Home / Politics / Policy /  How AAP and Arvind Kejriwal shook up Delhi

New Delhi: Sarita Prabhat has lived in Delhi’s Bengali Market since 1974. In all that time, she has voted for the Congress party in every assembly election. “My family were freedom fighters. All our lives we have given so much time to the Congress party," she said. This December, however, Prabhat put aside the past and picked up a white Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) cap, exasperated by inflation, corruption and government inefficiency.

Prabhat had never talked to a politician until AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal arrived for a road show a couple of days before the elections. “He met everyone, everybody shook hands with him, everybody talked about their problems, and he promised he would do his best for us," she said. “He was very simple, very kind and a good listener." That conversation, and two visits from AAP volunteers, made up her mind.

Prabhat’s house is in the New Delhi constituency, the seat Sheila Dikshit of the Congress held for 15 years in her three consecutive terms as chief minister. Kejriwal’s decision to contest the election out of Dikshit’s borough turned the contest into a battle of personalities as much as policy.

Many saw it as foolhardy. On the morning of poll day, Dikshit dismissed her opponent to reporters. “Who is Arvind Kejriwal? What is AAP?" she said. “Can you call it a party that can be compared to the Congress or the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)?"

Four days later, the verdict was clear: Kejriwal had beaten Dikshit by 25,864 votes, an astounding victory margin that equalled more than 30% of the total votes cast. Dikshit trailed with only a few hundred more votes than the BJP candidate, Vijender Kumar Gupta.

The election results, however, did not return any party with a clear majority. In the 70-member legislative assembly, the BJP secured 31 seats, followed by the AAP with 28. The Congress finished a distant third with just eight seats. President’s rule cannot be ruled out as neither the BJP nor the AAP has shown an interest in forming the government.

A party is born

By the time the AAP, which means the common man’s party in Hindi, came into being on 26 November 2012, a little more than a year before the assembly election, Prabhat already knew who Kejriwal was, thanks to his work for the anti-graft movement led by activist Anna Hazare, which made headlines in 2011, demanding an ombudsman law to ensure transparency and accountability in governance.

Kejriwal had already been working as an activist since 1999 from his non-governmental organization Parivartan, based in Seemapuri in eastern Delhi.

Hazare and Kejriwal were joined by former police officer Kiran Bedi, activist Swami Agnivesh and lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who is now a key member of the AAP’s leadership, to agitate for the Jan Lokpal Bill that aims to deter corruption, compensate citizen grievances and protect whistleblowers.

Hazare went on multiple hunger strikes throughout the summer of 2011 that were accompanied by street protests and rallies. The movement sustained itself for nearly a year and a half, garnering mass public support until Kejriwal announced a political alternative.

The relationship between Hazare and Kejriwal has since become somewhat strained. Some contend that Hazare was Kejriwal’s choice as the leader of the anti-corruption movement; others maintain that Kejriwal was only Hazare’s lieutenant who broke away from his mentor after he realized the need to offer a political route to change.

When Hazare warned the party against using his name or his photograph in any of their political campaigns, doubts were raised about the party’s fate without him, and some questioned Kejriwal’s intent to pursue politics even at the cost of losing his mentor. Hazare has remained immovable on this point. Even after its win in Delhi, he ejected AAP members from his hunger strike in Maharashtra on Friday.

Post-Hazare, Kejriwal’s major challenge was to retain the public’s attention. He widened his focus from the Lokpal Bill to the two political parties he’d have to beat in Delhi, the Congress and the BJP. In a series of fiery orations, Kejriwal began to talk about their alleged corruption scandals.

He also attacked corporate interests with audacious exposes of alleged wrongdoing. Some of his high-profile targets included Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, India’s biggest construction company DLF Ltd, BJP president Nitin Gadkari and Reliance Industries Ltd chairman Mukesh Ambani.

The AAP was conspicuously egalitarian in its hierarchy from the start. While Kejriwal became the national convenor of the party, maintaining it would never create posts such as president and vice-president, it also formed a 23-member committee called the national executive, which included many of the people who had worked on the Lokpal Bill: journalist Manish Sisodia; All India Students Association activist Gopal Rai; Bhushan; president of the Independent Social Welfare Society, Sanjay Singh; engineer Pankaj Gupta, and poet and activist Kumar Vishwas, who is now tipped to run against Congress’s Rahul Gandhi in the Lok Sabha elections due by May next year.

