing party in India, are close to one another. But the AAP lacks “ideology”.

In Kerala, according to the CPIM boss, the first freely elected communist government in the world at least pushed through a comprehensive land reform in the 1950s. What Karat is hiding: All subsequent CPIM governments in the states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura left the land question aside. With the result that now long-time CPIM activists also defected to the AAP. "I would have expected the left to take up the impetus emanating from the new party," says Anil Kumaran (52) from Cochin (Kerala), for example, "instead it sits on the high horse and expects solutions from the new party which she herself was not capable of in the last few decades. "

Left or only liberal, coming from the center or from below? In any case, the AAP success in Delhi showed several lines of development in Indian society, says analyst Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta. Firstly, “urban voters enamored the crony capitalism of the current neoliberal economic regime, thereby destroying the legend that the urban population benefits from the influx of private capital”. Second, an anti-corruption movement was able to establish itself as a politically-parliamentary force for the first time. "And thirdly, the AAP owes its success to volunteer campaigners without previous experience who act solely for political and moral reasons."

Fall after 49 days

Arvind Kejriwal's brief tenure as Chief Minister of Delhi showed where the AAP stands. As a minority faction, his party had to rely on support after the December election - which the Congress Party (it had lost 35 seats and only got 8 seats) offered because it wanted to prevent a BJP regional government. But the tolerance did not last long. It had less to do with the fact that little people suddenly moved into the center like Vijay Baba, a sixty-year-old rickshaw driver who, to his amazement, was allowed to open a modernized hospital on January 26th, Independence Day. But with Kejriwal and his ministers stepping on the toes of those in power.

The new regional government decided to revoke the retail investment agreement - much to the dismay of international trading groups such as Tesco and Wal-Mart. At the same time, she set up an anti-corruption hotline that enabled citizens to report corrupt officials - and initiated proceedings against Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India and chairman of the powerful Reliance conglomerate, and against the energy minister Veerappa Moily, the petroleum and gas minister the central government. Reliance Industries and the central government had signed a gas supply agreement in June 2009, which allowed the company to increase the gas price by 3.4 times within four years (Moily's predecessor had been fired for questioning the intransparent price system ).

Previously, the APP government had significantly increased the amount of free water per household and cut electricity prices in half. The industry was appalled; its beautiful projects and privileges, which the Congress Party had achieved in the context of economic liberalization, seemed threatened - also because more and more people in other states are demanding comparable measures from the rulers.

When the AAP also presented a law in mid-February to establish the position of an ombudman with far-reaching powers, who "puts influential BJP and Congress politicians behind bars," as Kejriwal promised, the Congress party gave up its support - and the AAP government resigned . AAP spokesman Prithvi Reddy argued that under these conditions one could not rule, "we will again ask the population for a mandate that allows us to implement our ideas." The party has already nominated 131 candidates in the country's 543 constituencies for the upcoming parliamentary elections (see “India elects”). Further candidacies have been announced.

It is not yet possible to say whether the AAP will manage all of India what it did in Greater Delhi. But she has set an example with her door-to-door election campaign, which saw the highest turnout of all time in Delhi. Also because it renounced the usual campaigning for block votes, the so-called Vote Banks, which was used by all parties. Practically all parties secure a closed vote from religious communities, castes and other groups with particular interests by bringing their concerns to the fore - and buying the respective group spokesperson. "We are currently experiencing the beginning of the end of the traditional Vote Banks," says political observer Jayprakash Narayan, "and the beginning of a new era in which it is not money that plays the greatest role, but the political content". And that's a lot.

India chooses

In a month's time, the elections for the new parliament will begin in India. The 814 million eligible voters (100 million more than the last time in 2009) go to the polls in nine phases due to the size of the country; the procedure starts on April 7th and ends on May 12th. The result is to be announced on May 16.

There are essentially two blocks to choose from - the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress Party and the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP - as well as various regional parties, the Left and the AAP. Since the previous Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is no longer running, Rahul Gandhi, son of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and grandson of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, leads the Congress Party in the election. Narendra Modi, who orchestrated a pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, is running for the BJP.

Until the rise of the AAP, an election victory for the BJP was considered likely.