NEW DELHI—Being “common” is rarely a good thing in India, let alone in the nation’s capital. Here, poverty is common. Malnourishment is common. Inequality, crime, corruption—common.
Yet, in a nation where many hunger to be anything but common, the political earthquake that shook Delhi just over a week ago has many in the capital, and across the country, approaching the once dirty word with a newfound sense of imagination.
In a virtual clean sweep of local elections, the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or “Common Man Party,” captured 67 of 70 potential seats in the Delhi Assembly. When its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, was sworn in Saturday he reportedly joked, "I knew the people of Delhi love me, but I didn't know they love me so much!" His party's victory laid waste to the campaign machinery of sitting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as the Indian National Congress Party: the two traditional powerhouses of Indian politics.
Led by Kejriwal, a former civil servant turned activist, the AAP first emerged in late 2012 as a political offshoot of the popular “India Against Corruption” movement, which mounted a series of protests and demonstrations against the endemic cupidity of India’s political class. The party began as—and to a large extent still is—a ragtag ensemble of former civil servants, academics, journalists, entrepreneurs and students, among others eager to curb India’s affinity for corrupt bureaucratic procedure.
But from its inception, the party’s rise to prominence in Delhi was hardly a foregone conclusion. Though it experienced early success—forming a minority government after emerging as the second-largest party in the 2013 Delhi assembly election—it quickly collapsed under the weight of its own momentous aspirations. When AAP’s aim of passing a comprehensive anti-corruption bill was stymied by the intransigence of its political opponents, Kejriwal chose to lead a series of public demonstrations.
Noticeably put off by the snail’s pace of Delhi’s legislative and administrative channels, Kejriwal’s demeanour quickly morphed from that of a political tactician to an impatient student activist. When critics charged him with being an anarchist, he chose to wear the term as a badge of honor: “Yes, I am an anarchist.” (Meaning, in fact, he would create anarchy for a politician who opposed him.)
Kejriwal eventually stepped down from his position as chief minister of Delhi in protest after just 49 days in office, and subsequently announced the party’s decision to field candidates for the 2014 National Parliamentary Elections. Kejriwal was criticized for setting his sights too high before even completing a single term in public office, and the critics were right. It proved to be a fatal miscalculation, as the BJP (with Modi at the helm) was swept into power. In Delhi, the “Common Man” party failed to win a single seat.
But now those days seem long gone, as AAP stands triumphant in Delhi, a phoenix returning from the ashes to the forefront of India’s political imagination. The sheer scale of the party’s turnaround defies a simple explanation, although that didn’t stop senior AAP member Yogendra Yadav from offering one: “When passion and money do battle,” he said, “passion will win.”
Money certainly did not help Modi and the BJP, who came to power in 2014 on a pro-business, pro-development platform. Instead, the results in Delhi have placed the prime minister in a particularly vexed position as his party’s ambition for national dominance has been snubbed by its glaring inability to hold sway over the hearts of the capital. Modi can be credited, in fact, with aiding in the AAP’s rise through his inability to inspire the people of Delhi.
Modi’s approach to the capital has been abstract at best, and downright tone-deaf at worst. When speaking to voters before they hit the polls, Modi suggested that the key to Delhi’s development lay in a state government that would “fear” the authority of the prime minister. He did not bother to outline the specifics of how this development would occur, what exactly it entailed, or when it would commence. He urged voters to trust his administrative acumen as if to suggest that development could come via osmosis, rather than tangible reforms.
Perhaps the leap of faith that Modi demanded would have been less problematic if he had made more of an effort to address the divisiveness created by elements of his own political base. Hindu nationalist organizations have courted controversy in recent months with their campaign to “re-convert” minorities, mostly Muslims and Christians, to Hinduism. The spate of so-called re-conversion ceremonies and other cases of religious intolerance, including the burning of a Church in East Delhi, have alarmed moderates throughout the country. The fact that Modi has chosen to remain mute on these issues, leaving condemnations to be made by his associates, has called his allegiance to secular values into question.
Alongside Modi’s hollow electioneering we also had the utter collapse of the Indian National Congress Party, which makes the rise of Delhi’s “Common Man” less mysterious. Congress failed to win even a single seat in the Delhi Assembly.
But the victory of Delhi’s Common Man party cannot be characterized exclusively as the occupation of a political void. On the contrary, the values and reforms that the party laid out in its 70-Point Action Plan for the Delhi Assembly elections were notable in their own right.
These included promises to pass a long-sought anti-corruption bill, provide affordable access to electricity, water, and education, as well as following through on attempts to make the political process more receptive to the needs and wishes of every-day citizens.
In his inauguration speech, Kejriwal said he would end the "VIP culture" that heaps privileges on officials that ordinary people dare not dream about. "In developed countries, even [members of parliament] wait at bus stands. Why can't the same happen here?" he said.
Kejriwal and his party have long maintained that the solution to India’s suffocating bureaucracy lies in the concept of “swaraj,” or self rule. The principle, a core tenet of Mahatma Gandhi’s own political ideology, is a distinctively Indian incarnation of the notion of government by the people, for the people. But despite its noble origins and intentions, it is often invoked by Indian politicians as an electoral incantation rather than a tangible policy measure.
The revival of Delhi’s Common Man party has hinged almost exclusively on its adherence to this Gandhian principle. As a first step, Kejriwal recognized that his political comeback after flopping in the 2014 National Elections would need to be couched in a spirit of accountability to the public. He did what few Indian politicians have ever done and publicly apologized, seeking forgiveness and vowing to eschew future acts of political hubris.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s approach to “self-rule” has been as much a tangible source of reform as it has been a moral incentive towards humility. One of its stated campaign reforms was the implementation of a “Swaraj Bill,” meant to devolve aspects of local administration away from Delhi bureaucrats and towards every-day citizens.
As things work at present, the maintenance of anything from local roads, to the allocation of funds for community development, all require a dizzying array of bureaucratic permissions. If implemented, the AAP’s administrative approach to swaraj would give the citizens of Delhi a much-needed measure of control over their own lives, and put them back in the driver’s seat when it comes to crucial matters of community development.
In the absence of a national-level campaign apparatus or a platform tied to religious or caste affiliation, the Aam Aadmi Party has had to cultivate the citizens of Delhi as a resource in and of themselves. Its conception of participatory democracy is one in which the common man, or woman, can no longer allow issues of development and society to be debated without their input.
In electing AAP the people of Delhi have not chosen to elect a party that will simply speak on their behalf: they have chosen to elect a party that allows them to speak for themselves. India’s common men and women hunger for dialogue. If AAP succeeds, conversationalists shall be swept to victory, dictation shall be swept aside.