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India’s Common Man’s Party Challenges Mainstream

  • Anjana Pasricha

Supporters of Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) take part in the celebrations outside the AAP office in New Delhi, Feb. 10, 2015.

Supporters of Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) take part in the celebrations outside the AAP office in New Delhi, Feb. 10, 2015.

The Aam Aadmi or Common Man’s Party won by a landslide in local Delhi elections this week after promising to clean up India's politics. Its challenge to mainstream parties with its brand of alternative politics will be tested as it rules the capital city for the next five years.

On the streets of Delhi, hawkers, vendors, auto rickshaw drivers and rickshaw pullers are all smiles after Aam Aadmi's astonishing victory.

Hawkers say they voted in the Aam Aadmi party because police stopped harassing them when they briefly ruled Delhi last year, Feb. 12, 2015. (Photo: A. Pasricha for VOA)

Hawkers say they voted in the Aam Aadmi party because police stopped harassing them when they briefly ruled Delhi last year, Feb. 12, 2015. (Photo: A. Pasricha for VOA)

They recall how they had become “free” when the party briefly ruled Delhi for 49 days last year. They say policemen stopped asking for bribes and they were not harassed by officials when they tried to get licenses or ration cards.

Aam Aadmi, which rose out of a street movement to combat corruption two years ago, decimated both India’s national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress Party, winning a historic 67 out of 70 sets in the Delhi Assembly.

The bedrock of its support was the city’s underclass, which makes up nearly two-thirds of the city’s 17 million people. To these residents struggling on less than $225 a month in vast slums or cramped homes, the prospect of not having to hand out petty bribes spells massive relief.

Founded by Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax inspector turned activist, the party made its political debut last year in Delhi, but quit after a brief spell because it lacked a majority. He was dismissed as an “agitator” with no stomach for governance. The party’s efforts to make a national presence flopped. Most thought it had no future.

But Kejriwal’s stunning comeback is being seen as a yearning for the promise he holds out - a much stronger focus on the underprivileged and cleaner politics. His party’s many promises include free water, cheaper electricity, more schools, affordable housing and free wifi.

Sanjay Kumar, director of the Center for Developing Societies in New Delhi, says national parties will have to pay attention.

“I think political parties would be more alerted now and they would try and make corrections," Kumar said. "Not only relying on alliances etc, but think of picking up issues which are connected to the day to day life of the people.”

After its huge win, party leader Yogendra Yadav said there will be an immediate focus on speeding up what poor people need most -- schools for their children and medical care.

“There are 220 schools which have been sanctioned, which actually never happened," Yadav noted. "There are so many hospitals which have been started, but which are awaiting inauguration, or awaiting completion awaiting for someone to be posted. So there are low lying fruits.”

The party, made up of a diverse group of young, energetic professionals, intellectuals, activists, and students, is also promising an alternative political culture. In a city where ministers and leaders live in sprawling bungalows and are seen on the roads with huge security convoys, Kejriwal vows to do away with what he calls the ruling elite’s “VIP culture.”

Kumar says the Aam Aadmi party stands apart from mainstream parties, which are often seen as elitist and aloof from ordinary people. But he says some compromises are already being made.

“Clean politics referred to having clean candidates, transparency in politics, less use of money, no use of black money in politics, and they thought this is how they are going to give alternative politics," he said. "In this election they have already moved a little away from that. There are question marks being raised about their candidates, the kind of money which Aam Aadmi party has spent, though it is far, far less than BJP, they can’t say they were short of money etc. "

Political observers say the party’s remarkable victory in Delhi could reignite its national ambitions and prompt it to make a debut in other cities. For starters, it is eyeing India’s IT capital, Bangalore, where civic polls are due in April.

But analysts warn that it must first cope with the enormous burden of expectation that it has roused among Delhi residents.

Driver Harsh Singh is optimistic that the Aam Aadmi Party can stamp out corruption in New Delhi, India, Feb. 12, 2015. (Photo: A. Pasricha for VOA)

Driver Harsh Singh is optimistic that the Aam Aadmi Party can stamp out corruption in New Delhi, India, Feb. 12, 2015. (Photo: A. Pasricha for VOA)

Harsh Singh, who renewed his commercial driver’s license without paying a bribe during the party’s time in power last year, is optimistic.

He says Aam Aadmi is an honest party and can handle the corruption we come across everyday. He says he is hopeful they can transform society.

The next five years will be crucial for the party, which must find the resources to provide amenities they have promised to the poor, live up to its promise of clean government, and convince skeptics that it can be politically viable.

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