Rise of new star

I AM IN India’s capital city New Delhi and the air is electric due to the poll. Everything was closed — offices, schools and shops. The only activity on Wednesday was at the polling booths, almost 12,000 of them, dotted all over this 12-million strong metropolis. 

But this is like no other election in Delhi. There is a new political party in the fray, and it is giving the two other major parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, the jitters. The new party is the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP), which was formed only a short while ago. Yet, surveys show that it will be a major, perhaps decisive, player in the Delhi poll. Needless to say, it is already claiming victory, as is the BJP and the Congress. But then, such is the nature of electoral politics in India that virtually every party makes a bold show of confidence just before polling day. The deflation and excuses of the losers come only later.

Be that as it may, why is the emergence of the AAP so significant? To answer that one has to go back a couple of years.

After a series of embarrassing scams and high-level corruption cases, the most prominent being those connected to the outrageous costs of the Commonwealth Games which were held in Delhi, and also what became known as the “2G spectrum” case, a telecom licence issuance scandal, a remarkable figure emerged: Anna Hazare. A former jawan, or ordinary soldier, who took part in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war (the truck he was driving was bombed and he was the only survivor), he comes from a village in the state of Maharashtra. After leaving the army, he took to social work and became known for his developmental skills, integrity, and crusading temperament. Such was his moral force that he compelled the Maharashtra government to remove two state ministers because he claimed they were corrupt. The named ministers quietly resigned.

Hazare then decided to come to New Delhi to put pressure on the central government to pass a bill to set up a Lokpal, a kind of ombudsman who would look into corruption cases against all those who had charges against them, including the high and mighty (that bill is still being debated). He coalesced around him a huge following, mostly youngsters disillusioned with the growing nepotism and venality that they saw around them. At first, the main political parties did not take him seriously, considering him a crank. But they were startled when they realized that he had struck a vibrant chord, not just in the capital, but in many other parts of the country as well. Millions of Indians began to rally around him.

His most prominent and articulate follower was the 45-year-old Arvind Kejriwal, a former income-tax official who had retired prematurely to pursue social work. The Indian income-tax department, which comes under the Indian Revenue Service (IRS), is probably the most corrupt government department around, notorious for its blackmailing tactics and taking bribes from businessmen. Earlier, when competitive examinations were held for the civil services, those who came out on top generally chose to serve in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) or the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), which were considered the elite services.

Now, however, the choice of many of the toppers is the IRS — the Customs department also comes under it — simply because that is where the most illegal money can be made. Kejriwal was an exception, but he clearly knows all about how corruption operates in India. Indeed, his and his party’s main electoral plank is to try and end corruption while improving governance. Though he was close to Hazare, the two men differed in one crucial aspect: Hazare shunned the notion of entering politics, whereas Kejriwal felt it was essential to get into the political mainstream to effect major change and clean up the system. So Kejriwal set up his AAP to contest the Delhi poll, while Hazare went back to his village, even refusing to campaign for the AAP.

The present chief minister of Delhi is Sheila Dixit, a formidable and sophisticated politician whose Congress has been ruling Delhi for 15 years. She has won three successive elections, even though the city is considered to be a BJP stronghold (the BJP controls the New Delhi Municipal Corporation). Yet, somehow, the BJP has not been able to come up with a leader to match Dixit’s charisma. This time it thinks it has found a winner in 58-year-old Dr Harsh Vardhan, a respected physician, known for his clean image and administrative ability.

As I write this, there has been a record turnout at the polls. But the results will be known only on December 8. My guess: A hung Legislative Assembly, but with the BJP getting the largest number of seats, though not a majority. The spoiler? Kejriwal’s AAP. If it gets more than 10 seats in the 70-strong assembly, he will be a man to watch out for, not just in Delhi, but on the Indian national scene as well. —Khaleej Times

Rahul Singh is a former editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express and Khaleej Times

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