Broom-Waving Voters Aim to Sweep Away India’s Elite
(Corrects story first published on Nov. 27 to clarify source of funds raised by Aam Aadmi party in 23rd paragraph.)
For India, Arvind Kejriwal is an unusual politician: he doesn’t use a police escort, he won’t field candidates who face murder charges and he publishes the names of those who contribute to his party’s funds.
Kejriwal’s campaign against corruption is resonating with voters in New Delhi, shaking up the dominance of the country’s two main political groups and threatening to end the Congress party’s 15-year rule of the city. Some opinion polls show his year-old Aam Aadmi Party may win a third of the seats in a Dec. 4 election, enough to make him the capital’s kingmaker.
“His party is transparent and trying to be different on sources of funding, campaigning and fielding of candidates,” said Bhaskara Rao Gorantala, research director at the National Social Watch in New Delhi, which analyzes governance. “Look at the other big parties -- can you find out from where they are getting money to spend so much in elections? Impossible.”
Kejriwal is tapping rising public anger over the corruption Indians face in their daily lives and charges of graft that reach to the heart of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. The Delhi poll is one of five state elections between Nov. 11 and Dec. 4 that cover almost a sixth of India’s population. The results on Dec. 8 will show how far support has slid for the ruling Congress party, which faces a general election by May.
In Delhi, Kejriwal promised to set up an anti-corruption body within 15 days if he gains power and is winning support with populist policies such as a 50 percent cut in electricity rates. Following the gang rape of a woman in the city last year, the party has pledged to set up a neighborhood watch program.
“It’s an effort to clean our dirty system in Delhi,” Kejriwal, 45, said in an interview during a political rally in the capital of 17 million people on Nov. 11, where volunteers formed a human chain to prevent him from being mobbed by supporters. “The revolution will spread to the whole country.”
At the rally in the Seemapuri area of east Delhi, Kejriwal addressed a crowd of about 1,000 people seated by a dusty road in the late evening. He promised an end to power outages, 700 liters a day of free water for each household per day and improved primary education and health care -- all with the savings from curbing graft. The gathering reaches fever pitch as he introduces a key concern: inflation.
“They raised the prices of onions, tomatoes, potatoes, milk, petrol, diesel, water, electricity and cooking gas,” Kejriwal said. “Why are all these costly? Because of corruption.”
Waving flags and broomsticks, the crowd chant: “Long live Arvind Kejriwal! Long live Aam Aadmi! Hail, Mother India!”
“He’s articulating the aspiration of a large section of people in Delhi who are extremely disappointed with the two largest parties,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a New Delhi-based analyst who co-authored a book on Indian politics.
In the world’s biggest democracy, polls have typically pitted a Congress-led alliance against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, based on religion, money and social standing. Congress, led by Singh and President Sonia Gandhi, have been dogged by corruption allegations since winning re-election in 2009.
Aam Aadmi may get as many as 25 of the 70 seats in the Delhi assembly, with Congress winning 19 to 25 and the BJP claiming 22 to 28, according to a survey by CNN-IBN television channel published on Oct. 31. A poll in India Today on Nov. 8 gave the BJP a slim majority in the capital and victories in three other states.
Kejriwal himself may defeat incumbent Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, who is seeking a fourth term, as he contests her assembly seat, Economic Times reported today, citing a poll of 2,101 registered voters in the constituency conducted from Nov. 22 to Nov. 24.
About a quarter of federal and state legislators face charges that include murder, rape and kidnapping, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms in New Delhi, which has campaigned for better governance since 1999.
While Kejriwal and four other members of his party face criminal charges over political activities, some of its chief opponents in New Delhi are charged with more serious crimes that would disqualify them from Aam Aadmi. One Congress candidate faces charges for attempted murder, while two from BJP have cases of crimes against women, ADR said in a report yesterday.
Haryana-born Kejriwal, a graduate from Indian Institute of Technology in West Bengal, joined the Indian Revenue Service in 1992 and became a senior tax official in Delhi. In 2000 he began working on social projects and six years later he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award, dubbed Asia’s Nobel peace prize, for emergent leadership.
Aam Aadmi, which translates as “Common Man,” was born out of an anti-graft movement in 2011 that garnered global headlines. Kejriwal joined veteran campaigner Gandhian Anna Hazare, who was on a hunger strike at the Ramlila ground near Delhi’s Red Fort, to demand the passing of a bill that would appoint a Lokpal, or anti-graft ombudsman. The protest spurred nationwide rallies and the bill was introduced to parliament where it has stalled in the upper house.
Kejriwal’s political rivals responded by questioning the sources of funding for his party. Congress and the BJP said money Aam Aadmi received from overseas was illegal because only Indian citizens can make donations to political parties. The federal home ministry ordered an inquiry into the payments.
“They talk of corruption, but what about all the controversies surrounding funding?” Dikshit told supporters this month.
Gifts have become a standard part of India’s polls. Before the 2009 general election, Congress waived farmers’ loans in a bid to attract votes. In a state election last year, the BJP offered poor families a free cow, laptops and medical treatment.
An estimated $750 million was paid to voters in bribes during elections in five Indian states in April and May 2011, S.Y. Quraishi, India’s then chief election commissioner, said in an interview.
BJP and Congress say they will disclose their spending to the election commission as required by law within 75 days of the assembly elections. Those details are then published on the commission’s website. Political parties are not legally obliged to identify donors who contribute less than 20,000 rupees.
Aam Aadmi received about 200 million rupees ($3.2 million) from Indian individuals, about 30 percent of which came from the U.S., U.K. and other foreign countries, according to details published on its website.
About 75 percent of funds in the eight years ended March 2012 raised by India’s six national parties, including Congress and the BJP, came from “unknown sources,” according to ADR.
“Whatever inquiry they want to conduct against me, they should do that,” said Kejriwal, with his trademark mustache and rimless glasses, wearing a blue and white checkered shirt with rolled-up sleeves.
Kejriwal’s roadside gatherings contrast with those of political adversaries such as BJP prime minister pick Narendra Modi. In September, the white-bearded chief minister of Gujarat addressed more than 100,000 people in New Delhi next to a 10-story-high poster of himself, with his speech relayed to 100 screens around the city.
While leading politicians arrive in sports-utility vehicles with a police escort, Kejriwal travels in a blue Wagon R, the flagship hatchback of Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. (MSIL) that sells for as little as 380,000 rupees.
As Kejriwal traveled through the capital to the Nov. 11 campaign rally in an open-top vehicle, party workers waved flags and shouted slogans as broom-waving supporters threw rose petals from their balconies.
A smiling Kejriwal waved back. “This is the last chance to bring change,” he said.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at email@example.com