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AHMEDABAD, India — Maya Vishwakarma was in California in 2011 when she learned that her sister-in-law had died in a fire in her hometown in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. She flew there to help her family but faced an unexpected obstacle.
“My sister-in-law left two small children, and I was helping my brother get a death certificate, which they would need for school. But I kept being told at the government offices that if we wanted a death certificate, we would have to pay a bribe,” Vishwakarma said, her voice rising with emotion. “Even in death, I was asked to pay a bribe.”
That frustration is what led the 31-year-old Vishwakarma to join the nascent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or Common Man Party, which is contesting the ongoing Indian elections on an anti-corruption platform. An upstart entry into the electoral landscape, AAP was created in November 2012 and, after a brief stint in power in Delhi, the nation’s capital, is contesting an ambitious 450 out of 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament. One of those candidates is Vishwakarma, who is running for a seat from Hoshangabad, a small village in Madhya Pradesh. The Indian elections began on April 7 and conclude on May 12; Vishwakarma’s constituency voted on April 10.
In the two-party duopoly that reigns in India, AAP is shaking up business as usual. Some election observers are calling this the most important vote since the Congress government declared a State of Emergency in 1975. The Indian National Congress, also called simply Congress, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, are the only national parties in the country. The Congress is the party of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India’s freedom struggle; of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister; and, now, of Rahul Gandhi, the party’s candidate for prime minister. All accounts indicate that Gandhi will be handily beaten by BJP candidate Narendra Modi, the current chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. Modi, though immensely popular and seen as pro-business, is a polarizing figure because of his alleged role in the 2002 riots in his state, which saw more than a thousand dead, mostly Muslims.
India’s Election at a Glance
April 7 to May 12; results to be announced on May 16
Number of voters
Increase in number of voters since last elections in 2009
Number of first-time voters, roughly 20%
Number of polling stations
Projected cost of the election
Spending limit per candidate
Illegal campaign funds seized to date
Number of national parties
Number of regional parties
Early predictions suggest that AAP will not win more than 10 seats, making it a bit player in the next government. But the party is having an impact disproportionate to its size, taking away supporters from the BJP and Congress, as well as forcing these parties to address India’s corruption problem.
In January, AAP reported that it had 10 million members, who had signed up either in person, online or via phone. Unlike other Indian parties, AAP prides itself on being member-driven, and members are allowed to weigh in on policy, campaign strategy and even candidate selection. Any member can run for office as long as he or she collects 800 signatures and passes two rounds of interviews. In contrast, the BJP and Congress tend to favor candidates whose families are already established in politics.
A fresh approach
It is partly because of AAP’s fresh approach that it has managed to gain a large following among India’s growing, young and urban middle class. (And many of AAP candidates are in their 30s, not that much older than the average Indian, unlike most Indian politicians, whose average age is 53). One AAP supporter, Harish Shah, said that what he liked was that he was not required to list his parents’ names when he joined — a requirement on almost all government forms. “This is a way for parties to try to determine your caste,” he said. Shah pointed out that Indian politicians have always privileged the “mega-rich,” and he liked AAP’s promise to fight for universal health care and better schools. (The 26-year-old said he was also a fan of the party’s mobile phone app.)
But AAP’s appeal extends beyond the youth, and in this election it has fielded candidates with varied backgrounds. Meera Sanyal, for example, is a 52-year-old banking executive with a degree from Harvard Business School. In 2009, she ran as an independent, but today she is AAP’s candidate from Mumbai. Sanyal argues that AAP’s anti-corruption stance is beneficial to businesses, a message many wealthy elites find attractive in the commercial capital of the country.
Another notable candidate is Rajmohan Gandhi, the 79-year-old grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. A scholar, Gandhi has stepped into the political arena for the first time, sidestepping Congress because he says AAP is the only party that embodies his grandfather’s ideals. Other AAP candidates include Gul Panag, a Bollywood actress and former Miss Universe, as well as Medha Patkar, one of India’s most respected social activists, who fights on behalf of people displaced by development projects. Many AAP supporters say this is what they like about the party — that it will select the best candidate, not necessarily the candidate who will win.
