The common man they brushed aside

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Real hero Arvind Kejriwal defeated incumbent CM Sheila Dikshit by a margin of 25,864 vote, Photo: Arun Sehrawat
Real hero Arvind Kejriwal defeated incumbent CM Sheila Dikshit by a margin of 25,864 votes. Photo: Arun Sehrawat

I fiddled with my voter ID card as I stood in a queue at a polling booth in Delhi. I was nervous. It was the first time I was exercising my right to vote. Standing in the queue with me were a myriad of faces, all seemingly more aware of the process. As I walked into the polling station to cast my vote, I was still weighing my options. Others around me seemed more resolute.

“That’s the symbol — the broom. You have to press the button next to the it,” I overheard an old man tell another man in his twenties. “My vote is with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP),” he said, as his granddaughter escorted him out of the polling station. At my pooling booth, AAP seemed to be the most popular choice — a trend that was seemingly replicated across the city state of New Delhi.

However, as surveys gave the party anywhere between 5-35 seats, political pundits and journalists felt that while AAP could bag 5 seats, it would take a miracle for the party to stake claim on anything more than 10 seats. They predicted that riding on an anti-Congress wave, the party would eat into the BJP’s voteshare, giving the Congress a slight edge over the Opposition. Arguing in air-conditioned television studios, they misread the political winds and underestimated the power of the common man.

On Sunday, 8 December, when the Assembly election results for Delhi were declared, hacks and experts who’d initially dismissed AAP, were showering adulation on the party and its leader Arvind Kejriwal. The party beat all poll predictions to bag 28 seats in New Delhi, decimating the Congress. Kejriwal, who stood against the incumbent Sheila Dikshit, won against her by a huge margin of 25,864 votes.

Launched in November 2012, AAP shocked the power centres by eating into the votes of the two national parties. “After political forces crushed the Jan Lokpal movement, AAP rose from its ashes like a phoenix and put an egg on the face of their political detractors. It gave people an alternative to the Congress and the BJP,” says Pushpesh Pant, a New Delhi based political analyst.

Addressing a press conference after the results were announced, Yogendra Yadav, a senior leader with AAP, said, “The voter is shouting. They are saying that they hate this political system. They want a political alternative.”

With the BJP leading the seat tally at 32, four short of majority in the 70 member Delhi Assembly and unwilling to take reigns of power, New Delhi faces the prospect of a hung Assembly. When Yadav was asked if AAP would ally with the Congress, he said, “This is a moral victory for the party and if the cost of this opportunity (to form the government) is to ally with the ills that we have targeted, then what is the point?”

It was this moral high ground that helped AAP capture the imagination and votes of the residents of Delhi. “After three terms, the Congress had a lot to account for and AAP benefited from everything — price rise, the party’s hypocrisy, their political arrogance. They rode the wave of the Anna movement and were ably supported by the Congress party’s corruption and arrogance,” suggests Pant.

Urmila, a 30 year-old sanitation worker who lives in a slum near Vasant Vihar, an upmarket neighbourhood in the capital, shares Pant’s feeling. “The Congress has done nothing for us in the last 15 years that it held power. People wanted change. Most people in my neighbourhood voted for the BJP but I don’t trust them either. I voted for AAP. I don’t think they are here for political power, they are here to help clean the system. I, therefore, wanted to give them a chance. Seldom does an aam aadmi (common man) get the chance to walk into the state Assembly building, let alone occupy the seat of power,” she says.

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Talking from his shop in northwest Delhi’s Bawana town, 57 year-old Azad Singh Chauhan couldn’t agree more. “No politician would ever help the poor. They come, walk around the colony and make promises. But not once did they deliver. We voted for them because we never had any choice. I feel AAP is different,” he says.

In fact, when there was fire in Chauhan’s neighbourhood, volunteers of AAP helped the residents. “They stood by us and helped us like no other political party had done before. I feel that they are honest and that is why I voted for them,” he adds.

Azad even went to the Muslims in his neighbourhood, who were traditionally Congress voters and engaged with them, explaining why he felt AAP was different. “They would just give away their vote to the Congress. I told them that now there is third option and we should give them a chance.”