For the young AAP to dive into electoral politics, another key person was brought on board—Yogendra Yadav, one of India’s most prominent psephologists. Yadav, now a national executive member of the AAP, is also a fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

“We were a party with limited energies and experience, and we knew that if we spread our strength across all the four states, we’d be nowhere," said Yadav. “Delhi was the place where our party had a stronger footprint than the rest. It had a ruling party that we knew was unpopular and the opposition had no face, so there was a political vacuum and Delhi would give us visibility like no other place."

The man

If there was a man who could fight an incumbency like the Congress in Delhi, it would be Kejriwal, according to multiple members of his staff. With a reputation for stubborn tenacity, Kejriwal has been variously portrayed as a zealot, a saint, an egoist and a selfless worker for his fellow men since his rise to fame.

A 45-year-old mechanical engineer by training, Kejriwal is originally from Hissar, a small town in Haryana. He studied at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur in West Bengal before taking a job with Tata Steel and later in the Indian Revenue Service as joint commissioner in the income-tax department in Delhi.

Kejriwal lives with his parents, wife Sunita Agrawal and their two children at the family residence in Kaushambi on the outskirts of New Delhi.

He first received national attention when he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his work on advocacy with the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which was passed in 2005. He used all the award money to start the Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF) the next year, which uses RTI requests among other information to collect, research, analyse and disseminate information about various aspects of governance, and acts as a watchdog to ensure that policies are implemented.

The choice of the New Delhi seat for Kejriwal, rather than the more obvious choice of Seemapuri, where Parivartan has been working for years, was a controversial one, according to Abhinandan Sekhri, who co-founded PCRF along with Kejriwal and Sisodia.

“Now there are a lot of pundits saying that it was a smart move for him (to run in New Delhi). It’s easy to say that in hindsight, but when the party was formed, and the decision was made, we were not sure," Sekhri said. “The volunteers were saying, ‘You will contest against Sheila’, whereas all his old friends were saying, ‘You should contest from where Parivartan was’. It was obviously a safe seat for him. But when these overriding, thunderous volunteers were saying ‘New Delhi, New Delhi, New Delhi’, that’s when he decided to do it."

It might have been a risk, said Sekhri, but it was a calculated one. “Arvind’s movement had been written off by everyone. In that environment, you’ve got to go all guns blazing, which is also Arvind’s style actually," he said.

Yadav was in the US when he heard the news, he said. “My first impulse was to say, ‘This is stupid, why are you throwing him into this?’ But my second impulse was to say, ‘How brilliant!’ Not because I was sure he would win, but because I realized it was important not to look at the race in terms of victory or defeat, it was psychological warfare," he said. “We had to capture the mind space, and the only one who can take on Sheila is Arvind."

Campaign coordinator Neeraj Kumar said Kejriwal as one of the few recognized faces of the party was another reason he was chosen to fight Dikshit. “There were 69 candidates and then there was Arvind," Kumar said. “Maybe three or four of the others were known. People asked how could a young candidate fight her (Dikshit). It had to be a personality war—a corrupt party versus an honest party, the whole focus was on these two, and all the attention had to be in one place."

In April, after detailed surveys had revealed that Delhiites’ anger was focused on the soaring prices of basic services, Kejriwal went on a hunger strike for 15 days to protest against inflated electricity and water bills.

The choice of venue for this strike, Sunder Nagri in Seemapuri, was strategic. With its working class population and several unauthorized colonies, Sunder Nagri is Parivartan turf. But Kejriwal’s east Delhi hunger strike wittingly mirrored another, Hazare’s of 2011, which had been held at Jantar Mantar, the symbolic protest ground of the national capital and the heart of New Delhi.

The campaign

The AAP’s campaign for New Delhi faced two principle hurdles: a lack of money, and a lack of experienced, recognizable candidates.

As Yadav pointed out in a post on Twitter a few days after the elections, among the AAP winners were all three of the women, nine out of the 12 scheduled caste candidates, and 10 out of the 10 of the poorest members in the Delhi legislative assembly. The party had declared that its budget for Delhi would be no more than 20 crore, a figure, Sekhri said, that was seen as ludicrously small.

“There are certain conventional wisdoms that have been established without people questioning them. One of those is about the money you need," he said. “In the end they campaigned all over Delhi in 18 crore. That’s 25 lakh per constituency."

Donations given at public rallies and at home were all exchanged for receipts, a detail that many journalists seem to take up with a kind of fond amusement. According to Kumar, donations made via the website are all detailed online within a few minutes. In some public rallies, where group donations are collected in large bedsheets, individual details are not available, he said, and so those are lumped together under a single public donation heading. The most common amount donated is between 10 and 50.

