Insider-outsider: Hottest start-up in Indian politics makes frenzied debut

Written by Seema Chishti | Seema Chishti | New Delhi | Updated: Dec 9 2013, 14:54pm hrs
Kejriwal-AAPAAP convener Arvind Kejriwal with Manish Sishodia, Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav and Kumar Vishwas during a press conference after party's excellent show in Delhi Assembly elections. (PTI)
Not long ago, he headed to some of the poorest neighbourhoods of Delhi with his NGO Parivartan, got ration cards made and used the RTI Act so effectively he had many politicians breaking into a sweat. In April 2011, he and his army of volunteers staged the Jantar Mantar sit-in, then surfaced again at the Ramlila Maidan. Riding an anti-politician wave they had helped set off cashing in on the tarnished image of UPA II, Kejriwal and his then moral guardian Anna Hazare became the face of one of the most concerted assaults on the political system.

On Sunday, barely a year after he announced the formation of a political party, Arvind Kejriwals

Aam Aadmi Party has trounced the Congress and stopped the BJP in its tracks to emerge as the principal opposition in the Delhi Assembly.

Has the national capital, Indias fastest growing and, arguably, its most improved metropolis noted for its migrant-friendly face, finally found its own regional party Or is it more than that, reflective of a general urban unease with the established politics of the Congress and the BJP, and an experiment which could be replicated elsewhere in a rapidly urbanising India

As a former Indian Revenue Service officer, Kejriwal understood the establishment in reforming India (economic and governance reform) and was able to tap into the deep annoyance created by heightening expectations.

His IIT Kharagpur education, networking across its powerful old boys association that helped from hosting fundraisers to providing an army of earnest volunteers and marrying the alienation of those away from power but wanting a say, from the NRI to the jhuggi-dweller, gave him a solid, deep edge that older political parties may want to learn from.

Kejriwal played the insider-outsider role with great conviction.

As his NGO and volunteers got ration cards, identity cards, Aadhar cards made for thousands, giving them a foothold in the system they yearned to be part of, he went about slamming the system to great advantage.

He did not hesitate to focus on his own projection as the leader people began to trust, taking on leaders and personalities far bigger than himself be it Kapil Sibal or P Chidambaram or even Mukesh Ambani, Kejriwal pulled few punches. Blending Anna Hazares sheen, Ramdevs following and Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadavs articulation and persistent presence on TV resulted in Kejriwal establishing that his was a party of the educated with nothing to lose, no record that anyone could hold against him. In short, he projected a slate that was blank and, therefore, clean.

Imaginatively using autorickshaws, a symbol of the average Delhiwallah, he endeared himself as the underdog in a bold David versus Goliath move by taking on the formidable Sheila Dikshit. This also ensured that AAP and he were always top-of-the-mind, and never out of news. In fact, when the protests after the Delhi gangrape did not really focus on AAP and were leaderless, the AAP was quick to pick on the the rape and torture of a child a little later.

Allowing his party to be indefinable in terms of class and caste and region, it almost approximated the new face of Delhi. Kejriwal gave space to those turned away by the more staid, status-quoist BJP and Congress. Finally, borrowing the Congress symbol, the aam aadmi, Kejriwal effectively and scientifically through Twitter and old fashioned door-to-door contact pushed himself as the new face of a post-reform, urban India.

The AAP debut is closest, in recent times, to that of the Telugu Desam Party which, within nine months of its formation in March 1982, won the majority in the state Assembly elections and formed the government. Moreover, it became the national opposition to the Congress in 1984, when the Congress got more than 400 seats and the BJP got just two.

When his comments were sought, TDP leader and former MP K Rammohan Rao said people clearly want change, and through their protests with Ramdev, Anna Hazare, their anti-corruption stance and positioning, the AAP have done well, got people on the streets and turned them into votes. But NTR, he said, was different. His appeal was that of a star, and virtually in all of south India. Therefore, the situation is not very comparable.

The other party in the 1980s that made a stunning arrival was the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). After a six-year agitation against illegal migrants in the state, and after signing the Assam Accord with Rajiv Gandhis government in 1983, the All Assam Students Union morphed into the AGP and went on to win the polls in 1985. It formed the government again in 1996.

Atul Bora, AGP working president, sees similarities between then and now in the AAPs political success. We too were an aam aadmi party, if you look closely. We fought elections immediately after our formation and won them. We too were opposed to the Congress corruption then and are now exactly like the AAP. We think what has happened now in assemblies is what will happen in the general elections.

The CPM, another champion of the non-Congress, non-BJP parties that once breached the Congresss Bengal fortress to stay on for 34 years, is more circumspect. Nilotpal Basu, member of the CPM central committee, said: We are yet to study this in detail. But it was clear that there was deep resentment against the Centres policies on the lives of the people. That benefited a fresh entrant. But it will be premature to say that this can be replicated elsewhere. Delhi is very unique, very urban.

Of course, Kejriwal is confident that his message in Delhi finds an echo outside the city for, as per the 2011 Census, for the first time since Independence, the absolute increase in population is more in urban areas that in rural areas. Supporters of AAP also argue that while the 1980s and the 1990s, in north India, especially, saw a democratic deepening that saw OBCs, Dalits and regional forces emerge as opponents to the umbrella-like Congress, the emergence of AAP signals another level of democratic deepening: the middle-classes, considered apathetic towards politics, along with urban poor, twinning to look for real change.

In the end, as TDPs Rao says, the whole point is what these people (in the AAP) do. Those who ride anger and disenchantment to power end up raising expectations sky high. What they do now is whats important. The same electorate in six months can change its mind completely, lets see.

Sure, there are challenges ahead: of keeping his flock motivated in the absence of power; how he tackles the demands of realpolitik, how he does justice to the anger and cynicism of those who voted for him. Tonight, however, all that could wait. As Kejriwal watched the cheering crowds, it was hard to spot anger amid the smiles all around.