AAP, unlike other political parties in the capital, worked hard on building its base in economically impoverished neighbourhoods of Delhi. Its volunteers went to slums and illegal settlements in the capital, promising residents a 50 percent cut in electricity costs, free water supply, safety for women and the Jan Lokpal bill. They rallied locals to join their forces to further their message of change.

What captivated many Delhi voters was the campaign strategy adopted by AAP. Autorickshaws turned into hoardings, transporting Arvind Kejriwal’s face and the party symbol across the city.

Instead of holding mass rallies, volunteers went door to door to bring the party’s agenda at the doorsteps of voters.

In sharp contrast to the usual paid attendance for rallies and unaccounted funding, the party called for funds and support from all quarters – many gave up their jobs abroad and across India to come and work for the party and funding poured in.

What AAP successfully managed to do was to wake up the angry and frustrated, but politically asleep and usually inconsequential middle class. “AAP broke down the barrier between the political class and the ordinary man. It reached out to us for funding. Everything was accounted for online and when they reached their target of collecting Rs 20 crore, they asked people to stop contributing. This made me trust AAP and I reevaluated my assumption of every politician being a thief,” says Inderpreet Singh, singer for the band Faridkot and a former BJP supporter.

Singh was indifferent to AAP and its politics when it started out. It was the way that the party involved people in its decision making process that made him reassess his political alignment. “It created a feedback mechanism and I feel that will push other parties to work harder,” he says.

Over t he past year, the party has managed to grab the attention of people across the country and has managed to make its presence felt in 22 states and 309 districts in India. Though the party’s organisation in these areas cannot be compared to its presence in New Delhi, the question on everyone’s mind is whether the party will contest the 2014 General Election.

Addressing a rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, where the party hinted at the likelihood of senior AAP leader Kumar Vishwas being fielded against Rahul Gandhi in 2014, Arvind Kejriwal said, “This victory is you victory. You supported us and funded us. We will contest the Lok Sabha election and we need your support and funding once again.”

Speaking to TEHELKA, senior AAP leader Sanjay Singh gave a glimpse of their plan for 2014. The party is working on multiple fronts. It is inviting politicians from other political parties, who are sick of a ‘corrupt political system’ to leave their parties and join AAP.

The party’s strategy managers are busy figuring out areas in country where AAP has a strong volunteer base and a realistic chance of fielding candidates. The candidates they are looking for must fulfil three criteria: not have any criminal or corruption charges and have an impeccable character.

“We are looking for good people who share our views. Yes, we have a presence in 22 states, but we have to match our presence, which we have to identify, with good candidates. Only then we can move ahead,” Singh says, “until then, to ensure that the wave continues, we have approached like-minded workers unions, NGOs and organisations to work with us and help foster the change.”

Pant, however, feels that it will be tough for AAP to replicate its performance in Delhi at a national stage. “I don’t think AAP is going to turn into a national party anytime soon, but it will certainly play spoilsport in many constituencies. I don’t see them making inroads in Bihar or UP, which are governed by politics of caste. But they will certainly do well in urban centres and the metros.”

This seems to worry 22 year-old Ravi from Samastitpur in Bihar. “Politics in Bihar is still based on caste and AAP has no caste preference. Their movement was based on social media, which isn’t very big in Bihar,” he says.

Ravi feels that the anti-corruption and development agendas on which AAP fought the Delhi elections will bring them into a space already held by Nitish Kumar. “The party will have to dig deep and work very hard to create a space for itself,” he adds.

When asked about AAP’s ability to contest elections with a non-caste agenda in caste-ridden states, Singh says, “Delhi also has a lot of people from UP, Bihar, Punjab and Haryana, where caste is a big political factor. We won the election in Delhi by highlighting local issues. If you look at UP, there are problems when it comes to water, electricity, women’s safety, infrastructure — all issues we raised during the Delhi elections. The people of Delhi have shown that there is hope for those who have lost faith in a political system dominated by money and muscle power. People want a way out and we will offer them an alternative path.”

It remains to be seen if AAP can become a force to reckon with at the national level. What is clear is, however, that you can no longer count it out and the party is here to stay. It has given the Indian voter an alternative.

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