GANGAICHA: In this dusty northern village, a dozen volunteers from India’s new anti-corruption party wound through narrow dirt lanes one recent day, hoping to win over voters in the world’s most populous democracy.
“The common man has woken up!” they chanted as they marched past fruit shops, bullock carts and heaps of dried cow dung. Women pulled aside their colorful veils to catch a glimpse of the campaigners, who were waving the party’s trademark brooms, a symbol of cleaning house. Men looked up from their newspapers and card games.
The Aam Aadmi Party stunned Indians by winning 40 percent of the seats in New Delhi’s assembly in December. Now it is taking its anti-corruption message onto a larger stage. The party hopes to shake up Indian politics by positioning itself as a viable alternative to India’s two main parties in national elections this spring.
On Sunday, the party’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal, kicked off its national campaign at a rally about 50 miles north of Gangaicha, vowing to take on India’s politicians and iconic corporate titans. Kejriwal assailed the power of India’s richest man — Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries, who lives in a 27-floor mansion in Mumbai — saying he was the country’s true ruler, not the prime minister.
“Now, the Aam Aadmi rule is going to come,” Kejriwal vowed. “I have seen too much anger against these parties among people.”
Already, the party’s style and rhetoric are forcing many Indian politicians to give up their most visible perks of power, like their multi-car convoys. They are starting to raise small donations from the public instead of simply relying on large, opaque corporate contributions.
But, as the volunteers would find in Gangaicha, in the northern state of Haryana, voters have a distinctly mixed reaction to Kejriwal. Some see him as a leader who can transform a graft-ridden country. Others see a man with a lot of bluster but little patience for the hard work of governing.
A tax official turned government-transparency activist, Kejriwal, 45, played a key role in an unprecedented nationwide series of marches and hunger strikes in 2011 against corruption scandals in the government.
Building on the huge outcry, Kejriwal formed the Aam Aadmi Party in 2012 and became chief minister of New Delhi — similar to a US governor. But after just 49 days of theatrics — including leading street protests against police incompetence, ordering late-night anti-drug raids, and providing free water and cheap electricity — Kejriwal quit on Feb. 14. He accused other parties of preventing him from introducing a law to create an anti-graft ombudsman. The party hopes that Kejriwal’s super-short rule in Delhi will act as a tantalizing preview for voters going to the polls in staggered nationwide voting in April and May. But critics say he has alienated some of his educated, middle-class supporters. “Kejriwal theater won’t play to packed houses across India,” an editorial in the Times of India predicted this month.
Harsh Vardhan, a senior leader of the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), said: “Arvind Kejriwal does not know how to govern and is not even interested in governing. He will make India unstable.” He predicted the party would have “no significant national impact in the elections.” Small political parties have typically fared poorly in national elections, which have been dominated for the last two decades by the Hindu-nationalist BJP and the Congress Party.
Sanjay Kumar, an election expert and director of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, said that: “There is an enormous anger against corruption across India now, which might help the Aam Aadmi party a little. However, the party will find it very difficult to build a strong party structure and cadre across India with elections just months away.”
Party members brush off such problems.
“We wish we had had more breathing space between the formation of the Delhi government and the national elections,” said Ashutosh, a senior leader of the Aam Aadmi party who uses one name. “But there is one thing the voters know about us — that we are not dishonest. So they will readily give us more chances.”
Ashutosh added that the party has gained the support of the urban poor even though it may have lost some in the middle class. The party’s candidates include a poet, a banker, an anti-dam activist, a television journalist and a tribal activist who was raped by police, a case that became a national scandal. Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, who led India’s fight for freedom from British rule, joined the Aam Aadmi party last week.
Many low-income residents in New Delhi were impressed by Kejriwal’s brief rule. He launched a hotline to receive complaints of corruption and urged Delhi’s residents to use their cellphone cameras to secretly record police or other officials taking bribes and report them.
“Municipal officers used to come and demand bribes every month from all the street shops and vendors; I would curse them under my breath but used to pay,” said Tara Kant Jha, 46, a street vendor who sells cigarettes and betel leaves — used like chewing tobacco.
“But during Kejriwal’s rule, they stopped making the bribe rounds.”
But in Gangaicha village last week , the question on almost everyone’s lips was: Why did Kejriwal quit his chief minister’s job so quickly?
“We explain to the people that Kejriwal did not quit, but sacrificed power for the sake of the strong anti-corruption law that others did not allow him to bring,” said one of the party’s volunteers, Rekha Gupta, a 43-year-old mother of two, wearing a white cap emblazened “I Am the Common Man.”
The campaigners knocked on every village door, extolled Kejriwal’s virtues and enrolled new members while drinking cups of milky tea. But the residents’ reaction showed what a challenge the party faces.
A loud argument broke out in the village square, with one factory worker accusing Kejriwal of running away from the responsibility of governing Delhi; a farmer called him a “quitter” and a “coward.” But others defended him.
Ram Narayan, 66, who transports factory goods, was somewhere in the middle. He called Kejriwal “a good, honest man” but said his government “was raw and weak.”
“I feel sorry for him, the other parties outsmarted him,” Narayan said. “But he needs to gain more experience before we can place our vote in his hands.”