Lessons from Europe for India’s Anticorruption Party

Last December, a year-old political party formed by anticorruption activists came to power in India’s capital, after a startling debut performance in Delhi’s local assembly elections. Within days, the new government, led by a former tax man named Arvind Kejriwal, announced a series of anti-graft investigations. Only 49 days into its term, however, Kejriwal and his colleagues resigned, ostensibly because their minority government could not push through an anticorruption bill. The party now has its eyes set on India’s parliamentary elections, set to occur this May.

Much has been written about India’s mercurial Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party (AAP): its origins, its dedicated volunteers, its transparent campaign finance procedures, its vague policies regarding anything but corruption, and its missteps (some of which Russel Stamets discusses in a useful recent post on the FCPA Blog). Despite this, there has been little discussion regarding AAP’s place as a single-issue party in India’s deeply fractured political landscape, and little attempt to draw lessons from the successes and failures of anticorruption parties in other parts of the world.  Yet the experience of anticorruption parties in Central and Eastern Europe–as documented and analyzed by Andreas Bågenholm –offers both hope and important lessons to AAP and its supporters.

In a fascinating paper, Bågenholm assesses the electoral and policy accomplishments of eighteen anticorruption political parties across ten countries, from the Czech Republic to Estonia and Bulgaria, over the past two decades. The results should please AAP’s supporters: in general, the anticorruption parties studied have done well in elections; they have served as valuable junior coalition partners in national governments; and their influence in government coincides with improved national performance on anticorruption measures. This suggests that AAP may be able to advance its anticorruption agenda by forming a coalition with more established, mainstream parties in Indian elections. However, Bågenholm also makes two observations that should make Mr. Kejriwal and his colleagues wary.

  • First, of the ten parties studied that participated in more than one election, all but one dropped their anticorruption rhetoric during their second campaign. (This is in contrast to other European niche parties, like Green or radical right parties.) It is unclear why this happened–it may just be a coincidence, or a product of a changing political climate across the region. But it could also be that voters suffer from “anticorruption campaign fatigue”, especially with incumbent parties. Bågenholm wonders if an anticorruption strategy “can only be used successfully once and preferably by a new party.”
  • Second, Bågenholm  observes that anticorruption parties do better if they begin in opposition rather than in government. This may be because it is easy to be an anticorruption watchdog in opposition, but considerably harder to focus exclusively on this issue when the party is expected to govern. AAP itself often found it difficult to run a government during its 49 days in power in Delhi.

Although there are clear differences between Indian and European politics, the AAP can draw lessons from Bågenholm’s observations. If Mr. Kejriwal wants to build a sustainable organization that lasts beyond India’s current electoral cycle, he should ensure that AAP offers a political vision beyond fighting corruption. AAP should also have a strategy for preserving its credibility when it finds itself in a position of power.

So far, the party appears to be well-positioned to handle these matters. AAP has convened numerous committees to offer policy recommendations for a national manifesto. The party also learned to stand its ground when it was in power in Delhi. AAP did not win a majority of seats in Delhi’s assembly elections: the party came to power with the outside support of the scandal-plagued Congress party. AAP made it clear that it would step down from power if the Congress blocked any part of its agenda. Barely a month into its term, the party pushed an anti-graft bill that Congress could not stomach. The bill did not pass, and AAP stepped down from power… just in time to begin campaigning for India’s May elections.

10 thoughts on “Lessons from Europe for India’s Anticorruption Party

  1. Hey Raj, I haven’t read the paper you’re citing to, so I’m not sure if it addresses my question, but how do you feel about the idea of compromising, or moderating, the party’s platform for the sake of electoral success? My feeling is probably that the more successful Green parties in Europe are those that have moved towards the centre as a way to boost their electability (basically an example of median voter theory, in my opinion). Do you think that “standing their ground” is essential in the corruption context, or might it be a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good?

  2. Raj,

    I had a question somewhat similar to Phil’s, but let me frame it slightly differently. If I were a strategist for the AAP, I might think that I face the following dilemma:

    If the party wants to have a shot at controlling the government (or being an important member of a governing coalition), then it might need to broaden its agenda, and move away from the singular focus on corruption. But that has two related drawbacks: Substantively, it may sacrifice the party’s reason for existence in the first place; tactically, it diminishes the difference between the AAP and the existing parties, potentially undermining the main source of the party’s appeal. The party might do better advancing its anticorruption agenda (and maintaining its enthusiastic base of support) if it stays focused on anti-corruption, even if that means it will usually be in opposition or, at most a (very) junior coalition partner. Does that seem right to you, in terms of the problem the party faces? Would the research you’ve seen support that characterization of the dilemma?

    If so, then I wondered a bit if your ultimate conclusion – that AAP should offer a political vision beyond fighting corruption – necessarily follows from your preceding analysis. Mightn’t the party have a better shot at achieving its goals if it retains this narrow focus, doesn’t try to win control of the government (which I doubt it would in national as opposed to municipal elections), and instead tries to use its position and the seats it does control to influence government policy?

