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India's 'Common Man' Party Sees Broad Appeal in Anti-Corruption Stance

A supporter of Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) cheers after its leader Arvind Kejriwal took an oath as the new chief minister of Delhi during a swearing-in ceremony at Ramlila ground in New Delhi, Dec. 28, 2013.
In India, a new party that is promising to end graft and provide good governance has taken power in the capital after making a stunning debut in elections. The party’s emergence could mark a turning point for Indian politics which have long been dominated by issues such as religion, caste and creed.

As the Aam Aadmi Party or Common People’s party began the task of governing the politically sensitive Indian capital Monday, it was not just Delhi’s residents who were watching closely.

The one-year-old party made political waves when it won 40 per cent of the seats earlier this month in Delhi’s elections. It drew even more attention when it consulted the city’s people before agreeing to form a government with support from the Congress Party because it did not have a majority.

Independent political analyst Ajoy Bose in New Delhi says the party represents a much bigger phenomenon than just a change of a local government. One of its unique features is a new brand of citizenship politics in a country unfamiliar with the concept.

“They are talking about a more participatory democracy that the voters also actually participate in policy making," said Bose. "There is a much stronger connect between the government officials and political leaders with people. Now given the context of Indian politics at this point, when the public perception of leaders are fairly low, and the main reason is that they have got completely disconnected and also the fact that they [are] probably, basically a very, selfish, corrupt breed of people, this comes as a breath of fresh air."

Bose says Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's electoral success has helped break through a cynicism about politics.

Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal talks on phone as he assumes office of the Chief Minister of Delhi, New Delhi, Dec. 28, 2013.
Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal talks on phone as he assumes office of the Chief Minister of Delhi, New Delhi, Dec. 28, 2013.
Kejriwal demonstrated his unique style at his swearing in ceremony Saturday. He rode a crowded metro train to the event, which was held at a public park packed not with dignitaries, but with thousands of ordinary men and women.

Political observers say the party, which was born out of a popular anti-corruption movement, has tapped into deep anger with mainstream political parties. It has connected with an electorate fed up with political parties which have long wooed voters on the basis of religion, caste and community and ignored good governance.

Satish Misra of the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi says the Aam Aadmi party, also called “Aap,” has rung the alarm bell for mainstream parties.

“The kind of identity politics that has been pursued in last two decades - that will start changing. The voice of AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] was represented by this new middle class, also by the class which has aspirations yet no means to achieve that. It has jolted the political class out of slumber and they will have to take note of the kind and style of politics that AAP has pursued in Delhi,” said Misra.

Many hurdles lie ahead for a government which is promising to root out graft. One of the first pledges made by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal after taking office is to create an anti-bribery helpline. The party has also promised to create more schools, give the city good roads, give a limited quantity of free water to households and slash electricity tariffs.

But the high expectations created may not be easy to meet. Political observers say the road ahead will be tough for the fledgling party. It has no experience in governance.

And political commentator Ajoy Bose says they will also have to watch out for those not interested in clean government.

“Trying to govern a place like Delhi in an honest and transparent and effective manner would immediately bring them against very deeply entrenched powerful interests. These are very powerful lobbies in various sectors. Whether it is the water tanker mafia or sections of the police, local politicians, these are people who are not going to roll over and die. They could seriously sabotage governance,” said Bose.

But for the time being, the new party’s debut, just months ahead of national elections, is a threat to the two mainstream parties - the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Senior leader Prashant Bhushan has announced his party’s intention of taking the Aam Aadmi Party’s footprint beyond the capital.

“Wherever we have a reasonable party machinery and a good candidate available, we are going to contest the Lok Sabha [parliament's lower house] elections from those constituencies,” said Bhushan.

Political commentators say as in Delhi, the new party could mount a challenge to the two main parties in other urban centers, and could force them to rethink their entire political strategy for national elections.