Global Politics

Vowing to fight corruption, this Delhi engineer may change politics in India forever

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Credit: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP), shouts slogans after taking the oath as the new chief minister of Delhi during a swearing-in ceremony at Ramlila grounds in New Delhi on December 28, 2013.

Here in New Delhi, it’s a time of new beginnings — and not just because it’s New Year’s Day. Just a few days ago, the city and the country witnessed a historical event: the swearing in of anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal as Delhi’s new chief minister.

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Kejriwal was an unusual candidate for the post. Unlike the vast majority of politicians in India, he doesn’t belong to a political dynasty. He's a mechanical engineer and a former civil service officer who, in 2006, was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership for his role in the enactment of the Right to Information Act, the equivalent of America’s Freedom of Information Act. He’s a novice in the political scene, having decided to dive into politics just a few years ago. His political party, the Aam Admi Party (the Common Man’s Party), which he started in 2012, is a mere toddler in the playground of Indian politics.

Kejriwal stood for the rights of common, ordinary Indians and their frustrations with corrupt governance. No one expected him to win more than a few seats in last month’s elections. He won 28 of the 70 seats in the Delhi assembly, many more than any polls or analyses had projected.

How did he pull this off? Well, he was smart about his campaigning, going door to door and interacting with ordinary citizens one-on-one, rather than talking to them from a podium. His party also managed to gather an army of volunteers to help with the campaign. They crowd-sourced their funding using social media to reach out to Indians not just in Delhi, but all over the country and the world. A close analysis of the party's funding, which the party has posted on its website, by the Times of India reveals that 80 percent of the party’s funding came from outside Delhi, and 30 percent from Indians living abroad.

In many ways, this reminds me of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and subsequent victory. The socio-cultural and political setting here in India is obviously different from the United States. Still, there are parallels. For example, like Obama, Kejriwal’s smart use of social media and grassroots campaigning got him his victory. And like Obama, Kejriwal stood for change, which many urban middle class Indians are demanding.

Whether Kejriwal is able to deliver on his promises of fighting corruption, I’m not so optimistic. Corruption is so widespread it will probably take decades to root out. But what I am optimistic about is the message of hope he brings and the fact that his election signifies democracy in action. It’s a time when Indians (in this case, urban Indians) are becoming more politically active and they are demanding and ushering in a different kind of politics.

As this article in an Indian newspaper points out, “the unseen impact of the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) story is quietly playing out across the country, spurring political entrepreneurs and those who were considering the plunge, with the message that at long last, India's cities might be ready to usher in a different politics.” It is making Indians hopeful that change is possible even if you don’t have “money and muscle power.”

And that’s a change that I think is irreversible. The momentum of change may slow down, and true, widespread reform will take time. But, there’s no turning back. Regardless of what Kejriwal and the Aam Admi Party are able to accomplish in the next few years, this is a year when the ordinary Indian begins to recognize his/her power to make a difference. 

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