Naina Dilwani is a 41-year-old Ahmedabad resident who will vote for the first time tomorrow, when Gujarat goes to the polls. “The Aam Aadmi Party is taking on issues like violence against women and India’s internal refugee issue in a way that others parties are ignoring. I never wanted to vote until I heard about AAP,” she said.
Most influential person, 2014
The Aam Aadmi Party traces its roots to 2011, when thousands gathered in Delhi to join an anti-corruption movement led by social activist Anna Hazare. He was pushing for a bill that would create an ombudsman-like government agency in the Indian government to monitor corruption at every level, including in the prime minister’s office.
Arvind Kejriwal, Hazare’s close aide, was instrumental in the movement’s success. Kejriwal, who has no political background, had previously helped push the government to adopt the transformative Right to Information Act, which mandates a timely response to requests for government information.
When Kejriwal saw the Indian government dragging its heels on the adoption of Hazare’s corruption bill, he decided to form his own political party. It was an unprecedented move — Kejriwal does not come from wealth or from a storied political family. His emergence as a national powerhouse in such a short period of time has given hope to many who despair of the BJP and Congress. In a recent “Time” magazine poll, Kejriwal was voted the readers’ choice for 2014’s most influential person.
Corruption in India at a glance
India's rank of 177 countries in the world in corruption (Transparency International)
Where India ranks on a scale of 0-100, with 0 being most corrupt (Transparency International). Regionally, India ranks below Sri Lanka and China but higher than Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Percentage of Indians who said corruption is holding country back (“The Economist,” March 15, 2014)
Percentage of Indians who think corruption has worsened in the past five years (“The Economist,” March 15, 2014)
When AAP contested the state elections in Delhi in 2012, it campaigned on a promise to reduce electricity bills and improve the safety of Delhi’s streets, a significant concern after a notorious December 2012 gang rape. Much to observers’ surprise, AAP won 28 out of the 70 seats, three shy of the BJP’s 31. When the BJP could not form a government, it left an opening for AAP to come to power.
Kejriwal, who became Delhi’s chief minister (a chief minister is the elected head of government of a state), announced during his inauguration speech that his party was setting up a phone number to report bribes. Within the first seven hours, his office received 3,904 calls. As chief minister, Kejriwal earned praise for slashing electricity prices but was criticized as well for, among other things, AAP’s midnight raid on a Ugandan and Nigerian neighborhood of Delhi where it claimed there was rampant prostitution and drug trafficking. But Kejriwal was not able to fulfill his party’s core agenda of convincing the other parties to fight corruption, and after 49 days in power, he resigned. Many say it was part of Kejriwal’s strategy to prepare for his campaign to become India’s next prime minister.
One young volunteer with AAP is 24-year-old Amish Thaker, who, like Vishwakarma, quit his job in California to campaign for the party in Gujarat. Today, Thaker helps manage AAP’s online presence, as well as the party’s door-to-door outreach in Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
For Thaker, the allure of AAP is that it has taught him to ask questions. Modi is campaigning on the issue of development and has promised to lead the country to financial prosperity if elected. But Thaker finds inconsistences in his rhetoric. “I never learned about my state until this election,” he said, “Now I realize that many of Modi’s claims about development are not true, but no one is questioning Modi. AAP taught me how to ask questions. Now I question even my own parents.” Thaker broke into a wide smile. (Both his parents are Modi supporters, and Thaker joked that every day, his mother reminds him how much money he could have been making if he had stayed at his job in Silicon Valley.)
For others, AAP’s central appeal is that it acts as a buffer to Modi. In this election, both Kejriwal and Modi are contesting from the same constituency in the city of Varanasi, in India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh (though Modi is also contesting from Vadodara, in Gujarat — which is allowed under Indian law and often criticized). In early March, Kejriwal traveled to Gujarat for a four-day visit and challenged the chief minister to back up his claims of development at a rally in the capital city of Ahmedabad. AAP organizers hoped that a few hundred would show up and were shocked to see several thousand attend, most of them wearing AAP’s trademark white hats. When Kejriwal began speaking, many in the audience waved large broomsticks, the party symbol, which represents AAP’s desire to sweep corruption out of India. A large police barricade was set up, but it did not stop BJP supporters from throwing rocks at Kejriwal and even smashing his car window. It was just the reception AAP’s front man wanted.
