The Rise of India’s Common Man

Could India's third-party candidate be the country’s kingmaker? Or is he just tilting at windmills?

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

VARANASI, India — At Indian political rallies, singers and minor officials typically warm up the crowd until the candidate arrives — typically quite late. At an event in mid-April in a slum neighborhood of Varanasi, one of the great cities of the "Hindi heartland," the local talent extolled the virtues of Arvind Kejriwal, the head of the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or Common Man Party. "This economy is for the elites and the rich," he crooned. "The policymakers are in the pockets of the World Bank and the IMF. You’ve been left with no job, so you might as well pull a rickshaw." It might have sounded better in the original Hindi.

Aam Aadmi is, as one of its leaders put it to me, "a revolutionary mass movement for change" which has entered electoral politics out of the recognition that the kind of change it seeks won’t come any other way. It harnesses aspects of traditional Indian "pro-people" movements advancing the cause of the downtrodden to a form of politics which is, by Indian standards, highly unconventional. Only a year after its creation in 2012, Aam Aadmi shocked experts — indeed, everyone but itself — by defeating the ruling Congress party to win state elections in Delhi. Now the party is running candidates all over the country, testing whether its message will resonate beyond the urban hothouse that is the nation’s capital.

In American terms, Aam Aadmi feels something like the George McGovern campaign or a Ralph Nader crusade. Kejriwal has attracted to his side a group of idealistic, successful, and intellectually serious people who have chosen to put aside their day jobs to join the effort. Virtually none of them have any prior experience in politics, which before Aam Aadmi they would have deemed a monumental waste of time. A remarkable number of them are journalists or academics. One afternoon, I drove with Manish Sisodia, the party spokesman and a former television newsman, to one of his daily meet-and-greets in a Varanasi neighborhood. He pointed to the other two passengers in our car and said, "They were journalists, too." They calculated how many of the seven AAP candidates for parliamentary seats in Delhi were journalists. Four? No, five. One of the others was Anand Kumar, one of India’s leading sociologists. Another equally prominent social theorist, Yogendra Yadav, is running for a seat in Haryana, a northern state.

Sisodia, an extremely amiable idealist, quit his job in 2005 to join the "right to information" movement, which seeks to compel the government to disclose information about its dealings with special interests at home and abroad. Kejriwal quit his job as a tax commissioner the following year, and the two began to work together. Their timing was auspicious: The gargantuan corruption scandals of recent years, involving among other things the auctioning off of spectrum for the use of cellphone companies and the sale of coal-mining licenses, aroused the public over the issue as never before.

Then in early 2011, the Arab Spring erupted. Sisodia said to me that he and Kejriwal, along with several confederates, concluded that India needed its own Tahrir Square movement. On Jan. 30, 2011, they called for a mass demonstration in Delhi in order to demand the establishment of an anti-corruption ombudsman, known as a Lokpal. Sisodia put out a call on Facebook, and 56 other cities held simultaneous demonstrations as well. The crowds consisted overwhelmingly of the kind of comfortable middle-class people who had tried to keep government as far away from their lives as possible, but who had become so fed up with the ruling Congress party and its endless scandals that they were prepared to leave their living rooms and join a protest. India’s very brief Arab Spring, known as the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement, ended when the Congress promised to pass a Lokpal bill.

At that point it would have been hard to predict what, if anything, would have come of the campaign. Aam Aadmi has its roots in a distinctively Indian tradition of movements for moral purification which stretch back to Mahatma Gandhi himself. Some of the older leaders of the party were followers of Jayaprakash Narayan, a Gandhian who organized mass demonstrations against the authoritarian Indira Gandhi, provoking her to declare the Emergency in 1975 and putting an abrupt end to the "JP Movement." Such national protest campaigns have been seen as constituting a right-wing critique of the left-wing Congress party. The IAC appeared to follow in this tradition. Some of its leaders, including Anna Hazare, a charismatic Gandhian campaigner, used the kind of Hindu nationalist language favored by the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and welcomed support from the RSS, the party’s activist and paramilitary wing. Indeed, BJP partisans have since argued that the movement should have accepted a role as a partisan ally in the contest against the Congress party.

