India’s AAP volunteers introspect poll defeat

Recent rout and infighting in anti-corruption party fails to dampen spirits of supporters hoping for political revival.

A hundred volunteers left jobs or put college on hold to dedicate all their time to party goals [File: Reuters]
A hundred volunteers left jobs or put college on hold to dedicate all their time to party goals [File: Reuters]

New Delhi, India  Nandan Mishra, a software engineer, spent one Sunday two weeks ago speaking with residents of south Delhi, a posh area of India’s capital, about how they wanted to use public funds in their neighbourhoods.

Involving people in decision-making is a goal of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, which is inspired from freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of “Swaraj” or self-governance.

It was close to midnight when Mishra, a graduate of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, took the metro home. On the way, he joked about finding out how late the trains run in the capital city.

“A short man with hope in his eyes” is how the 25-year-old remembered his first sighting of Arvind Kejriwal, 45, leader of the Aam Aadmi, or the common man, Party.

Mishra left a lucrative job in a bank to join the party last year. He used his skills as a musician to lead the “Play for Change” singing campaign before the Delhi elections in December. Mishra was attacked while campaigning in the northern city of Varanasi, where Kejriwal contested against Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party – now India’s prime minister.

“I got punched five times in the face by the BJP supporters”, he said. “I’m from a middle class family, who think I’m a failure. But life is really all about changing things”.

Foot soldiers

Thousands of volunteers, mostly in their twenties and thirties, have mobilised support for the AAP, formed on the promise to cleanse India’s politics of corruption. But it is only around a hundred of them, who left jobs, or put college on hold, to dedicate all their time to achieve its promises of “Swaraj” and honest politics.

These volunteers, not angling for fame or power, have worked behind the scenes, managing social media and information technology, as well as coordinating the street campaigns.

Now they are contending with public anger over the party quitting the Delhi government, followed by a humiliating defeat in the national elections last month. The party secured only four seats in parliament from the over 400 candidates it fielded across the country.

Infighting between the top leadership has come to the fore in the wake of resignations by top leadership of the party.

Meanwhile, Kejriwal is battling legal issues; he was released from Tihar jail last week after being arrested for refusing to furnish a bail bond in a defamation suit against him.

Closer to home, volunteers are being confronted by their parents, who remind them that other young people are drawing fat salaries, and getting married.

Many of them are at the crossroads of continuing with the Aam Aadmi Party or return to building their careers. 

We have made this party with our blood and sweat...Our honeymoon period came very quickly, but we joined to make changes not for politics

Ankit Lal, software engineer and AAP volunteer

Volunteers, who Al Jazeera interviewed, recalled how events in their lives had shaped their decision to join the anti-corruption movement in 2011, or the AAP, the next year.

Charanjeet Singh, 25, an engineer from Haryana, was preparing for graduate school when he heard Kejriwal’s call to join the new AAP.

“He asked people to give one year of their life,” he said. “It felt like a decisive moment that would shape the future.”

Singh has been working with the information technology team, sending out emails, texts and managing the website. Joining the AAP, he said, had allowed him to integrate politics and technology. “These are two biggest forces of change in society,” he said.

Ankit Lal, a software engineer, who had joined the anti-corruption movement in 2011, recalled seeking Kejriwal’s advice about whether he should stay or leave for graduate studies in the United States.

“I went to him with the call letter. He asked me whether I was going for the experience or the money”, said Lal, who now handles the party’s social media operations, which has been credited for mobilising support especially among the youth.

“I’ve handled the social media for such a huge political movement at this young age,” he said. “It’s been an experience of a lifetime”.

In a political whirlwind spanning four months, the AAP volunteers have experienced the euphoria of a stunning performance in Delhi elections last December, when their members defeated veteran politicians, including Kejriwal’s victory over Sheila Dikshit, a three-term sitting chief minister. But they failed to win even a single of the seven parliamentary seats from Delhi in the national elections.

The volunteers have conflicting opinions on whether Kejriwal made the right decision to resign as the chief minister of Delhi because an anti-corruption bill was blocked by his political opponents.

The party, most of them agree, had failed to communicate their reasons for resigning to the public.

“Volunteers are questioning and raising their voices against the leadership so that we can all learn from our mistakes”, said Mishra.

Some also echoed the sentiments of Shazia Ilmi, a prominent member of the party, who recently resigned.

“There is a clique of people who have surrounded Arvind Kejriwal and are controlling all the decisions. Even I can’t go and meet him, so then think of party volunteers,” she said.

“There is no internal democracy in the party and this is sad in a party that claims to stand for Swaraj“, said Sumit Negi, 33, a volunteer in the southern city of Bangalore, adding that interactions with the leadership had reduced considerably after the AAP government was formed, especially for those stationed outside of Delhi

“But efforts are being made to correct mistakes,” he said, noting that a grievance redressal form had been circulated for all volunteers to fill out.

Last week, Kejriwal also apologised for quitting the government.

Soul searching

For the party to retain its devoted volunteers, Mishra said, it would have to follow a programme of “identification, acknowledgement and sustenance”.

While dejected at the results, and angry at leadership, many volunteers are still confident of a revival. They call those who are leaving as “opportunistic,” and describe this as a process of separating the grain from the chaff.

Volunteers are strategising on how to win over the public before the Delhi re-elections. While a victory is unlikely, the Aam Aadmi Party needs to secure enough seats even to form an influential opposition.

“We have made this party with our blood and sweat”, said Lal. “Our honeymoon period came very quickly, but we joined to make changes not for politics.”

It has been two or three years since the volunteers left their jobs or took a break from their education. They are now dealing with concerned parents and depleted savings.

New party stirs up Indian politics

Negi, a software engineer from the northern state of Uttarakhand, was a partner in an event management company in Bangalore, but he left to sit on a hunger strike against corruption in 2011.

“I’ve had to borrow money to pay the rent,” he said. “I can’t believe how quick my friends were to support me.”

Even those who want to continue working for Aam Aadmi Party are looking for employment.

Mishra, who has found a job with an international service company, said that he would have to spend nine hours at work, and then muster the energy to continue working for the party. “I’ll just have to pick my battles,” he said.

For some, joining the new party has also changed the direction in which their careers were headed.

Instead of going back to event management, or finding a job in software engineering, Negi is leaving Bangalore for Delhi to find to work with a non-governmental organisation.

Within a year, Negi said, he plans to return to Uttarakhand as a social worker, and continue building the Aam Aadmi Party presence in his home state. 

While the future of the volunteers with the AAP may depend on their varying degrees of idealism and practicality, they don’t express regret about heeding Kejriwal’s call.

Meanwhile, romances have also blossomed among the young volunteers of the political revolution.

One of them is Lal, who does some consulting work in social media, while he continues to manage Facebook and Twitter for the party.

Lal said that he met his wife, a reporter, during the anti-corruption movement, who then also quit her job.

“It’s been tough, but we’re putting bread on the table,” he said. “What matters is that we both wanted the same things at heart.”

Follow Betwa Sharma on Twitter: @betwasharma

More from Features
Most Read