Aam Aadmi is still small compared with mainstream parties, but a strong showing would catapult Mr. Kejriwal into the political big leagues and make him a kingmaker in Parliament if no other party wins enough seats to form a Government on its own…His populist policies and confrontational approach have turned off some among the urban middle class responsible for his State election victory, analysts say, but it may have consolidated his support among poorer Indians…
During his short stint as the top elected official of the State of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal used the street-fighting tactics he learned as an anti corruption activist to take on the police force and federal Government. Next in his sights: India’s national political establishment. The graft-busting protester-turned-politician and his Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, party kicked off its campaign recently for parliamentary elections, pledging to take on India’s oligarchs and the parties they support. “This time we have to throw out these parties and the common man will come to power,” Mr. Kejriwal told supporters at a rally in Haryana, his first foray outside his stronghold in Delhi.
Since a surprise victory in State elections in December, Mr. Kejriwal has thumbed his nose at mainstream political parties and big business and in the process won a substantial following among Indian voters angry with the privilege and misbehavior of the country’s political, corporate and bureaucratic elite. More than 10 million people have signed on, according to the party, which is just over 16 months old. Corruption has become a defining issue in India’s national elections, which are due by the end of May. A string of high-profile graft scandals in 2011 brought thousands of people to the streets in protest, creating the foundation for the Aam Aadmi Party. Since then, the party’s political rivals have latched on to the anti corruption theme. The incumbent Congress party was scrambling to bring new measures to fight corruption before the vote, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which is the front-runner, has portrayed its prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi as a graft-busting administrator.
Aam Aadmi is still small compared with mainstream parties, but a strong showing would catapult Mr. Kejriwal into the political big leagues and make him a kingmaker in Parliament if no other party wins enough seats to form a Government on its own. A former tax official, Mr. Kejriwal won broad appeal by rejecting the trappings of power. As Chief Minister, he turned down an official red beacon car and instead drove in his own Maruti-Suzuki subcompact. He also declined to move into a fancy official bungalow. Mr. Kejriwal’s speeches paint a grim picture of the inner workings of the world’s largest democracy, but one that rings true with many of his listeners.
He describes a country in which politicians fly around in helicopters owned by wealthy industrialists, addressing rallies funded by the same group of men, who, in return, dictate the country’s policies, muzzle the media and reap vast profits at the cost of ordinary Indians. In particular, he has targeted Mukesh Ambani,India’s richest man and chairman ofReliance Industries Ltd., a conglomerate involved in everything from oil refining and infrastructure to grocery stores. “Whoever forms the Government, the control will be in the hands of Mukesh Ambani,” Mr. Kejriwal said at his rally in Haryana. “The Aam Aadmi Party is the only party that has the courage to challenge Mukesh Ambani, to challenge this system.”
In a statement recently, Reliance Industries denied all charges against the company and Mr. Ambani. “The continued tirade of baseless allegations being made by AAP against us appears to be instigated by vested interests,” it said. During Mr. Kejriwal’s short tenure as Chief Minister, he convulsed politics in the capital. In January, he staged a sit-in — sleeping overnight in the street and holding Government meetings in his car — to protest what he called corruption and dereliction of duty by the capital’s federally controlled police. Delhi’s police have declined to respond to those accusations.
Then in February, Mr. Kejriwal quit after other political parties blocked his efforts to pass a strict state anti corruption law. Mr. Kejriwal said his rivals stymied the law because they were afraid they would be exposed; they in turn denounced Mr. Kejriwal as an attention-seeker unfit to govern. His populist policies and confrontational approach have turned off some among the urban middle class responsible for his State election victory, analysts say, but it may have consolidated his support among poorer Indians.
“Kejriwal’s style of governance has triggered anxiety among the upper middle classes and elite who earlier supported the party,” said Shiv Viswanathan, a New Delhi-based sociologist. But “common people see him as someone who is solving their everyday problems and is not afraid to take on a system that they feel squeezed by.” Indeed, in an opinion poll released by an Indian television channel recently, 59 per cent of respondents in Delhi state said Aam Aadmi would return to power if the state assembly vote were held now, and 49 per cent believe Mr. Kejriwal’s resignation strengthened his prospects in national elections. Mr. Kejriwal says he hasn’t yet decided whether he will run for Parliament, but some of his supporters are already talking about him as a prime-ministerial candidate.
Ram Kumar Kanshal, a 60-year-old farmer in Harayana, says he has trekked through three dozen villages to garner support for Aam Aadmi, also known as AAP. “People are following news of AAP on TV as if it’s the Mahabharat or Ramayana,” Mr. Kanshal said, referring to television serials that were popular two decades ago. He has already publicly sparred with Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate and the front-runner to becomeIndia’s next Prime Minister. In a recent televised news conference, Mr. Kejriwal read a letter to Mr. Modi accusing of him of being under the thumb of big business. The BJP denied that allegation. Nirmala Sitharaman, a spokeswoman for the party, said Mr. Kejriwal had adopted a “spit and run” approach to politics. “His technique is to tarnish everyone else’s image without giving any evidence,” Ms. Sitharaman said. “He is a rabble rouser who revels in uttering big names to get attention from the media and the voting public.”
The BJP is hoping to oust the ruling Congress party which, after 10 years in power, is facing anti-incumbency sentiment among voters and is reeling from a series of corruption scandals. Mr. Kejriwal’s rise could pose a threat to the BJP, however, by pulling urban middle-class votes away from Mr. Modi. At the same time, the AAP’s populist image could undermine the left-leaning Congress party. When he was in power, Mr. Kejriwal increased electricity subsidies and cut water rates, bolstering his popularity among working-class voters. Congress party spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala said Mr. Kejriwal’s party was seeking to “replicate and copy” Congress’s common man-focused political philosophy, a strategy he says won’t work. Some observers disagree. “AAP will pick up support in the broad left constituency, which includes India’s underclasses who didn’t benefit from economic reforms of the 90s,” said Ashok Malik, a Delhi-based political analyst.
—Krishna Pokharel contributed to this article.