New Delhi, India – As far as political campaigns go in India, it’s a modest challenge to the conventional muscle-show put on by affluent parties. There are no droves of hangers-on, booming slogans from megaphones, no notorious party hands promising rewards to a poor electorate.
An unassuming man in unremarkable pants and shirt, he knocks on doors, listening patiently to people of a nondescript Delhi locality speak of a lack of water and other amenities with concern. He doesn’t promise miracles, but he campaigns on change.
Meet Arvind Kejriwal, 44, a former bureaucrat turned poliltician who helped start the Aam Aadmi Party (Party for the Common Man). He has stated he and his movement are not “wedded to any ideology but to solving problems”. And in a city with a fair share of problems, he seems to have struck a chord, emerging rapidly from the shadows of Anna Hazare, a Gandhian who captivated Indians with his anti-corruption campaign two years ago.
Kejriwal was marked early by the media as one of the key architects behind Hazare’s movement.
Today, he is at the forefront of the December 4 electoral contest for the post of chief minister of India’s powerful capital – New Delhi.
Kejriwal is taking on three-time Chief Minister Sheila Dixit, a formidable opponent who has grudgingly admitted, “He [Kejriwal] has caught the people’s imagination.”
Pre-poll surveys don’t indicate a win for Kejriwal, but predict a sizeable share of the seats for him. For a political novice whose party is just a year old, it would be a stunning performance, and established poliltical parties are already betraying signs of nerves.
“Who is he?” asked Vijay Goel, New Delhi president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, rather derisively the other day. Even the ruling Congress has been caustic in its criticism of him.
However, pundits say Kejriwal’s electoral attempt will augur well for the people and politicians.
“Contesting the Delhi elections will prove to be a game-changer for Kejriwal,” Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist and political affairs commentator, says.
He is willing to listen. For a people weathered by corrupt and crooks as political leaders, Kejriwal's responsiveness is his biggest strength.
Significantly, Kejriwal has also managed to change the mood of the electorate and the apathy and scepticism of New Delhi’s middle class.
“People who never go to vote are opting to cast their vote due to the hope and promise he holds out,” says Gupta. “He is willing to listen. For a people weathered by corrupt and crooks as political leaders, Kejriwal’s responsiveness is his biggest strength.”
His Twitter handle has more than 659,000 followers. As a result, Kejriwal’s robust campaign and strong digital footprint has allowed his finances to come from a mass of modest donations – the smallest being Rs 500 ($8.14).
The AAP’s party symbol is the Indian broom, a humble piece of cleaning equipment used for sweeping dust and dirt. Through frank rhetoric, Kejriwal’s campaign ensures nothing is swept below the carpet.
“At its core, Kejriwal is trying to usher in a new era of clean government,” points out Milan Vaishnav, a political scientist at Carnegie Foundation.
While most political parties choose to keep their pre-poll results private for fear of influencing electorate, Kejriwal has made pre-poll surveys of his AAP party public.
In a public announcement, the AAP revealed its recent survey results and claimed a lead in Delhi – they said AAP is set to garner 32 percent of votes in the assembly polls. This compelled its rival the BJP to disclose its in-house results.
An AC Nielsen-ABP News independent survey showed the AAP had increased its vote share of 15 percent in August to 26 percent in October.
Kejriwal has also publicly written a letter inviting Chief Minister Dixit to an US-style public debate to represent the two parties on core issues on common forums – an unprecedented tactic in Indian politics.
Even the other mainstream parties appear to be taking cues from the AAP. Following Kejriwal’s invitation to Dixit, BJP’s chief ministerial-nominee Harsh Vardhan also showed interest to join Kejriwal in a debate.
AAP’s website , meanwhile, is an open and transparent forum where each donation is recorded, uncommon among larger political parties across India.
Another election tactic that seems to be working for Kejriwal and the AAP is keeping things local.
His campaign across the constituencies of Delhi is marked by him discussing or listening to burning issues of each locality, residential or otherwise. Water, sanitation, women’s safety, electricity, and utilisation of public funds for roads seem to be major concerns in each constituency.
“Focussing on local issues work in elections,” points out Gupta.
“An anti-corruption platform may have less traction in other states, but in the national capital region it does have the potential to swing votes,” explains Vaishnav.
“But Kejriwal will also benefit from anti-incumbency sentiment against Congress and Chief Minister Dixit, who has governed Delhi for nearly 15 years. Furthermore, the BJP state unit in Delhi has been a house divided, which has hampered its ability to project itself as a viable alternative to Congress.”
In the background of many scams that have plagued the Delhi government and protests over safety and crimes against women, this election will be crucial for both the ruling Congress party and Kejriwal.
“The state is the enemy for all classes. What Kejriwal has done in this battle against the Indian political class is blur the urban and rural class divide and come together to support him,” says Gupta.
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Given his educated background – Kejriwal hails from India’s premier educational institution, the Indian Institute of Technology – there is a shift among many in India’s educated elite who see him an agent of change.
Political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta finds that Kejriwal and his brand of politics is “staggering” for “changing the discourse of corruption” in India’s political spectrum.
Mehta calls Kejriwal’s contention that “our governance structures are disempowering and we need more decentralisation” proactive.
Despite the opinion surveys predicting a solid number of seats for Kejriwal, it remains to be seen whether that will come to fruition, and people and pundits must wait until December 4 to find out whether he can deliver.
“The real question is whether Kejriwal and his AAP have the ability to put down roots and function as a dynamic political organisation in between elections, which is vitally important,” says Vaishnav.
In a country where political leaders offer hope but eventually succumb to corruption, Kejriwal – so far – offers the promise of integrity. The New Delhi elections may allow him to act on his pledges.