An Aam Aadmi at the Imperial

01 November, 2013

ON 23 AUGUST, the Rotary Club of Delhi Midtown, one of the many local chapters of the Rotary network in the city, hosted an interaction with Arvind Kejriwal, the founder of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), at The Imperial hotel in Delhi. The Rotary is a network of associations of businessmen, traders and community leaders that are in turn affiliated to the Rotary International, the umbrella body that defines its guiding principle as a commitment to community service.

Since the launch of his party in November last year, Kejriwal, in the run up to the state assembly elections for the national capital, has been on a relentless campaign trail across the city, meeting resident welfare associations of various middle-class neighbourhoods, organising rallies in slums, and has even addressed students at the Indian Institute of Technology. The party has been able to build a massive volunteer base, reported to number over 150,000, and claims to have generated funds to the tune of Rs 16 crore. It has also adopted innovative marketing strategies, such as putting up banners on the backs of thousands of auto-rickshaws thanks to the support of the rickshaw unions.

Until very recently, it appeared that the AAP would draw most of its support from those on the lower rungs of the social ladder. For one, their campaign has been built around the narrative of the current government’s poor record of providing basic services in the city, like water, electricity and healthcare—issues that have historically resonated with the poor. The party’s election symbol is a broom, perhaps selected for its working-class symbolism, intended to rally the numerically significant base of the city’s slum-dwellers to its cause. But more importantly, Delhi is a city where the affluent and the middle classes have long respected patronage and old lineages, which are controlled by the two big parties—the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. They see Kejriwal as a political upstart with a brash attitude, given to raking up controversial issues. That he floated a political party on the back of an anti-corruption movement, which was supposed to have no political ambitions to begin with, may have led many to retrospectively question his political agenda.

The well-heeled, well-connected members of the Rotary were curious to hear what Kejriwal would have to say to them. Daniell’s Tavern, the venue for the event, is the Indian cuisine restaurant at The Imperial, a colonial-era luxury hotel, which also houses the only Chanel store in Delhi. The meeting was preceded by a lunch during which Kejriwal interacted with the members. After the initial announcements pertaining to the matters of the club, including an upcoming retreat to the Aman Bagh resort in Rajasthan and details of their community service activities, the president called upon one of the office bearers to perform the introductions. This speaker extended a rather loquacious welcome to Kejriwal, extolling his anti-corruption movement and then requesting everyone gathered to give him a standing ovation. There was a huge round of applause and about a third of the guests, mostly women, stood up for Kejriwal.

Starting off in English, before switching to Hindi, Kejriwal offered justifications for his shift from activism to electoral politics, stating that because of the insensitive attitude of the government to the demands of adopting the anti-corruption bill, and because of repeated taunts by Congress leaders like Digvijaya Singh, challenging protestors to join politics if they really wanted a change, he was left with little choice.

He took a dig at the issue of corruption, as it affected the interests of businessmen and traders. He extolled the country’s businessmen and expressed empathy for how they had been subject to pressure because of corrupt politicians, carefully distinguishing between “ethical” businessmen who want a clean government and big businesses that are hand-in-glove with government officials in scandals such as the allocation of telecom spectrum and coal blocks. He then turned to his pet subjects, like the failings of the Sheila Dixit-led Congress government in providing basic services, and the poor conditions of government schools and hospitals. He decried the fact that organisations like the Rotary had been filling crucial gaps that should have been the government’s responsibility.

He sprinkled his speech with allegations of misgovernance around the city: that in the neighbourhood of Sunder Nagri, the government had supposedly spent Rs 60 lakh on building fountains when there was acute water shortage in the area; that the government artificially inflated electricity rates in order to aid the Anil Ambani-owned BSES; and that officials of the Delhi Jal Board were hand in glove with the water tanker mafia to divert the city’s water for private commercial selling. He backed the last claim with figures indicating that Delhi, which supplies 250 litres of water per day per capita, is much better off than Germany and the UK, at 150 litres per capita. He cited government figures that claimed that 210 million gallons of water were lost every day, and quipped that if that had been the case, Delhi’s streets would have been perennially flooded.

His address, with its undertone of sarcasm and mockery, kept the audience engaged, but what really grabbed their interest were Kejriwal’s allegations of covert electoral strategies in both the Congress and the BJP—though some of these sounded delusional. He claimed that the two parties were in a secret alliance to keep the Congress in power in the state government, and that the BJP intentionally maintained a weak state unit. He didn’t offer any explanation as to why he believed this was so, or what sense it would make for the parties. While the audience might well have been sceptical about the veracity of this claim, they certainly seemed to derive a sense of vicarious pleasure out of Kejriwal’s accusatory rhetoric, as he went on to allege that there was a conspiracy between the parties to ensure that the BJP would direct its attacks not on the Congress, but on the AAP. He then declared that the BJP didn’t have the wherewithal or the guts to take on the Congress in the state. The audience, most of whom belonged to the BJP’s traditional voter base—businessmen and traders from upper castes—nonetheless cheered along, seeming eager to mark their disgust with both parties.

Kejriwal concluded by making an appeal for funds, saying that his party’s loss would mean a lost chance for people to start expunging corruption from the system. This time, the standing ovation was near-unanimous. One Rotary member called for public pledges of contributions to the AAP, and proceeded to announce a donation of Rs 1 lakh. Another followed with a pledge of Rs 50,000, and a third, with Rs 20,000. By this time, one of the senior members intervened and said that this was not in keeping with the club’s ethos and that interested members could make their contribution in private. The president thanked the speaker and guests and the meeting was called to an end.

Whether the audience at the event will vote for him or not remains unclear, but Kejriwal did succeed in charming them, and eliciting a display of enthusiasm for what he represented. And in fact, there seems to be a trend across the board of affluent voters—who have been his foremost sceptics—beginning to see him as a viable means through which to raise controversial issues, and target corrupt politicians. Much of his rhetoric comes across as mere boastfulness, as he holds forth on what he is against without offering much clarity on how he will set it right. But in the current political milieu, with near unprecedented corruption allegations against the current government, both at the state and national level, and a less than impressive challenge by the leading opposition, this rhetoric seems to be attracting considerable interest, at least for now, while the AAP remains an untested party when it comes to governance.

In India’s electoral history, ethnicity has been the dominant mode of alignment, and any new party that has successfully established a social base in the last few decades has done so on the basis of identity, whether of caste or religion. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has perhaps been a rare exception. Given this precedent, what Kejriwal is attempting is rather remarkable, and if he is successful in garnering even a respectable vote share, it will come as a sea change for local politics in India: a political party that is not built on the lines of caste and ethnicity, and which would have risen to its feet without resorting to corrupt practices of election financing.