Fledgling anti-corruption party puts wind up India’s old order

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Nicola Smith, Delhi Published: 23 February 2014

Shazia Ilmi, a former TV presenter, says the nation has had enough (Hindustan Times)
Shazia Ilmi, a former TV presenter, says the nation has had enough (Hindustan Times)

A NEW anti-corruption movement threatens to disrupt India’s mainstream political parties in May’s general election by tapping into the urban middle class’s weariness with fraud and nepotism.

The Aam Aadmi, or Common Man party (AAP), was formed only in November 2012 but up to 50,000 supporters are expected to flock to a rally with which it is kicking off its election campaign in Haryana, near Delhi, today.

Shazia Ilmi, a member of the party’s national executive, claimed last week that it was already a “game changer” in Indian politics.

“The AAP is making waves and capturing people’s imagination,” she said.

Ilmi, 43, a former presenter with Star News, is typical of the well-educated urban Indians who are turning to the party as an alternative to Congress and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), which have both become watchwords for corruption, nepotism and inefficiency.

“Every time I read about [political] scams I felt that we as a nation are being taken for a ride,” said Ilmi, who has become a poster girl for the new party and is considering running for a seat in Delhi.

Explaining why she had joined the AAP, she said: “I felt enough is enough, I’m going to jump in.”

The party is banking on the votes of the aspirational middle classes whose hopes are regularly thwarted by corruption and bureaucracy.

“We’re talking about some very serious issues which other parties aren’t — how pricing is done, how policy-making is done, why there should be transparency,” she said.

“We’re questioning crony capitalism, which no other parties are. So we stand out.”

Fighting corruption in politics lay at the heart of all the party’s policies, she said.

“In India everything is very politicised. We won’t get ahead if we don’t fix this. Everything stems from politics, whether it’s roads or sanitation or education.”

The AAP has received nearly 9,000 applications from prospective candidates over the past six weeks after it announced plans to challenge for more than 350 of the 545 Indian parliamentary seats being contested in May.

Political analysts believe the party is shaking up Indian politics to the point where it poses a serious threat to Narendra Modi, the leader of the opposition BJP, who is the current favourite to become the next prime minister.

The AAP was born on the back of anti-corruption protests in 2012, in which thousands of middle-class Indians took to the streets in support of Kisan “Anna” Hazare, 76, who had gone on a hunger strike in a bid to clean up politics.

Arvind Kejriwal, 45, Hazare’s former protégé, set up the party, which shocked the political classes with a decisive victory in the Delhi elections last December.

Many believe Kejriwal is an astute politician who has gained instant popularity by tapping into the national disillusionment with mainstream politicians. Others dismiss him as an inexperienced rabble-rouser.

After being elected chief minister of Delhi last month, Kejriwal made radio broadcasts urging the public to record corrupt officials secretly with their mobile phones.

He made headlines by sleeping on the streets and resigned after just 49 days in office having failed to see through his promises to cut electricity and water tariffs.

A poll last month by the news magazine India Today found that 38% of voters wanted Kejriwal to be prime minister, second only to the BJP’s Modi.

Samir Saran, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi think tank, said Kejriwal was “running circles” round the main parties in message and in strategy.

“Modi should be terrified, because assuming the AAP gets 20 or 30 seats, then half of them are going to come from the gains the BJP would have made,” he said.

“Those are gains that could be decisive in whether Modi becomes prime minister.”

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