The Aam Aadmi Party awakening

If a litmus test was needed for the impact of the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party's victory in Delhi, it can be found in how political leaders across the land are now falling over each other to show that they're 'somewhat common' too. For once in Indian politics, it has become fashionable to be ordinary.

Ba adab, ba mulhaiza, hoshiyar. Zill-e-ilahi, Shahenshah-e-Hind, raunaq afroz ho rahe hain! (Be respectful, be mindful, be careful. His Royal Highness, the Emperor of India, is gracing us with his presence.) More than half a decade after the abolition of princely states, Indian politics still functions as an oligarchy, where amplified credentials, size of bungalow, nature of security detail, and length of cavalcade demarcate the ruler from the ruled.

On a lazy afternoon in Lucknow on January 4, therefore, bystanders were nonplussed when Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav drove past them with only four cars in tow. Yadav's cavalcade, eight cars long when he assumed office in March 2012, had swelled to 16 and often 20 in recent months. It was still smaller than predecessor Mayawati's infamous 35-car procession that sometimes included three suvs carrying mobile jammers and three ambulances. In Ranchi, on January 3, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren ceremoniously discarded the siren on his car. In Jaipur, new Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje graciously refused to move into the official bungalow. In Raipur, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh announced that he and his ministers will no longer be given customary gun salutes. If a litmus test was needed for the impact of the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) victory in Delhi, it can be found in how political leaders across the land are now falling over each other to show that they're 'somewhat common' too. For once in Indian politics, it has become fashionable to be ordinary.

This belated urge of very important people to shed VIP-dom is the tip of the iceberg. A lot more is happening below the surface as political parties reorient themselves to counter the 'AAP Effect' in the run-up to the 2014 General Elections. They are worried that Kejriwal's merry band may be a game-changer with their anti-politics message that harnesses the power of the underdog-the middle-class working man who had felt like a spectator in the country's larger political rumblings, and the intellectual observer who is willing to mutate from cynic to mutineer.

"The Aam Aadmi Party has involved a lot of people who the traditional parties did not involve. We're going to learn from that and do a better job than anybody in the country to involve people in ways you can't even imagine," Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi said at his party's headquarters on December 8. "We're taking Aam Aadmi Party seriously after Delhi," concurred former BJP president Nitin Gadkari. "Our volunteers will visit each and every house to increase contact with the people." Even Arun Jaitley, BJP's savvy leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, admitted there were "lessons to be learnt" from AAP's success.

Psephologists suggest that at least 100 seats that were decisively tilting towards BJP and regional parties are no longer 'safe'. AAP is expected to contest over 300 Lok Sabha seats across 20 states, including all 26 in BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's Gujarat and all 80 in Uttar Pradesh. Approximately 200 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats are considered urban. Of the 725 million total electorate in 2014, nearly 150 million are first-time voters, which is statistically Kejriwal's strongest vote bank.

This fear of the known has sparked off copycat policies and decisions, ranging from cutting perks to offering subsidies, while AAP's membership numbers swell at an unprecedented rate-from a few hundred to tens of thousands in cities from Chandigarh to Chennai and Mumbai to Kolkata. In Lucknow, the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) is so rattled that it has asked its cadres to wear a traditional red cap at public functions, instead of the staple white Gandhi topi, which has now been appropriated by Kejriwal's 'Main Hoon Aam Aadmi' (I'm the common man) legend.

Rise of the new candidate

But political parties are not worried only about the emergence of aap as a direct rival. They know that the spirit of Delhi may not be easy to replicate in other cities. Here, Kejriwal's party had a strong structure in place. Factors such as Anna Hazare's Jan Lokpal movement of 2011 and the Delhi gang-rape agitation of 2012 had charged a furious electorate. More than the threat of AAP itself, politicians are losing sleep over the clamour for clean, committed, no-frills, no-perks leaders that the party has managed to create. Any deviation from what is perceived as the straight and narrow is now being questioned-be it extravagant offices with air-conditioners in abundance or five-star junkets to "study" the Amazon rainforest. Traditional parties weighed down by years of historical baggage are being forced to contend with the rise of the Outsiders.

"By coming to power in Delhi, AAP has challenged the political structure within our own party," says a senior BJP leader. "They've shown that our traditional forms of campaigning may be redundant. That the need of the hour is to tap into a new army of professionals who are willing to align with us and to integrate them better into our system." BJP, for example, has roughly one million part-time volunteers who may not be members of the party but are committed enough to spread its message either through door-to-door visits or online. "These people were on the periphery of the party. We are now changing our strategy to empower them," the BJP leader says.

But more significant is the realisation of competitive myopia (to borrow a marketing term) in a transformed political landscape. BJP and Congress are aware that what they considered their core strength-the bloated, khadi-clad loyalist who has won from the same constituency two or three times-may now be their biggest liability. That these are exactly the kind of people the public now wants to defeat. Imagine an average first-time voter harbouring deep antipathy towards the political class. Imagine him growing up in a constituency where the legislator has been in power for over a decade. Will this voter choose the same candidate again, no matter how deeply connected he may be in the area's local politics? Or will she want a new, younger, more dynamic alternative? These are the fundamental questions that political parties are being forced to ask themselves.

"Kejriwal has redefined what an ideal candidate should be by pitching the quintessential old-timer who speaks like a politician against the young professional with a local presence who talks in the language of the voters," says a senior Congress leader. AAP is asking political parties to tick certain boxes before fielding a winnable candidate. Boxes such as, 'no corruption charges', 'clean record', 'educational qualifications', and 'local understanding', which have rarely been ticked before during the candidate selection process.

