Indian voters have three basic choices in the coming general election. The bravest would be to vote for the Aam Aadmi (common man) Party led by Arvind Kejriwal in order to create the disruption that the operations of India’s political system and government machine desperately needs.
Most voters of course will not do that. It looks as if they will instead vote overwhelmingly for the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi, its prime ministerial candidate; in order to get what they hope will be instant change in terms of economic growth and business confidence, while leaving unchanged the existing corrupt basic system of political power, graft and patronage.
Others will vote despairingly for Congress led by Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia because they fear Modi’s controversial reputation as Gujarat chief minister and the BJP’s creeping Hindu nationalism that will insinuate its way divisively into people’s daily lives.
This means that the key unknowns in the election are not whether the BJP will win – it will – but whether the AAP will surprise critics and win support, and maybe even seats, across the country, not just in and around its power center of Delhi. The other unknown is whether Congress will do so badly that it falls below 100 seats in the 543-seat elected legislature.
Critics like to call Kejriwal, the 45-year old former tax official who founded the AAP, an anarchist. Arun Jaitley, a top BJP politician, has dubbed him an “Urban Maoist.” a phrase that has been gleefully repeated by BJP supporters – notably on a chat show on CNN-IBN, a TV channel financially controlled by Mukesh Ambani of the Reliance (RIL) group who is a keen Modi supporter.
Kejriwal and his people do show some aspects of anarchy because, expanding from their original anti-corruption base, they want to overthrow the current political order that they regard as immoral. Kejriwal says the AAP is “not in this for electoral politics but to change the system.” And they do behave as agitators rather than conventional politicians.
They are however neither anarchists nor Maoists because they want to reform the parliamentary system from within, not overthrow it (which is the aim of India’s more rural Maoists, usually known as Naxalites).
Ahmed Rashid, a leading Pakistani journalist and regional analyst, who heard Kejriwal speak at the India Today Conclave earlier this month, told me that the AAP leader was what Imran Khan, the former cricketer and leader of a Pakistan political party, should have been. Imran wasn’t what was needed “because he doesn’t know the country,” whereas there is “no other politician like Kejriwal in South Asia because of his mastery of facts and figures on poverty and deprivation.” (Rashid could have added that Imran is widely regarded as intellectually “dim,” which Kejriwal is not).
The system certainly needs reforming if India is to avoid the gradual implosion of institutions that I described in my recently published best-selling book (click here and see below). Crony capitalism involving corrupt extortionist politicians and bureaucrats in league with business at all levels, together with corrupt judges and cruel and often corrupt police, are gradually whittling away at institutions and are crippling India’s economic and social base.
Modi can change some of that – dramatically compared with the way the government has been run by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his political bosses Sonia and (recently) Rahul Gandhi. He can gradually introduce growth-oriented policies and, if he appoints competent ministers and steering top bureaucrats, can transform India’s short-term image. More on that nearer the elections.
Modi is reputed to run a basically clean government in Gujarat where he has been chief minister since 2002, but there are nevertheless widespread hints of crony capitalism.
Kejriwal has done the country a service by mentioning two groups in particular – Reliance, whose Ambani family originated in Gujarat, and the Gujarat-based Adani group that has grown exponentially in infrastructure and allied industries during the past ten or so years.
Politicians – and most other opinion formers – rarely dare to attack Reliance. Kejriwal’s allegations of Ambani holding hidden bank accounts abroad and receiving business favors in Modi’s Gujarat were sensitive enough for Reliance to issue denials on social media with U-Tube videos. Kejriwal has also attacked Anil Ambani, Mukesh's brother who runs a separate business group, over gas prices in Delhi.
Such disruptive allegations are not welcomed by India’s establishment, and indeed the AAP’s message of wider disruption is not welcomed by many Indian voters who habitually resist change and tolerate their lot. People grumble about corruption and bad governance and took to the streets three years ago in mass country-wide protests that led to the creation of the AAP. Now, however, most want Modi to produce growth and stop the more outrageous top-level corruption practiced by the current government.
The way the AAP behaved during the 49 days from last December that it ran the government of Delhi, with Kejriwal as chief minister, is widely criticized. Kejriwal and his ministers hit the headlines more for staging street-level demonstrations and other visible protests than for sitting in their offices taking conventional decisions. The law minister clashed with police when he tried to take over their job and ordered them around on the streets. But AAP spokesman, Rahul Mehra, lists the successes as tackling low-level corruption, especially in the police, and producing short-term solutions on electricity and water supplies.
Kejriwal resigned because the AAP’s anti-corruption (Lok Pal ombudsman) legislation was blocked by the central government, which now temporarily runs Delhi under what is known as president’s rule till new elections are held later in the year.
That failure to perform as a rational and conventional government has dismayed middle-class supporters, though many of them are still prepared to give the AAP continued support. It also looks as if Kejriwal has expanded his base among the poorer groups, who recognize the value for them of what the AAP was trying to do in Delhi and have none of the middle-class aversion to the Kejriwal style of upheaval.
Kejriwal combines being an astute street-level performer with a serious side that he displays when he meets people in calmer situations. I watched him impress the India Today Conclave audience when, apart from some probably valid but also over-egged criticisms of Modi’s Gujarat (where he had just made a high profile visit), he produced sound facts and reason to support his criticisms and claims. With smaller groups, he talks knowledgably about policies – for example on foreign investment in supermarkets, which the AAP blocked in Delhi but which Kejriwal is prepared to support if positive evidence is produced.
Neither he nor his party is however yet ready for government, not in Delhi and obviously not nationally. Their main value is that they are affecting the way parties think and speak – Rahul Gandhi in particular voices Kejriwal’s line about devolving power to the people and their local representatives.
The next few weeks will show how far the AAP can go. It has so far announced 350 candidates. Kejriwal is expected to sharpen the contest with Modi by standing against him in the key Uttar Pradesh constituency of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges, which could generate violent clashes. The candidates are an odd medley of activists, teachers, journalists, ex-bureaucrats and opportunistic politicians defecting from other parties. Inevitably, for such a new and rapidly growing party, there are multiple egos and little cohesion.
If the AAP only wins a few of Delhi’s seven parliamentary constituencies, it will be seen as locally significant but little more. It will be able to declare moderate success if it wins another 10 or so seats in other constituencies, some adjacent to Delhi and others further away. Its success will depend partly on whether it manages to draw voters away from regional parties, which logically it should in places for example like UP, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu where locally based parties are even more corrupt that the Congress and BJP.
Kejriwal claims – almost certainly unrealistically – that the AAP will win 100 seats, and that Congress will get below that number. That would make the party a leading opposition force, but the figure is regarded by almost all observers as unlikely. India, they say, is not yet ready for such a Tryst with Reality, or is it?
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s India correspondent, based in New Delhi. He blogs under the title Riding the Elephant, which can be found at the right-hand lower corner of this page. His new book IMPLOSION- India's Tryst with Reality is available in India at Flipkart, and in Pakistan on pre-order from Liberty Books. E-books will be available on-line in India and internationally later this week