On Sunday, among the most recent 10 donations listed online was one of 18,000 from a donor called Sharad Banka in the US and another one of 1 from Harpal Singh of Sirsa, Haryana. Only Indian citizens or non-resident Indians with valid Indian passports could donate.

To make up for the lack of funds, the AAP relied on reaching out to voters at the grassroots level and turning them into stakeholders at every stage, from selecting candidates to drafting manifestos, to amassing more volunteers. The concept of Swaraj, a system of devolving power to the lowest common denominator at every stage, was already a key part of the AAP vision and it dovetailed neatly with the strategy.

According to the party manifesto, the running of any locality should be shouldered by so-called mohalla sabhas (neighbourhood councils), which who would handle payments for public works such as road repair and also monitor the functioning of local schools and health centres.

At the same time, the particular concerns of each community were being addressed in constituency-specific manifestos, tailored to local needs, instead of the city-wide manifestos released by the BJP and the Congress party.

“Yogendra (Yadav) said to us, ‘70 constituencies don’t all want the same thing’," said Ram Kumar Jha, who managed the campaign logistics. “There was a base manifesto, but, for example, in Dhobi Ghat, they needed clean water, in Gole Market there was a whole NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Council) colony who were getting water from a single street drinking point, those things."

Advertising was another problem. The AAP used autorickshaws extensively, a cheap and mobile vehicle for spreading the word. Human banners (a line of people holding a painted sheet or placard) were cheaper than paying for billboards. The AAP also alleged that permanent ones were being removed by the municipal corporation. The AAP advertised outside movie theatres, in the windows of its supporters’ homes, and through unusual methods such as street theatre.

The volunteers

“In Delhi, we had many temporary volunteers," Kumar said. “If people came and told us they wanted to work for two hours only, or four hours in a week, we used to just put them to work doing more outreach. They would sign up more volunteers, standing with a placard at Rajiv Chowk, where you get people from all over Delhi coming. We’d take their name, phone number and constituency and add it to the database, and then those people could go back to their localities and recruit more. If 10 volunteers get 20 volunteers each from all over Delhi, it will spread quickly."

By the end, Kumar said, the AAP had 200-300 temporary volunteers per constituency.

The problem of the new candidates was tougher to solve. Many were young and unknown to their future constituencies. “We had a crisis of leaders, we didn’t have the faces," Kumar said. “So Arvind had to be everywhere, he had to cover all the constituencies."

Jha said these visits were targeted to focus on the areas where Congress was doing well. “Their micro-management was very good," he said. “We knew in which clusters she (Dikshit) has full support and which were mixed, we mapped these areas and targeted him (Kejriwal) to these. Pillanji (a colony near Sarojini Nagar) was a Congress vote bank, it was a base, all these areas we put him to."

As a result of the need for Kejriwal to appear all over town, Kumar said, the leader had only had two full days left to commit to New Delhi. Jha said the campaign for the central seat had been carefully planned around Kejriwal. “There are 23,000 houses in New Delhi constituency and we covered 18,000 in our door-to-door campaigning," he said. “Out of these, nearly 13,000 houses gave us donations, after which we were sure that we will definitely win in this constituency."

After a while, however, only the man himself would do. “During our second round of door-to-door meetings, people started telling us that Arvind Kejriwal is not coming to the constituency to meet us and we did get a little worried. So we made him travel in the constituency on the last two days of campaigning."

“I was with him for those days," Kumar said. “People’s reaction was...well, people were out on the streets, on balconies, it was as if Narendra Modi or (film star) Aamir Khan had come. Normally people won’t turn out like that. Everything was beyond expectation."

The critics

Meanwhile, the Congress and BJP campaigns were routinely ridiculing the AAP. Dikshit maintained that the party was “not even a contender", and the BJP denied it was a serious competitor. A representative from Dikshit’s office declined to comment for this article.

There were other problems. Setting itself against the status quo as the pattern of morality may have had and continue to have inherent problems for the AAP. Any indiscretions within its own ranks are likely to be more harshly treated and it is subject to constant scrutiny from those who would prove its squeaky clean image is tainted.

On 21 November, less than two weeks before the polls, a video released by a company called Media Sarkar, and aired by some news channels, claimed that some AAP leaders and candidates, including the journalist and candidate for Ramakrishna Puram, Shazia Ilmi, had agreed to accept funds without showing them in their official accounts.

