In India, upstart anti-corruption party pushed the establishment

AAP

Two volunteers for the AAP, an anti-corruption party in India, in Cabbon Park, Banaglore, India. (Parshotam La Tandon/Flickr)

The festival of the Indian elections have concluded, and the roads are being swept to clear the remnants from the firecrackers, party symbols and printed slogans. After a six-week, seven-phase voting period, and a larger campaign of promises made and broken precluding it, the results of the India’s 16th general elections were declared on Friday, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, also known as the Indian Nationalist Party, emerged the winner. But more than the party, it was the triumph of one man and the marketing of his image: 63-year-old Narendra Modi, formerly the chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat for two consecutive terms.

What amazed many Indians was how, for the first time in the India’s election history, the BJP won the majority of votes — capturing 282 out of the total 543. It was the first time that a party other than then Indian National Congress, and without the appendages of coalition parties, took home the majority of votes. The Congress party has been the dominant political party in India since the country’s independence. However, this year has been the Congress’ worst performance in its history, and in its place the BJP surged to victory.

But what last weekend’s headlines about a “sweeping victory” ignored was how Modi and the BJP were pushed throughout the campaign by another candidate to be more honest about his plans for India, his ideas for ways to root out the scourge of corruption and his plans to level inequality. This contender was Arvind Kejriwal from the Aam Aadmi Party, also known as the Common Man Party.

The AAP was born as a result of the anti-corruption movement that galvanized India in 2011. A fission in the leadership of the campaign led to the formation of the party officially in late 2012. While Anna Hazare, a Gandhian known for his reformation work of villages in western Maharashtra, was of the view that the movement against corruption should be unaligned in the electoral system of politics, Arvind Kerjriwal, who was a bureaucrat but has long been waging a battle against corruption in the capital city of New Delhi, felt that direct political involvement in the polls was necessary in order to change the broader spectrum.

In the recent general elections, the AAP won a mere four seats, all from the northern state of Punjab. But what was remarkable was that in almost every state, the AAP ranked third or fourth. Through its days and nights of campaigning — without the large banners or media ads of either the BJP or the Congress — it attracted people from all sections of Indian society to think of this election through the lens of systemic corruption. Riding on momentum from the anti-corruption wave of 2011, the AAP showed the country that a third option other than the BJP and Congress could exist. The campaign was far from perfect, but it showed that an alternative was possible.

Since its formation in late 2012, the AAP has managed to attract people from a large cross-section of society through its agenda to root out corruption. Fighting against the nexus between the government and large corporations was its cornerstone. The party largely operated in urban areas, even though it also campaigned for issues of the urban lower middle class. Volunteer youths took up the mandate of popularizing the party through active social media campaigns, and activists from across the country agreed to be the face of the AAP in the polls, a fact that spoke to the party’s ability to steer away from religious or carved-in-stone ideologies. 

The party’s crusade against corruption resonated well with Indians, even those living abroad. It received tremendous support from Indians living outside the country, including a large convention of Indian-Americans in Chicago who extended its support to the party. Both inside and outside the country, Indians were exhausted by the evolving list of scandals and scams that plagued the last decade of the Indian National Congress’s rule. Given this fatigue, the AAP and its supporters were shocked when the anti-corruption party received a majority of the votes in only four constituencies.

In contrast to the AAP, the BJP spent more on this campaign than Barack Obama did during the 2012 presidential election cycle. With the election of Modi, the idea of development, in the form of large-scale industrialization without any consideration of its human cost, won the day. The memory of the 2002 riot in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where Modi was Chief Minister, was glossed over — despite the fact that more than 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims. (According to a Human Rights Watch report about the riot, “a key state minister is reported to have taken over a police control room in Ahmedabad on the first day of the carnage, issuing directions not to rescue Muslims in danger of being killed.”) And, perhaps most significantly, by choosing Modi, Indians exposed their hypocrisy about being truly angry about corruption.

For most Indians, a key reason they chose BJP or other dominant local political parties over the AAP was because of how the AAP’s handled of the Jan Lokpal Bill in Delhi, which was proposed to further the investigation of charges against political leaders on a priority basis. The AAP had come to power in Delhi in the legislative assembly elections in 2013, but its chief minister Arvind Kejriwal quit after the Jan Lokpal Bill was not passed in the Parliament. For many Indians, that impatience was a mistake and likely hurt the party in the recent national election.

Yet, it is still significant that the AAP won four seats in Punjab. It’s also significant that in all of the six electoral constituencies from the capital region of Delhi the party ranked second with very close margins. Perhaps these results show that there is space for a party that is truly speaking the language of systemic change. In other words, even in its defeat, the numbers show that the AAP played well.

Of course, the route chosen by Kejriwal was significant, as was the preceding movement against corruption that awakened the nation from its slumbering acceptance of business-as-usual. However, the AAP cannot simply accept making a mark on parliament; it has to keep alive the momentum of political movements and continue challenging the swift corporate development of India in order to truly represent the anguish of the common man in the elections five years from now. March 16 showed the success of a perfect PR campaign and a population’s conscious amnesia around human rights issues. With the election of Modi, Muslims and other minorities might have much to worry about. But these will be crucial times for the AAP to fortify itself. Perhaps it spells doom to have BJP’s saffron color enveloping the country, in the textbooks, the billboards, the municipal toilets. But for the AAP, and its meager win and competitive loss, this is only the beginning of working towards what is phenomenally possible.

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