Kejriwal smartly matches his idealism with a politicians' instinct, as was evident during the Delhi campaign, where religion, caste and class subtly played a part. He fielded Muslim candidates in constituencies dominated by Muslims, and his party won 8 of the 13 seats dominated by Kejriwal's Bania community. "Clever selection of candidates is the only way to counter the AAP effect," says the Congress leader. "We must be seen as doing the right thing."

New, unified support base

A clear example of aap's growing significance can be found in Mumbai, where the Jan Lokpal movement, the anti-rape agitation, and the India Against Corruption drive had so far had only a limited impact. The most telling reminder of Mumbai's frostiness towards the happenings in other parts of the country, particularly its great modern-day rival Delhi, was when only few hundred supporters had turned up for Anna Hazare's grand rally at the Bandra-Kurla Complex in December 2011. AAP's national executive member Mayank Gandhi says thousands of people are enrolling with the party in the city every day in the aftermath of the Delhi elections. Such is the response that they expect to cross 1 million members in the state by the end of January.

This surge has the ruling Congress-ncp government worried. Emboldened and perturbed, perhaps in equal measure, Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam wrote to Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan threatening to launch an agitation if power tariffs in the state were not reduced. Electricity rates are now being cut by 15 to 20 per cent. Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar of NCP, allegedly involved in the 2009 irrigation scam, has, in the meantime, turned a new leaf by promising to return the Rs 27 lakh spent by the state PWD on his official bungalow.

Several other governments are feeling the heat of the groundswell of pro-Aam Aadmi sentiment. In Bhopal, AAP has opened a small office in business hub Maharana Pratap Nagar. One of the rooms has a giant portrait of Kejriwal with the slogan: Niklo bahar makanon se, jang lado beimanon se (Get out of your homes, wage a war against the corrupt). Among prominent citizens who have gravitated towards the party are former state lokayukta Arun Gurtoo and retired irs officer Narendranath Trivedi. Little wonder then that Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan went to the Marinador-Ambar road in Vidhisha for a surprise visit on January 4. On finding the road potholed due to sub-standard raw material, he immediately suspended the region's executive engineer Yogendra Kumar, assistant engineer Dinesh Kumar Barala and sub-engineer D.K. Sahu.

In Raipur, Chhattisgarh, where the aap office has run out of membership forms after a sudden surge of recruitments, Chief Minister Raman Singh had a meeting with BJP MLAs on January 6, when he told them they should live like "aam aadmis" (common men). Raman Singh has also launched a toll free anti-corruption helpline for people to lodge complaints against government officials who ask for bribes. In Kerala, where AAP had formed a unit in February last year, and has a functioning executive committee led by Manoj Padmanabhan, a 45-year-old engineering graduate with an MBA in finance, the likes on the party's Facebook page have suddenly started to climb, hitting the 197,000 mark on January 6. Though aap is yet to recruit a leader of stature in the state, senior leader Prashant Bhushan has been wooing former chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan of CPI(M). Bhushan, who represents Achuthanandan in various anti-corruption cases, called on him on December 31 at his Cantonment House residence, purportedly for "blessings and guidance".

In Gujarat, where AAP members have risen sharply from 5,000 to 100,000 in December, the state BJP is refusing to acknowledge its growing influence. "Not to react is our strategy," says a BJP leader. "It's the only way any government or party led by a strong leader should behave."

The key trend across most of the states, however, is that an amorphous, floating, middle-class voter, disillusioned with political leaders but temporarily aligning with a party on local issues, may now be gravitating towards an identifiable Third Force.

What lies ahead

In the midst of these happy tidings, one place where AAP is getting a taste of how squalid traditional politics can be is Tamil Nadu. On January 7, the party's local unit had barely finished celebrating Kejriwal's Delhi victory when an internal split between the state Treasurer Anand Ganesh and state Secretary Balakrishnan turned into a public spat. The two are now squabbling over which of them is the "real" AAP.

Though fulfilling their ambition of being a factor across the country will not be easy, there is little doubt that the momentum is with the Aam Aadmi movement. In an India Today Group-C Voter Opinion Poll across 24 cities on January 7, 75 per cent of the respondents said they want a chief minister like Kejriwal in their state. What's more, 53 per cent believed that aap will either "get a majority" or "put up a tough fight" in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections (see box).

India's diversity, caste equations, social engineering, and parliamentary structure may not allow something as dramatic in such a short period of time. But the idea of empowering the aam aadmi, if not the Aam Aadmi Party, is certain to play a part when the post-2014 destiny of India is written.

Kejriwal had said in his address to the Delhi Assembly on January 2 that politicians had dared the aam aadmi to fight elections and enter the legislature and frame laws. "Those leaders forgot that the aam aadmi tills the land, netas don't. Aam aadmi goes to the moon, netas don't. Left with no option, aam aadmi decided we will fight elections." Delhi has been won. But is this the end, or the start of something extraordinary?

Ba mulhaiza, hoshiyar!

With Jatin Gandhi, Bhavna Vij-Aurora, Ashish Misra, Lemuel Lall, Rohit Parihar, Krishna Kumar, J. Binduraj, Uday Mahurkar and R. Ramasubramanian

Follow the writer on Twitter @_kunal_pradhan.

Reproduced From India Today. © 2014. LMIL. All rights reserved.