A five-rupee coin rolls across the road as an autorickshaw driver is too distracted to pick up the change. He has stopped at Paschimi Marg in Vasant Vihar, one of New Delhi’s richest neighbourhoods. In a clearing next to a bank, 2,000 small traders and shopkeepers are sitting on red plastic chairs in front of a giant poster of Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) symbol — the broom. As a black Mercedes and grey Audi whizzes past, a young campaigner re-iterates ‘the promise’.
The Delhi Assembly election is due in November and AAP is the only party that will not let its supporters down. Kejriwal has turned down Rs 50 crore because it wasn’t clean money, he says.
“My name is Umendra Bharati,” the campaigner tells the crowd. “If I had said it was Umendra Pandey, I’d make the Pandits happy; if I’d said Umendra Singh, I’d make the Thakurs very happy; and if I called myself Umendra Aggarwal, the Baniyas would rejoice. But this is precisely the kind of identity politics that mainstream parties have used to divide us. I reject that. I’m the aam aadmi. The common man. My only identity is with the nation.” The crowd cheers. A man takes out his camera, places his aam aadmi cap onto his wife’s head and takes a photograph.
Enter the main act. As Arvind Kejriwal gets on stage, he tells his audience what they were waiting to hear — the AAP story. “I didn’t start out wanting to contest an election,” he says emphatically. “For two years, we kept asking the UPA government for just one thing: to pass the Lokpal Bill. They said, if you want one, why don’t you enter Parliament and pass the Bill yourself.”
Off stage, in a backroom of the party’s central office, Kejriwal has to deal with the very real challenge this promise has brought in its wake. The challenge of trying to contest an election with virtually no money; on the strength of volunteers who have never been associated with politics before.
At first, it seemed all wrong. On 2 August last year, thousands of enthusiastic supporters of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement — who had imagined themselves to be new-age Bhagat Singhs — woke up to the bewildering reality that they were now a political party. Kejriwal’s announcement hit many between the eyes. For a people’s movement that had pilloried the Congress for being hierarchical, their own transformation was being dictated from the top. Besides, party politics was anathema for most; politicians were the definition of contempt. Many wondered what exactly did that make the volunteers in their new avatar as a party?
The road from there was certainly not easy. Especially since the movement’s biggest icon, Anna Hazare, raised exactly these questions as he walked out. He was soon followed by Kiran Bedi, Sunita Godara and a slew of other people who had once been the core of the anti-corruption movement and some of its popular faces.
Activist and political scientist Prof Ajit Jha was watching these developments from the sidelines until the contradictions and possibilities the AAP threw up were too compelling to stay away from. As a political activist, he maintained, you can’t help but ask the question — is it better to add resistance from the outside or get in and make a change? It’s the classic debate that he had with colleagues within the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), which he had been part of for more than two decades.
“The NAPM had discussed the idea of forming a party at least half-a-dozen times and they came very close to it in 2003-04,” says Jha. “But their heart was not in it. So it never took off. But some of us persisted with that idea.” Once the AAP was formed, Jha was made the organisational head. From being in the thick of political activism right from the 1970s, when he was a student leader, Jha now had to deal with Gen Next students.
“They think they can change the world in a day,” he explains. Jha had to gently guide their enthusiasm into the much more tedious space of grassroot politics. It was almost like being a doctor, guiding addicts away from the adrenalin-inducing street protests into the relatively more sterile and reasoned medication of everyday politics. It was a challenge to make them understand how building a party consisted of mundane tasks — from creating working committees to fixing bust-up electricity meters.