An Uncommon Victory for India’s Common Man

Indian voters signaled their distaste for corruption last year with the historic defeat of the Congress Party, but never have Indian voters spoken so overwhelmingly against corruption as in last week’s landslide victory for India’s first anticorruption party, the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party in the Delhi elections. The AAP won 67 of the 70 seats, leaving just three for the BJP (Prime Minister Modi’s party), and shutting out the Congress Party altogether. Dubbed a “political earthquake,” this win for the AAP, led by Arvind Kejriwal, is monumental for several reasons.

  • First, the AAP’s victory signals the unexpected and massive return of India’s anticorruption movement, which was looking largely defeated at the beginning of 2014. The movement had started in 2011 with great vigor, powerful figures, and mass support.Throughout 2011 “Anna” Hazare, along with Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and other activists, used Gandhi-like hunger strikes, led protests, and organized other grassroots efforts to pressure Parliament to enact a more stringent anticorruption law known as the Jan Lokpal Bill. Over the following years, however, the movement weakened steadily as Anna and Kejriwal splintered and Kejriwal formed the AAP. Furthermore, the eventual passage of a weak, watered down anticorruption bill was a letdown for many of the movement’s fervent supporters. There were glimmers of hope in December 2013 when the AAP won a plurality in its first Delhi election and Kejriwal became the Chief Minister. But Kejriwal resigned after just 49 days because of his minority government’s inability to pass anticorruption legislation without support from other parties. It looked like the end for the AAP and Kejriwal, but Kejriwal’s efforts over the past year—from publicly apologizing to the nation for quitting and reviving the AAP’s grassroots engagement—have clearly paid off.
  • Second, some have proclaimed this most recent Delhi election as the beginning of a new age of Indian politics, driven by youth and the masses, rather than powerful elites. Some even speculate that perhaps this is the first time certain groups of people, such as rickshaw drivers, slum dwellers, and other low-income citizens, have actually voted en masse. The reason could be twofold: first, some speculate that the introduction of a biometrics-based voting system gives scores of urban poor citizenship and voting rights; and second, the AAP went back to its roots to represent the “common man”, and actively targeted a constituent base among rickshaw drivers, street vendors, and slum dwellers, focusing on the issues most important to these groups: day-to-day corruption, lack of access to resources, education, and the like. The AAP’s volunteers also campaigned aggressively on social media, using Twitter, Facebook, and Google Hangouts to reach young voters. According to one student, “Democracy is winning today…because an honest man is standing for us.”
  • Third, even before the AAP has taken office, the election result appears to be having an unprecedented and positive effect. Even before being officially sworn in, Kejriwal re-opened the anticorruption hotline, which was shut down last year, that lets callers anonymously report bribes and other corruption. Many media sources are reporting that rickshaw drivers, street vendors, and others are publicly refusing to pay daily bribes they’ve been paying to officials for years, with some traders claiming that policemen stopped asking for bribes the day after the election results were announced. This happened briefly when Kejriwal and the AAP first won seats in December 2013 and ceased once he quit, but with the overwhelming support and expectations riding on Kejriwal, hopefully this abstention from daily corruption will last.

While expectations are high, Kejriwal is managing to keep the momentum going with significant promises for the immediate future. He has already claimed he will introduce the Jan Lokpal anticorruption bill in the Delhi Parliament’s second sitting. With the AAP’s sweeping victory, it will surely pass the Delhi legislature. It will still need to be approved by the central government, because many laws affecting long-term development of the capital require approval from the central government. But with such strong popular support, the odds are in Kejriwal’s favor. Kejriwal should not feel complacent, however. As previously discussed on this blog, Indian voters are loud and clear when they are dissatisfied. First, they nearly obliterated the Congress party, which ruled the country for over 60 years, because of rampant corruption. Last week, Delhi voters rejected the BJP, despite its recent victory in India’s national elections. Next election, they cando the same to the AAP and Kejriwal–and they probably will, if the party fails to deliver.

Indians often say the mood of the capital is the mood of the nation. People across the country have not stopped talking about Kejriwal and the Delhi election; the excitement is palpable.The time is ripe for a national anticorruption revolution. Other Indian cities await the results of this grand experiment in Delhi, in the hopes that successes there can be replicated elsewhere. Especially if the central government supports Kejriwal in Delhi as Modi has promised, then other regions can demand the same support. If Kejriwal succeeds in his second run as CM, he could propel Delhi as a change agent for the nation.

7 thoughts on “An Uncommon Victory for India’s Common Man

  1. I find difficult to reconcile earlier analysis “India voters voted against anticorruption but not for anticorruption party.” with the landslide victory of APP this time in New Delhi. What then the voters have started voting for anticorruption agenda as well as anticorruption party?

    • Yes, I take it Anusha’s point is that the situation seems to have changed since the national elections, or possibly that Raj’s earlier post may have been too quick to dismiss the viability of the AAP despite its poor showing in the national election.

      The real questions, it seems to me, are, first, whether the AAP will do better as a governing party this time around (and earn back some of the confidence and credibility it may have squandered last time around), and, second, whether it will have a significant political and policy impact outside of Delhi. Anusha seems optimistic, and I don’t know enough about Indian politics to disagree with her, though it seems from other comments like others are a bit more skeptical.

  2. I won’t pretend to know much about Indian politics but several Indians I have spoken with recently have expressed doubt about the AAP’s ability to govern in collaboration with other parties, a suspicion that seems to have been partly substantiated by Kejriwal’s earlier resignation. There is a difference between running a great campaign and governing well and, if recent years are any indication, it sounds like the electorate expects delivery on substantive campaign promises ASAP. I hope the best for AAP, Kejriwal, and their mission of anti-corruption. In control of all but 3 seats, the AAP might well be able to pull off reform in Delhi. But regardless of how the AAP fairs, I feel like it’s probable we’ll see wider effects among the ruling political elite and the traditionally powerful parties. Perhaps they will make good on their own commitments to fight corruption, that is if they want to keep their jobs.

