India's Common Man's Party guns for victory in Delhi state elections

The Common Man's Party is challenging the dominance of the established Congress and Bharatiya Janata parties in Indian politics

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 6:51am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 6:51am

For a democracy activist in Hong Kong, 41 Hanuman Road in distant New Delhi can be a source of inspiration and frustration.

Inspiring, because this two-storey house at the corner of a leafy lane is the main laboratory of an audacious experiment in democracy. Frustrating, for it's also a sobering reminder why it will be so hard for Hong Kong to ever attain democracy given the uncertainties of people power that make it too risky a proposition for Beijing.

The building houses the war room of the year-old Aam Aadmi Party [Common Man's Party]. Led by 44-year-old former tax official Arvind Kejriwal, it is challenging India's establishment by taking on the two biggest parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the state elections for Delhi, the country's seat of power.

Delhi is one of four states that went to the polls on Wednesday, with the results expected today. Exit polls and heavy turnout indicate the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will make a resounding debut, if not seize outright victory.

For the power elite, the party's arrival poses some difficult questions. Dealing with institutionally entrenched political parties is one thing, but how does one engage people like Kejriwal, who are outside the established system of power and patronage? What happens if an unknown outsider takes centre stage? The imponderables would trouble India's ruling class as much as those pondering Hong Kong's political future.

Kejriwal, who broke away from a popular but apolitical anti-corruption movement to launch the AAP, has been tapping into swelling anger over an indifferent and corrupt political class. Campaigning on a plank of clean governance - with a broom as its election symbol - his party's performance in Delhi will set the stage for its emergence as an alternative political force in a country yearning for change.

That change was in the air was evident at the AAP office in the run-up to the election. "The Indian middle class shuns politics because crooks have taken over. Thanks to AAP, people like us are warming to politics again," Munish Raizada, a neonatologist from Chicago, told the Sunday Morning Post while giving a guided tour of the office.

Like most Indians, Raizada blames politicians for everything from corruption and inflation to social inequity and slowing economic growth. With good reason, too. Thirty per cent of the members of parliament and 31 per cent of state-level legislators have criminal cases against them.

And with 30 per cent of the MPs coming from political families, Raizada had come to see politics as a playground for the rich and the privileged.

"Now there is an opportunity to reclaim India," said the doctor, who has been camping in New Delhi for six months, having taken a leave of absence from his Chicago hospital, much to the inconvenience of his wife in the US.

"Finally there is a party I can associate with," echoed Priyanka Kakkar, a lawyer trained at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Wharton Business School, who provides legal services to the party.

As we spoke, thirtysomething Nikhil Yadav burst in with a group of young volunteers in tow. "The youth feel totally let down and disenchanted with politics. Only AAP can give us a new beginning," said the banker from Chennai, who has taken two months out to work for the AAP.

Many of those similarly fired up have chipped in with cash. The party says it does not accept "black money" from businesses and lists all campaign contributions on its website, a first in India. Money has poured in from individual contributors all over the world. Hong Kong banker Amit Aggarwal, for example, donated nearly HK$650,000.

The elections are seen as a bellwether for national elections next year. Exit polls predict a rout of the ruling Congress in all four states - Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh - and gains for the Hindu nationalist BJP. That would point to a change of guard in the world's largest democracy in six months.

But it's Delhi that holds the key to a more fundamental change - that of politics itself. "We'll see how it goes in Delhi before taking the movement national. If we do well here, I might return to India and join politics full time," said Raizada.

That can't be good news for either his wife or most political parties in India.