But India’s political alignments have changed radically in recent years. Congress has lost both its political hegemony and its canonical status on the left: It was a Congress government that liberalized the Indian economy in 1991, and it is under Congress that India has minted a new generation of billionaires over the last decade. The phenomenon of corruption had come to seem inextricable from the unbridled capitalism professed to different degrees by both parties. Aam Aadmi thus fused the old, Gandhian anti-corruption motif with a new anti-globalization ideology that seeks a new model of development.

Aam Aadmi enjoyed a very brief interval in power. In late 2013, Kejriwal ran for chief minister of Delhi, a state as well as the nation’s capital, and, shockingly, won — gaining the support not only of Delhi’s professionals but also of slum-dwellers disgusted with the Congress. Kejriwal sacked some police officials and acted to keep a lid on prices of electricity and fuel. Mostly, however, he continued to behave as an activist. When the Lokpal bill failed to get through parliament this past February, he quit, after all of seven weeks in office. Henceforth, he proclaimed, Aam Aadmi would advance its agenda not as a Delhi-based movement but as a national political party.

* * *

The 45-year-old Kejriwal is its unquestioned standard-bearer, at least for now. The AAP convener is, as Anand Kumar says, "a technocrat trying to be a politician." A graduate of the elite Indian Institute of Technology, Kejriwal was a career civil servant with a passion for public service which seems almost archaic in today’s India. Kejriwal also has the outsider’s knack for the bold gesture. Running for Delhi chief minister seemed like a stunt until he won; resigning looked like a stunt as well. Kejriwal decided to run for parliament from Varanasi only after Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial hopeful, announced that he would contest that seat. Kejriwal, that is, chose Varanasi not because he’s likely to win there but because he wants to take on the other side’s champion. For Modi, who sees himself as the modern heir of ageless, Vedantic India, the holy city of Varanasi is a saffron crown. For Kejriwal, it is the opposite: The place to show that it is his vision, not Modi’s, that speaks to modern India.

Kejriwal is not a gifted speaker like the supple and mocking Modi. He stands in front of a crowd — as close to it as possible — and pours out a litany of criticism in an unvarying tone, stabbing the air with an index finger. What Kejriwal has is a stirring populist message. Once he supplanted the singers and the minor orators on stage at the rally I attended, Kejriwal told a crowd of perhaps 500 gathered under a white canopy to keep off the 100-degree heat, &quot
;Narendra Modi, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Arun Jaitley [a BJP leader] — they’re all the same. They take your votes, and then after the election they serve people like Mukesh Ambani." (The richest man in India, Ambani serves as the emblem par excellence of crony capitalism.) When Ambani’s Reliance Industries applied to raise the price of fuel distributed to Delhi households, Congress officials signed off, but Kejriwal, then chief minister, applied to the Electoral Commission (EC) — the campaign had already begun — to block the move. And the EC, as he now told the crowd in Varanasi, agreed — the first time any politician had challenged Ambani, much less succeeded.

Congress officials — which is to say, for the most part, Gandhi family members — have focused relentlessly on Modi’s alleged hostility to Muslims. The party’s master theme is secularism versus communalism. Kejriwal, intriguingly, avoids the subject. He wants to show that both parties collude in the same rigged system. And he takes direct aim at Modi’s record of booming economic development in Gujarat, the state where the BJP candidate serves as chief minister. "I went to Gujarat," he said that day, "and I talked to the farmers, and they told me that Modi has taken land away from them and given it to Ambani and Adani" — another plutocratic clan.

I would like to say that at this point "the crowd roared," but it wasn’t that large a crowd, and it didn’t roar.

After Kejriwal finished speaking, he began answering questions. Before he had begun his address, volunteers had circulated through the audience handing out slips of paper with space for a question, and a line for the questioner’s name. When Kejriwal was ready, an aide fished into a plastic bag full of the slips, apparently pulling them out at random. The candidate’s answers were not terribly illuminating; to a question on education, he said that the way to end India’s two-tiered system was to make government schools better than the private schools available to the rich. Nevertheless, the very act of soliciting questions implied that Kejriwal understood his listeners as fellow citizens rather than merely voters from whom a ballot is to be siphoned. Gandhi, too, had enlisted his followers as fellow activists, and thus afforded humble folk a sense of agency.

