In 2011, there was the Arab Spring, followed by the Summer of India Against Corruption, and the Autumn of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States. People everywhere seemed to be yearning for democratic reforms, for economic and social equity, and for their voices to be heard. Some governments fell, others relented and made minor changes.
In India, despite the mass protests, the reforms have been few and far between and corruption continues unabated. India’s two major political parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) are embroiled in scams, while many regional party leaders are under investigation for disproportionate assets amassed while in power. Sadly, it appears that India’s political parties in power today routinely put up candidates with criminal backgrounds to contest elections, and lack intra-party democracy.
Corruption has impacted everything from the falling value of the rupee, to price rise, to increasing unemployment, to lack of education for the poor, to investor confidence, among other key metrics. The poor, the dispossessed, the unequal and the discriminated are facing the brunt of miseries that can only be set right by good governance.
As Indian Americans we understand India’s true potential at a very fundamental level, and it makes us sad to see India not living up to its full potential. We, in America, could benefit much more from business, education, investment, medical treatment and vacation opportunities available in India, provided these systemic problems with corruption are addressed.
India’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published by Transparency International was ranked at 94, (Somalia ranked at 174 and Denmark at 1).
The present system and the current crop of political parties do not appear to have the credibility or wherewithal to make India a humane, caring and developed nation. Simply changing players is not a solution; it is the rules of the game that need to be changed, the system needs to be reformed. Indian Americans routinely complain about corruption, power outages, water supply, poverty, pollution and infrastructure they encounter while visiting India. Getting these problems fixed clearly begins with changing the politics of India.
Mr. Gurcharan Das, in his recent book India Grows at Night, says, “The DNA of the BJP is not secular. The DNA of the Congress is statist, populist and socialist. Neither has shown the commitment for institutional reform. The regional parties lack a national vision. The left parties do not believe in market-based outcomes. So although the last thing India needs is a new party, it is unfortunately the only alternative for a young, aspiring secular India in the twenty-first century.”
The India Against Corruption (IAC) activists tried their best to change the system from outside the political arena. Anna Hazare, who led the IAC movement, and Kiran Bedi prefer not to join party politics and to continue the struggle from outside. Arvind Kejriwal, and others who played a key role in IAC, felt that to be effective, they needed to be part of the political process and formed the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) party (AAP) in October 2012. The party is contesting the upcoming Delhi State Assembly elections in December 2013.
Hope and Promise
AAP’s four basic tenets are: participatory democracy and decentralized decision-making; drafting policies with the common man in mind; zero tolerance for corruption; and respect for the constitution, which is the frame of reference for justice, equity and diversity.
To draw a comparison, the latest example of dysfunction in Washington was a case of a few law makers using the rules in Congress to bring the United States government to a virtual standstill. In India on the other hand, members of parliament have little or no say in the decision making process (more so after the passage of the anti-defection law). All decisions are made by the party high command (the power center that controls each party) and elected representatives just rubber stamp the orders of those who control their party.
AAP strongly believes that an effective Jan Lokpal (an independent ombudsman), having, both, the authority and the independence to investigate and prosecute, with a mandate for prompt resolution of the cases is a necessary first step to the decentralization of power.
AAP advocates the use of modern technology to assure openness, accountability, and operational efficiencies. Right To Information law (RTI), use of e-governance, and open processes are the initial tools. In decentralization of power, checks and balances and accountability to public are to be realized through empowered local self-governance mechanisms.
AAP does not represent an ideology, it is not a left or right classification, or a liberal or conservative dogma, but presents itself as a sensible approach.
AAP’s campaign seems to be inspired by the successful Obama campaign. AAP’s message is carried through active email, social media, and SMS campaigns. Thousands of party volunteers go door-to-door canvassing for the party while others participate in an active phone campaign. Unlike other political parties, AAP raises its money online from many donors (including Indian citizens abroad), and selects its candidates through an open and transparent process.
Only six months ago, no one gave AAP much of a chance. Now Delhi’s political mood is swinging rapidly. Outlook reports that as many as 47 per cent of Delhi’s voters are willing to give AAP a chance to form the government, as against only 33 per cent for the BJP, and 27 per cent for the Congress. Just as encouraging are the results of a recent opinion poll with the sample size of around 36,000 voters, completed in October, which projects that AAP is leading in 37 seats, giving them a clear majority of the 70 seats. Besides, since it is trailing by less than 5% in 12 additional seats, the AAP could win between 45 to 50 seats, with the wind of popularity in their sails.
The media calls the Delhi election a three-way race between AAP, BJP and the Congress. In the New Yorker (Sept. 2, 2013), Samanth Subramanian writes, “The country’s two dominant parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, are behemoths of power and money. Compared with them, Aam Aadmi is a featherweight, but it has in Kejriwal the most potent weapon of any fledgling party in recent memory. Whatever success the Party enjoys in the upcoming elections, it will have opened new avenues of participation for India’s small and struggling independent parties.” Delhi could just be the beginning of a political upheaval in the making. India’s political landscape is definitely changing, and AAP appears to be at the forefront of this change.
One of AAP’s biggest challenges is name recognition. Parties such as the Congress and the BJP are ingrained in the minds of people unlike AAP which is a relative newbie. Likewise the AAP election symbol “broom” is not widely known like the “hand” of the Congress or the “Lotus” of the BJP. Other challenges are funding, media coverage and battling the politics of corruption and name calling. BJP calls AAP a B-team of Congress, while Congress calls AAP a B-team of BJP. There is also the alleged use of threats and intimidation against AAP and its supporters, as well as imprisonment of some volunteers.
More recently, the powers in Delhi (Congress in Delhi State and BJP in Delhi Municipality) have asked the police to begin a crackdown on AAP, removing their posters, citing The Delhi Prevention of Defacement of Property Act, 2007, according to a Times of India report. The police even took down AAP posters from paid billboards, while leaving the opposition parties posters intact. While this may reduce AAP’s visibility, AAP is responding with stepped-up door-to-door campaigning to maintain its momentum.
Manu Joseph (NY Times, June 5, 2013), writes, “What he [Kejriwal] truly requires to make an impact in the polls is hundreds of millions of rupees’ worth of free news media attention, which he has enjoyed over the past two years. But journalistic interest in him has declined. Also, according to Mr. Kejriwal, the editors and managers of several media organizations who had cheered him when he attacked the government were uncomfortable with his revelations about corporations and businessmen, who are major advertisers.”
In spite of these roadblocks, Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP volunteers carry on their campaign, not unlike the people who fought for India’s freedom. They endure arrests, beatings and make enormous personal sacrifices.
Kejriwal is often asked that if elected, how would AAP fulfill its promise of a prosperous India that works for all Indians irrespective of caste, creed, or economic status. How would it implement its promises, change the system, find the funds, and overcome opposition?
These are important questions, and Kejriwal’s answer is that people in India are yearning for better governance, which combined with removing corruption will free the funds for development and education. It is vital for India’s future that youth be educated and trained.
The challenge for AAP and Kejriwal is to win a sizeable majority, so it can govern Delhi without compromising its principles. With the Lok Sabha election due in the middle of next year, a strong showing in the Delhi assembly elections can vault AAP to the national stage. On the other hand a poor showing in Delhi can dent the hopes and aspiration of many AAP supporters, like-minded parties, and young people across India.
Will AAP rise to the challenge? Will it be able to make a difference? Will it usher a New India? Journalist Manu Joseph said in his New York Timesarticle, “If virtue alone were to decide elections in India, the two major parties in Delhi, the governing Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, would not stand a chance against Mr. Kejriwal”