In 2011, India witnessed the largest anticorruption uprising in its history, as hundreds of thousands of people mobilized to protest against entrenched corruption and to push for the passage of national anticorruption legislation that had been stuck in parliament for decades. The movement failed to achieve that objective, but out of its ashes was born a new political party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The AAP, founded in 2013, made anticorruption its main focus, choosing as its symbol a broom to represent its goal of cleaning up Indian government. The AAP achieved its first major victory in 2015, when it won a landslide victory in the state elections in Delhi, India’s capital city. Many inside and outside of India naturally wondered: Would the AAP achieve its goals? Could it effectively govern a city of 19 million people, and succeed in curtailing entrenched corruption? After all, the challenges are enormous, and the international track record of anticorruption parties is rather mixed.
The AAP’s journey wasn’t smooth, and its first few months in office were marked by significant infighting and a general perception of dysfunction. But the AAP managed to turn things around, and in the February 2020 elections, the AAP won handily, gaining a decisive majority for the next five years. The AAP’s success is partly due to its popular policies on things like increasing spending on education and reducing the cost of electricity and water. But the AAP also succeeded in the polls because it followed through on its anticorruption agenda. Although it’s always hard to gauge the success of anticorruption efforts, there are two major pieces of evidence that indicate that the AAP really has taken major steps to clean up politics:
- First, since the AAP’s entry into Delhi’s politics, the ability of politicians to line their pockets has fallen drastically. We know this from the asset reports that candidates have to file at each election—filings that must include wealth held by immediate family members, and that, despite other problems in the Indian system, are generally thought to be accurate. Because the same candidates often stand for multiple consecutive elections, one can compare their assets before and after their terms in office to see how much richer politicians got during their tenure. Back in the 2013 Delhi elections (the last time Delhi had elections after a full five-year term), there were 66 candidates who had also run in 2008, The asset reports reveal that these candidates’ wealth, over their five years in office, grew by a mind-blowing 259% (Rs 7.53 crores, or $1.05 million) on average. By contrast, in the 2020 Delhi elections, asset filings reveal that the average five-year growth in legislators’ assets is a mere 13%, (Rs 92.12 lakh, or $129K). And although the rate of asset growth for elected legislators has dropped a bit across the country, the decline is much more precipitous in Delhi. (In the national parliamentary elections of 2014, candidates for reelection had enjoyed an average five-year asset growth of about Rs 8.47 crores ($1.2M), while in 2019 the average growth over the previous five years was Rs 6.86 crores ($960K).) The evidence suggests that, under AAP rule, elected officials are much less likely to like their pockets with public funds or otherwise use their political power to get rich.
- Second, reports of corruption have fallen drastically in Delhi under the AAP. A study by India’s Central Vigilance Commission found that corruption related complaints declined by 81% in Delhi between 2015 and 2016, the AAP’s first year in full control of the Delhi government. Furthermore, the number of corruption cases brought against defendants from Delhi dropped from 31 in 2015 to 9 in 2017. Transparency International has also documented notable improvements, with TI’s 2019 survey finding that Delhi had among the lowest rates of corruption in the country. And these changes are not simply reflections of national trends—quite the opposite. Corruption is thriving in Modi’s India, and the Central Vigilance Commission report referenced above found a 67% increase in corruption complaints against the central government over the same period that saw an 81% decline in such complaints in Delhi.
So, while the AAP has not eliminated corruption in Delhi, the available evidence indicates it has made a real difference. The AAP now gives citizens fed up with corruption a genuine alternative at the voting booth. And this has had a positive effect on other parties as well: In Delhi, the AAP’s only real competitor is the BJP, and allegations of corruption have become a routine back and forth between the BJP and AAP. Moreover, the pressure created by the AAP appears to have had an effect on BJP politicians as well: The five BJP members of the Delhi legislative assembly who stood for reelection in 2020 reported asset growth over the previous five years of 14%, on average; back in 2013, the average asset growth for BJP legislators standing for reelection in Delhi was 313%. It seems clear that the BJP has recognized that remaining competitive with the AAP requires addressing corruption.
The AAP, then, has succeeded in generating a dramatic change in Indian politics, reducing public tolerance for corruption, and making possible genuine electoral accountability for corruption related activities. The AAP’s win in the February elections marks a new, cleaner era in Delhi politics. For now, this promise may be limited to Delhi, but it should serve as an inspiration for anticorruption reformers not only in India, but across the world.