  3. This impressive and exciting electoral development in India reminds me somewhat of the recent victory of Joko Widodo in Indonesia. Both Kehriwal and Widodo seem to have ridden a wave of discontent over widespread corruption among civil servants in their respective countries. I recently read that Widodo is far ahead of the Indonesian legislature on many issues — so far, in fact, that he’s going to find it hard to enact his much-vaunted reforms. Liz’s concern about AAP and Kejriwal’s ability to deliver seems founded in the same cold, hard logic. This is dismaying, and perhaps too cynical, so thank you Anusha for an uplifting counterpoint to that depressing narrative.

  4. Narayan, I agree with you and I think this election is very different from the last election for that exact reason. The Indian voters defeated Congress party, in large part because of rampant corruption so in this way they voted against corruption, but did not vote for anti-corruption since the AAP only won a plurality in that election. This time, however, the voters have clearly voted for anti-corruption.

    Chris and Liz, I appreciate both of your instincts. There is every chance that the AAP and Kejriwal will fail and be unable to bring about any real change or cooperate with the BJP. Political stagnation has been a huge blow to the movement in the past and still poses a very real danger. However, I think the mass public support and the control the AAP now possesses (In contrast with last election where the AAP only won 28/70 seats) positively reinforce each other. The AAP and Kejriwal will hopefully have more rigor and energy in proposing and passing legislature because it will be much easier this time and they know they have the support of the masses. They also know they can easily lose support of the masses like the BJP has in Delhi. Similarly, I think the people also feel empowered. At least, much of the media coverage has made it seem like the urban poor and low income citizens of Delhi feel excited and revived by their victory in the election. I think this kind of empowerment and energy is largely unprecedented, so if there is a ever a time to be hopeful, it is now.

  5. I had one other question, which picks up on something Raj also noticed from his posts last year on the AAP. You highlight that the strength of the party in the most recent elections seemed to be built primarily on two things: (1) reaching out to traditionally disenfranchised groups of the very poor (rickshaw drivers, street vendors, etc.); (2) using aggressive social media strategies (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to reach tech-savvy young voters. That’s a coalition of what seem to me to be two very different groups — united by their disgust with the corruption of the traditional elites and public officials, but not much else. Are there concerns about holding this coalition together? In terms of anticorruption policy (or policy more broadly, since governing a city like Delhi involves more than just anticorruption efforts), how might the interests of the AAP’s two main constituencies diverge, and how can the AAP manage that possible fault line in its coalition?

  6. Apologies for the delay, I wanted to do some research into the AAP’s platform outside of anticorruption before responding. The list of promises in the AAP’s manifesto is long and fantastical to say the least. Of the 70, yes seven-zero, points in the manifesto are distribution of free water up to 700 liters a day for all households in Delhi, reduction of electricity rates by half, free Wi-Fi across Delhi, installation of 1-1.5 million CCTV cameras for improving women’s safety, construction of 200,000 toilets, 500 government schools, and 20 universities, expansion of government hospitals, the creation of 800,000 jobs (including filling up the current 55,000 vacancies in the Delhi government), and a plan to make Delhi a “start-up” hub through attractive corporate policies. Some commentators have said this list is exhaustive to the point of absurdity, and I agree. The range of plans that appeal to various constituencies helps explain how the AAP has managed to garner so many votes in Delhi.
    As you rightly point out, keeping them happy will be a real challenge. Some areas where the interests of the poor and interests of students may diverge is the creation of jobs—for example, will Kejriwal create more jobs in areas like construction aimed at his low-income supporters or devote attention to the tech sector, targeting his highly educated student supporters? He’s promised to do both, but the divergence will become clear based on how he prioritizes his goals. Another huge divergence can come with his promise to provide free water. The manifesto is silent on this, and some worry that water will be cross subsidized, charging higher income or higher consumption households substantially higher rates to cover the costs of providing water to the urban poor.
    It is too early to predict when and how these divergences will emerge. As of now, he’s already made good on some of his promises to poor workers. Just this past week, pursuant to requests from public assemblies organized by the AAP, Kejriwal passed orders to stop police from arbitrarily evicting street vendors and outlawed demolition drives that were not authorized by the government. He has also claimed that work to make Delhi a free Wi-Fi hub was underway and would be complete within a year. It seems as though he is being careful to please all of his constituencies by continuing to talk about a range of issues and maintaining a forward-facing rhetoric to unite the interests of all residents of Delhi. I think continuing relationship with his constituencies through avenues like the public assemblies that the AAP is known for and through social media will be key to retaining support.
    The people of Delhi are not naïve. I don’t agree with some commentators that they were fooled into voting for the AAP through this extensive manifesto and fantastical promises. Voters are used to these manifestos, thrown around by nearly every party in every election, with some even hundreds of pages long. They are also used to being disappointed time and time again and used to forgotten poll promises. I don’t think voters voted fro the AAP because they thought the AAP would accomplish everything on it’s agenda, but because they had faith that the AAP could actually accomplish some things. I’d also argue that voters are rarely ever contacted again, let alone treated as a constituency, once their vote is won, until it’s time for the next election of course. Thus the AAP has already made strides by continuing relationships with its constituencies and starting to implement some of its policies. I think the key to the AAP’s success will be continuing to keep open communications. When Kejriwal has to make the tough decisions, prioritizing one constituent over another, he does not necessarily have to alienate them if he can compromise with them instead.

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