Ashish Khetan, one of India’s most celebrated investigative journalists, was with Kejriwal during his visit to Gujarat. “The four days I spent with Arvind in Gujarat in the first week of March were a game changer for me. What Congress failed to achieve in 15 years against Modi in Gujarat, Arvind achieved in four days in Gujarat,” Khetan said. It was enough to convince him to leave journalism and run for India’s lower house of Parliament on AAP’s behalf in Delhi.
“Politics is the most effective tool for bringing about change. And today AAP is the most effective vehicle for bringing out this change,” Khetan said.
On April 20, Khetan walked through a slum community on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, where thousands of residents live near a large trash dump. Many moved there after they were displaced by a government development project, the building of a riverfront promenade several miles away. The area near the trash dump was the only place they could afford. Others, like Najma Bano, moved there after their homes were burned down during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Bano, a Muslim, said it was difficult for her and her family to find housing elsewhere in the city after the violence. Today, she lives in a two-room shanty without a toilet; there are no paved roads in her area or government schools or hospitals. She has no running water, and when it rains, as it did a few hours after Khetan met her, the water seeps from the trash dump into her home, causing skin infections. When Khetan asked her about AAP and Kejriwal, who has promised to provide relief for those displaced by development projects and religious violence, she said she had never heard of the party.
This is part of the party’s challenge. Its base is still Delhi, and its outreach efforts have largely been through social media, which is accessible only to the educated urban population (just 16 percent of the Indian population has access to the Internet at home). Given that the majority of Indians still reside in rural areas, name recognition is a major problem for the young party.
Aam Aadmi Party
Founded in 2012
Number of members: 10 million
Prime ministerial candidate: Arvind Kejriwal
Candidate’s reported assets: $390,000
Notable past leaders: None
Years ruling India’s central government: 0
Dominant presence in India: Delhi
Percentage of candidates with criminal cases against them: 15
Key position: anti-corruption
Bharatiya Janata Party
Founded in 1980
Number of members: 30 million
Prime ministerial candidate: Narendra Modi
Total reported assets of Modi: $250,000
Notable past leaders: Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Years ruling India’s central government: 6 (1998-2004)
Percentage of BJP candidates with criminal cases against them: 48
Key position: business-friendly government
Indian National Congress Party
Founded in 1885
Number of members: not listed
Prime ministerial candidate: Rahul Gandhi
Total reported assets of Gandhi: $1.5 million
Notable past leaders: Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of India
Years ruling India’s central government: 49
Dominant presence in India: rural areas; Kerala, Assam
Percentage of Congress candidates with criminal cases against them: 29
Key positions: poverty alleviation
AAP is also a late starter in this election as it began campaigning in early 2014; the BJP and the Congress have been campaigning since the fall of last year. AAP is strapped for cash compared with the wealthy Congress and BJP. This has been an issue for Vishwakarma in Madhya Pradesh. Her candidacy was only announced on March 1, giving her just over a month before the April 10 election date to raise money. She received the bulk of her estimated $22,000 campaign expenses from California, mostly through online donations and by appealing for funds through videos recorded by U.S.-based AAP supporters. (AAP lists all of its donations online; Congress and the BJP have been reluctant to do so, and in March, the Delhi High Court directed India's Election Commission to identify their foreign funding sources.)
Kejriwal has insisted that his party will be completely different from the two other national parties and will not field candidates with criminal records, which is a major problem in Indian politics. But in this election, 15 percent of AAP candidates have criminal cases registered against them (compared with 48 percent of BJP candidates and 29 percent of those from Congress). AAP also came under fire last week when one of its candidates, a Muslim woman named Shazia Ilmi, told Muslim voters they should “become communal,” urging them to cling to, and vote along, community lines. AAP members have promised not to pander to religious sentiments, in contrast to Congress and the BJP.
Thaker, Khetan, and Vishwakarma are all realistic about AAP’s chances in this election and maintain that the party has already made a difference. “AAP fielded me, an unknown person from a small village and the first woman ever to run for this constituency,” Vishwakarma said. “AAP is showing that new things are possible.”