    • I had a similar thought to Matthew’s, which is that your analysis, Raj, presumes that the party’s (medium-term) goal is to take over. And certainly that seems to be what they, in effect, did in the Delhi city government. But if they can get enough seats in the Parliament to be an important coalition member, then they can leverage their anticorruption brand both (1) to extract concessions from the coalition leader in the form of promises to enact some of their favored anticorruption measures and (2) to be seen as legitimizing the anticorruption credentials of the parties with which they make alliances.

      But whether they should expand their platform might depend on the structure of the political system in India in particular. One thing lurking in the background of all this analysis is that India has a first-past-the-post election system on the federal level, I believe, which I imagine changes the dynamics. It’s harder to imagine that as many entire jurisdictions would vote for a single-issue candidate in high enough numbers to make an impact when it comes to building a coalition partner on the national level. Broadening their platform may be necessary to reach a majority in enough electoral jurisdictions. What do you think, Raj? And how does the existence of regional parties interact with a party with a national agenda? Could this party try to meld the two — creating a regionally affiliated anticorruption party?

  3. Phil and Matthew: These are important questions for AAP. As Matthew notes, any compromise on corruption by AAP at this stage could seriously undermine the party’s appeal. So I believe AAP would want to stand its ground.

    This would also benefit AAP in parliament. As Phil points out, European issue-based parties might seek consensus and build coalitions. In India’s fractured parliament today, very small parties can play an outsize role, and coalition-building involves less consensus and more quid pro quo.

    In an optimistic case where AAP gains, say, 20 seats in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament), and we have a hung parliament, AAP will find itself in demand. The party can join a coalition if the leading party promises to agree to AAP’s demands. If the promises are not met, AAP can leave the coalition, and the government might collapse unless they find another coalition partner. AAP would thus gain considerable leverage as a junior coalition partner, without having to seek consensus.

    Matthew, to your point regarding AAP’s narrow focus: AAP doesn’t need to compromise on corruption or be all things to all people, but Bagenholm’s paper suggests that the electorate may tire of parties that only focus on corruption. To win votes, I believe AAP needs to show that it also has ideas on other aspects of governance. AAP’s stint in Delhi hurt its image among some sections of the Indian electorate, who feel that they may be better off casting their vote for a party with strong governance credentials, than a party with the highest integrity.

  4. Raj, I’m wondering your thoughts on alternatives to a political party: do you think AAP would be more effective as an advocacy group (say, “AAG”) that drafted model legislation, and then pressured legislators to (for example) agree to support their legislation if they are elected? If AAG succeeded in making the do-you-support-AAG’s-model-legislation question widespread in the run-up to an election, it seems it might have a broader impact, although then I suppose the worry is over follow-through.

    • Michael: AAP began as an anti-corruption group, the India Against Corruption movement. The group really made a name for themselves, but the media just stopped paying attention after a while. The group pressed for certain legislation with little success–a version of the legislation was only tabled in parliament and passed once AAP did really well in the Delhi elections.

      The group still exists, but gets little coverage compared to AAP. Follow-through, as you observed, is the big problem.

  5. Hi Raj, it was nice reading your paper. I happen to be writing a Master’s seminar paper on the AAP. it seems that history just seems to be repeating itself in the fact that the AAP’s steam comprises majorly of the cult around a single individual’s personality. Now, we know that in India this is nothing novel. from Nehru to Indira Gandhi (maybe even Vajpayee to some extent) and now you have Modi. Personalities have almost always driven an election. Dont you think that this election, more than appealing to intellects that can make an informed choice between a rightist reactionary ‘Hindutva’ ideology masquerading as politics of growth and development, is a contest between personalities to a great extent? also then, is that not what an ACP should avoid gravitating towards. i mean, even the Janata Morcha of the 1970s under JP was less personality driven. This just makes the AAP’s intention and agenda somewhat dubious. The fact that they have no comprehensive ideology further confounds the case. I have not had access to the Bågenholm article and i wonder what you think he would (if he did at all) say about this.

    • Hi, and thank you for your insight!

      I agree with you that this election is about personalities–a big reason why Congress is doing so poorly is because they lack a strong personality at the helm. I also agree with you that the media coverage of AAP focuses almost entirely on Kejriwal.

      I’m not sure which way AAP should gravitate. The CPM and its leftist allies are the only notable parties in India that make a point of not being personality-driven, but it hasn’t helped them at all. However, if AAP indulges this personality politics, then I fear (as you rightly do) that the party will let personality eclipse ideology.

      I do not think Bågenholm addresses why anticorruption parties in Europe succeed or fail at this level. I would be happy to ask him about this, and you could as well!

  6. Perhaps it would have been helpful to do an analyses of the blocking of the AAP’s anticorruption legislation. How was it achieved etc. The point to focus on is do the corrupt have things sewn up. It needn’t be legislation just administration. For example, you need a license but just can’t get it, no matter how much you try different clerks, without paying up the bribe. This is indicative of someone behind the clerks in total control. Which when you return to the initial point on legislation says are they the dons. Organised crime is organised. It is foot solder, to crew leader, to capo, to consigliere then the don: or something like that. Each gets a share. Corruption is also organised. People have meetings about it. They discuss how to do it. It has a chain of command. They teach other method. Of course, there is a random element too. The rogue clerk, etc. But where they appear to be many it indicates organisation and leadership.

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