Aam Aadmi lives by its ideals, trusting that doing so will help it reshape India’s political culture. In a country awash in "black money," the party posts online all of its contributions — name, date, sum. A party committee must approve any contribution larger than 1 million rupees (about $18,000). I didn’t learn if any had been sent back. Pankaj Gupta, a former engineer who I found in one of the bare cells in the AAP headquarters — soiled walls, naked bulb, laptop — said to me, "If we have to play in their playground, we can’t compete. Our thing has always been, make them play in our playground." Gupta said that he believed that AAP’s refusal to nominate candidates with criminal records had restrained the other parties from doing so, though this seems overwhelmingly contradicted by the facts. To take an example ready to hand, Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate from Varanasi, has been charged with a wide range of crimes, including gangsterism (though he has never been convicted of any of them).

* * *

The election is in some respects a way station on the party’s path to amassing a network of activists. Each day, Manish Sisodia, one of five precinct captains, in effect, goes out hunting for volunteers in his assigned portion of Varanasi. I spent the afternoon with him in Lanka, a neighborhood of tiny alleys where a door in a wall opened to reveal a dark passageway crowded with beds and children and mothers and flies. A patch of light glimmered in the distance where the tunnel must have ended in a narrow courtyard.

Sisodia marched from hovel to hovel listening to people’s complaints about the price of fuel or the lack of water or electricity, putting his arm around the men, patting the children on the head, and posing for pictures with the people who recognized him from TV. He told them, "Please vote for Aam Aadmi if you want to end inflation and you want the country to prosper." He got a lot of promises, and, what was more useful, a handful of new volunteers.

From one of the dismal interiors, a young woman with a dazzling smile and a spotless dress emerged — a student at Banaras Hindu University eager to volunteer, though exams were coming up. Indu Patel, a high school teacher, signed up, and immediately began racing into households to proselytize the women hiding shyly behind doors. Bappu Sonkar, a vegetable vendor, delivered a furious, expostulatory address on corruption, and added his name to the list.

Still, AAP is a political party, and having chosen to go the electoral route, it will be judged on its ability to win votes, not volunteers. How well would it have to do to force other parties to begin playing on its playground? "Twenty-five seats," says Gupta. That would be an extraordinary outcome. Proving the experts wrong in Delhi has given party leaders what may be a misplaced faith in the appeal of their message. They are convinced that they can beat Modi, but virtually no one else considers this possible.

Pawar Dikshit, the local correspondent for the Hindustan Times, says that Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate and a local state legislator, will split the Muslim vote with Kejriwal and win the upper castes who typically back Congress, while Modi will clean up among the numerically predominant "backward" castes. He predicts that Modi will win, and that Rai will place second. As for the AAP’s belief in a widespread frustration with conventional politics itself, says Dikshit, "You cannot equate the perception in Delhi with the perception in UP" — Uttar Pradesh, of which Varanasi is one of the chief cities. Delhi is a global city with a sophisticated electorate; UP is a giant, impoverished, rural region of 200 million people where most people still vote according to their caste identity.

And yet, though neither of the two main parties profess to see the AAP as a threat, BJP activists keep showing up at Kejriwal’s rallies to throw eggs and tomatoes at him, and to distribute pamphlets with essays claiming that Aam Aadmi is plotting to foment a "color revolution" with the aid of the Ford Foundation and the CIA. It sounds like someone is worried.

The question which Aam Aadmi really wants to pose is, "What is political debate in India about?" If it is about growth, then the answer might as well be Modi, who has made Gujarat a model of industrial development. If it is about communalism, then Congress, led by the genuinely secular Gandhis, is India’s safe refuge. But perhaps it ought to be about something else as well — the rising brutality and criminality of daily life, the impunity of the rich, and the seething sense of injustice which has swelled the ranks of the violent revolutionaries known as Naxalites, who are now thought to have a presence in one quarter of India’s districts.

But perhaps Aam Aadmi doesn’t know quite what it thinks yet. Anand Kumar, the party intellectual, says that Kejriwal "doesn’t know about the social and economic domain," though he believes that the party leader now accepts Kumar’s own critique of "liberalization, privatization, and globalization," as he puts it, the neo-liberal model of export-driven, capital-intensive growth. I don’t find that entirely reassuring, and I don’t know that middle-class Indian voters will either. Nevertheless, almost all of the dozen or so people I talked to after two of Kejriwal’s rallies said that they thought Kejriwal was an honest man who could del
iver on the promises he had made. They said that they would vote for him. I very much doubted that they would; but the path which Aam Aadmi has embarked on is a long one.

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