Clean Sweep

A Reform Party Takes On Corruption In India

A few nights ago, I met an old friend in a coffee shop in New Delhi. Stephane is a French architect who has lived and worked in India for the past fifteen years. “It’s really strange in India right now, don’t you find?” he asked me. “I’ve never seen it like this. All my friends are depressed. No one has any hope. I’ve never been in a country where people were so oblivious to the concept of a common good, where they are so short-sighted, so ready to cut corners for the sake of an easier, cheaper way to do things.”

That week I had been staying at the home of my close friends Deepa and Prashant Bhushan, and the mood there was anything but depressed. In fact, I had never seen the family so optimistic. The Bhushans are a well-known family in India, a family of lawyers. Shanti Bhushan, Prashant’s father, was Law Minister during the Janta Party’s government in the late 1970s. Earlier, in 1975, he had successfully prosecuted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for her unfair electoral practices. The courts invalidated her election. Prashant himself is well known for his tireless efforts in public-interest litigation.

Lately he has been involved in the India Against Corruption movement, which has formed the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party. This new political party is now fielding candidates in the upcoming Delhi state elections. When the idea of running their own candidates first came up, politically astute observers dismissed the AAP’s chances. Now, even the most cynical are saying—in stunned amazement—that the AAP might actually win. The party’s own polls put it ahead with 47 percent of the vote—the ruling Congress Party polls only 22 percent and the rival Bhartiya Janta Party is struggling with 33 percent.

In India, where many voters are illiterate or semi-literate, symbols are crucial for ballot recognition. The AAP’s symbol is a jharu—a traditional broom made of a bundle of twigs. The symbol could not be more appropriate: the party’s whole platform is about taking a broom to the murky, cobwebby world of India’s political and administrative system. The AAP’s jharu offers a promise of purposeful action to a public that has been forced to put up silently with years of corruption and dysfunction, now so routine that most people have stopped even mentioning them. People just pay and get on with it, accepting bribery as the price of getting anything accomplished.

For the past two years, the party has tapped into public anger and frustration by encouraging people to protest and organize. Its election campaign has been Obama-like in its strategy, eschewing big money and expensive ad buys in favor of small, hundred-rupee donations and door-to-door canvassing. One of its biggest constituencies is Delhi’s auto-rickshaw unions. The AAP platform has an obvious appeal for rickshaw drivers, who are at the mercy of predatory and corrupt police: if they don’t pay regular protection money, they may be fined, their licenses seized, and their vehicles impounded. Rickshaw drivers are also roving ambassadors in the city. They are constantly on the move, constantly meeting new people. Their vehicles, draped with AAP banners, are traveling billboards. They even hand out campaign literature to their passengers. This creative approach to campaigning is a hallmark of the AAP’s style. Its support among educated youth and the poor is enormous.

The party is also known for its rigid adherence to clean politics. It recently withdrew its support from a candidate who had not revealed the fact that he was involved in several property disputes. The party’s leaders—people like Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal, who gave up his comfortable job as a government bureaucrat for the party—are well known for being above reproach and dedicated to public service.

The AAP also benefits from a sad lack of alternatives. The ruling Congress Party is being blamed for an economy in freefall. The rupee is now 60 to a dollar, down from 45 to the dollar this time last year. The Congress Party is also coming under fire for its failure to respond effectively to disasters like the recent floods in the mountain state of Uttarakhand. Finally, the party is widely believed to be implicated in just about every major government scam of the past decade.

The Bhartiya Janta Party is no better. Its standard bearer is the charismatic Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, where he is believed to have engineered the 2002 massacre of more than a thousand Muslims—including pregnant women whose living fetuses were torn from their bodies and decapitated. When questioned about his role in the riots on national television, he first distanced himself from the events and then said offhandedly: “If we are driving a car…[or] someone else is driving and we’re sitting behind, if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is.”

The one real concern for the AAP is the question of how it will govern if it does win the elections. No one in the party’s current leadership has any experience with the day-to-day running of even a small town, let alone the capital of the country.

But given its leadership’s reputation for honesty and integrity, the public may just be willing to give its candidates a chance to learn on the job.

Published in the November 15, 2013 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.

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