NEW DELHI — As corruption becomes a top public concern in India, a prominent anti-corruption activist has launched a political party, pledging cleaner governance. While its political future is uncertain, the new party has rocked the political establishment and brought the issue of graft to the center stage.
The new political party has been named “Aam Aadmi” or “Common Man”. Its face is a fiery 44-year-old former tax officer, Arvind Kejriwal, who was on the forefront of an anti corruption civil society campaign which won nationwide support. When that campaign for the establishment of a powerful anti graft ombudsman fizzled out, Kejriwal pledged to take the political route to battle endemic corruption.
Kejriwal says his aim is to throw out India’s graft-ridden political system.
“We will not fight elections by the same rules. We are here to change those rules," he said. "They fight elections on the basis of money and muscle power, on the basis of caste and religion. We will not do that."
Public anger runs deeps at pervasive graft - from petty bribes for getting driving licenses or gas connections, to multi billion dollar scandals involving top officials. And popular outrage has grown in the past two years, as the scale of some corruption scams comes to light.
A political commentator in New Delhi, Yogendra Yadav, who is a key member of the new party, says the time is ripe for a political engagement for the anti corruption movement.
“There is enormous disenchantment with the entire political establishment, and this is an unusual, if I may say, historic opportunity to mount an alternate kind of politics which is what we plan to do,” said Yadav.
Kejriwal accuses both the ruling Congress Party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party of colluding with each other to promote a corrupt system. And he has captured nationwide attention as he publicly names some of India’s most powerful people accused of shady dealings.
The most daring target is Robert Vadra, the son-in law of Congress Party head Sonia Gandhi. Kejriwal has accused him of amassing huge wealth through shady land deals in collusion with India’s biggest property developer. The foreign minister, the head of the main opposition party, and the country’s biggest conglomerate, Reliance, have been some of his other targets. The accused have all denied the charges.
Kejriwal has attracted widespread media attention, and both accolades and criticism. Some see him as a crusader committed to fighting corruption. Others see him as a political opportunist tapping into an issue that is troubling many Indians.
Zoya Hasan, Professor of Politics at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, says the new party has made the issue of corruption central to Indian politics.
“They have been able to expose the politics business nexus, which is a very cozy nexus in India," said Hasan. "It could have some impact, given that the middle classes, the media, are so mindful of corruption, that possibly it will expedite a slew of other anti corruption legislation that are on the anvil, and I think both the government and the bureaucracy will be tad more mindful of the issue of corruption.”
The ruling Congress Party acknowledges that corruption needs to be rooted out and says it is committed to doing so. But it dismisses the new political party as a “gimmick”.
Several political analysts also say that while Kejriwal is grabbing headlines, India’s battle against corruption cannot be waged by a fledgling political party limited to the north of the country.
The testing times for the party will come when it takes part in local elections in the Indian capital next year and general elections in 2014.
Hasan says the “Aam Aadmi” party’s narrow agenda is a big limitation. She says it has “stirred the political pot,” but is unlikely to make a big difference in electoral politics.
“The single biggest problem for the new political party is that it is only focused only on one issue and that is corruption," she explained. "In this country, which is continent sized country with continent sized problems and challenges, corruption is certainly at the root of many of the problems, but that still is not the only issue and this seems to be a single issue party.”
But founders and supporters of “Aam Aadmi” are optimistic. Run with a tiny staff and small group of volunteers, it is using social media such as Twitter and Facebook to get its message across. They say they are winning support in a young country ruled mostly by politicians who are 60 plus and out of touch with the common man.
Yadav is confident the new party will make a difference.
“They can alter the agenda of electoral contestation, they can hope to change the rules of the games, which we hope we are beginning to, and finally they can bring new, young, fresh idealist entrants into politics,” said Yadav.
While the party has still to prove its mettle in the murky waters of established politics, there is little doubt it has struck a chord by articulating the frustration many Indians feel with corruption.