The party, which had taken a strong position favouring transparency in its funding, countered the allegation, calling it “part of a political conspiracy" and said a criminal defamation suit would be filed against Media Sarkar and the TV stations. Ilmi lost her constituency by a few hundred votes.

A few days later, when its Rajouri Garden candidate Pritpal Singh Saluja was shown to have a criminal record, the AAP was forced to apologize and quickly withdrew its support from Saluja. “It has been brought to our notice that an FIR (first information report) was registered against him and three of his family members in October 2012 in Lucknow. It appears that the chargesheet for dowry harassment, etc., was filed against him and some family members by the Lucknow police in August 2013," the party said in a statement on its website. “He claims that he is innocent and will fight this chargesheet in court."

There are also those who claim that some of the AAP’s manifesto promises seemed too good to be true. Among other things, the AAP has promised the reduction of consumers’ electricity expenditure by 50%, said that domestic consumers who have got inflated water bills (up to November) will not have to pay them, and that families who use up to 700 litres of water per day will be provided free water.

Arun Jaitley of the BJP, the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, criticized promises like these on his official Facebook page on 9 December.

“It (AAP) has made unrealistic promises and does not want to sit in a position of responsibility where it has to walk its talk. The very suggestion of being in government to implement its policy and promises appears to be scary for this party," Jaitley wrote. “In power, such a party would be like a fish out of water. It is possible to make exaggerated promises, and capture the imagination of a few by making unimplementable promises."

The results

On Sunday, 7 December, Kejriwal’s core team, as well as old friends and family members, were squashed into an upstairs room of the party’s ramshackle headquarters, 41 Hanuman Road, sitting on the floor and leaning against the walls to watch as the votes were counted. The cable TV was broken and so the TV coverage was streamed using a USB dongle and projected onto one wall of the room.

At the other end of the room with his back against a cupboard door, Kejriwal was one of the few people in the room who didn’t look particularly happy. He clutched at one sleeve of his navy blue jersey, and stared up at the ceiling of the room between discussions with the people around him. Periodically, he was informed of results from Sanjay Singh, who had headed his New Delhi campaign, and was based at the counting centre for the constituency.

In front of him on the carpet, Yadav sat with a laptop, checking live data from the Election Commission website against a detailed sheet of votes required. “Initially the results came from areas which were Valmiki colonies, so I advised caution," Yadav said. “After the fourth round, it was clear; once we crossed 4,000-5,000, I began to relax."

By around 9am, according to Kumar, the first results began to come in.

In New Delhi, Kejriwal was trailing Dikshit by a thousand votes. “We couldn’t believe it," Kumar said. “Half an hour after that, I spoke to a friend at IBN7. He said that Arvind was now ahead by 4,500 votes." Kumar relayed the message to the room. “Arvind smiled a little," he said. “He knew he would win."

Sekhri agreed. “Arvind was very quiet until we reached the 25 mark," he said. “That was at about 12pm. Everyone else was pretty thrilled, Arvind just had this expression on his face, he was very calm, but I could tell that he was...well you can’t expect the impossible, but he was looking at crossing the 35 mark, I could tell. From what I know of him he bets the bank or he goes bust, he doesn’t play for safety."

The aftermath

While that may be true, the AAP’s demeanour since victory day has certainly seemed to err towards safety. While the BJP and the AAP, neither with a majority, hedge around the idea of forming a minority government, the AAP has refused to partner with either of its main rivals, despite an offer from the Congress of its own eight seats, which would make up the required number, 35.

With an eye to the future, pundits are now asking whether the AAP can replicate its success outside Delhi.

Kumar says the party’s presence in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab is already strong and that it is spreading into Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. For an essentially urban movement to make its mark in rural areas, it will require a change of tack.

“We already have 10-member executive committees in 303 districts across India," said Kumar. “We will now look at extending down to village level. It’s a very decentralized model; in two-three months we should be in every panchayat."

On 11 December, the AAP held a victory rally for its volunteers and supporters at Jantar Mantar. Thousands of people, including Sarita Prabhat, turned up to listen to Kejriwal’s speech. Kejriwal warned against a premature celebration and asked for funds for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, emphasizing that there was much more work to be done.

Prabhat is sanguine about the party’s prospects for the future and willing to do more herself. “I’ve given them my name," she said. “If they need my help, I will do something or give some money. I’d be happy to help them in whatever way I can."

“The volunteers are charged," said Sekhri of the response at the rally. “They’ve tasted blood. They want the real deal now."

Gyan Varma contributed to this story.

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