Inside the Aam Aadmi Party
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Under an unforgiving afternoon sun, a small band of eclectic allies takes to Delhi's by-lanes. A software engineer, a floor supervisor, a final-year student and a shopkeeper. They walk house to house, spend a few minutes in each, tick off names and scribble comments in a thick binder.
A wide age gap separates them; they come from across the country; and no two are dressed alike, except for their headgear, which is a Gandhi cap with four words in a big print, 'Main Hoon Aam Aadmi (I am the common man)'.
This group is canvassing in Central Delhi's Jor Bagh, with the task of unseating Delhi's hat-trick Chief Minister—Sheila Dikshit of the Congress. They are spearheading the campaign of the man who has threatened to change the way politics is done in the country. And, given the way he is going about it, in the heart of India's power centre, coming out of nowhere, he has managed to at least hint at the possibility. He is Arvind Kejriwal, and this is the Aam Aadmi Party.
"It is very simple. The bigger they are, the harder they fall," says Rajesh Dwivedi, a software engineer from Mumbai, who quit his job in the IT industry to volunteer for AAP. "Dikshit wins in Jor Bagh only because nobody of stature contests elections against her. Our tallest leader Kejriwal will take her on."
R K Chauhan, who ran a shop till two months ago, says, "We have been going house to house for more than a month now and out of every 10 houses, at least seven welcome us openly. We have seen the BJP do nothing here but take out small rallies."
The team also includes Raghav Reddy, an NRI from Houston, Texas, who has given up a 15-year career; Nayan Jain from Nagpur, whose parents believe he is in Delhi visiting a friend; and Rohan Kumar Paul, from Bhubaneswar, who has been banished from home for giving up his stable job.
They say they are doing this for free. "We are not paid any salary and don't expect anything in return, except the feeling that we have done something for our country. Most of us were part of Anna Hazare's movement for the Lokpal and have now joined Arvind," says Reddy.
He is also among those tasked with uploading profiles of AAP candidates on the Internet.
Contesting all the 70 seats in Delhi, the party has a volunteer corps including 7,000 primary members and at least 1 lakh part-timers. "The 7,000 volunteers are spread across all 70 constituencies and are backed by remaining volunteers. They go door to door, put up hoardings and banners and court voters at all times. This corps is a 24/7 operation," says the party's chief spokesperson, Manish Sisodia.
A 'volunteer secretariat' manages the volunteers. The Delhi recruits report to Dileep Pandey, an IT solutions expert who once called Hong Kong his home. Dileep was part of the India Against Corruption campaign and now works full time for AAP.
Dinesh Waghela, who raised AAP units in Goa and Gujarat, leads the volunteers from outside Delhi. A successful businessman and Osho follower, Waghela once worked with Baba Ramdev but joined AAP earlier this year.
A unit dubbed the "furlough team" gathers information on the party's prospects. Comprising members from states outside Delhi, this team's task is to gather feedback on people's impression of AAP. "They travel on buses, the metro and visit popular spots and strike up conversations. They never let on that they are part of AAP," says a source.
At the heart of AAP's campaign strategy is the target of visiting each and every household in Delhi by the end of September. Delhi's population is 1.7 crore.
If this seems improbable, they tell you why it is not. In the New Delhi constituency, there are about 32,000 households. In the past month and 10 days, the yellow folders wielded by AAP volunteers and activists show, 21,000 homes have been covered.
"Monday through Friday we start canvassing only after 6 pm as most people are out for work. But on weekends we work all day," Reddy says.
When they visit a voter, they list her name, mobile number, e-mail id, whether she wants to become a party member or to donate, and if she is willing to convince family and neighbours to vote.
Sisodia, himself the AAP candidate from Patparganj, says the party has no money for a big campaign. "We work only on donations, and each and every donation is uploaded on our website. Without our volunteers, there would not be an AAP," he says.
Gopal Mohan, in charge of the New Delhi campaign and a graduate from IIT-Delhi, believes the party's chances are improving each day. "Of every 10 houses we visit, seven are open to voting for us and five actually donate money," Mohan says.
Riding on Autorickshaws
If the personal approach gets them donations, voters and, in some cases, even members, for sheer visibility, AAP hit upon an ingenious idea—using Delhi's omnipresent autorickshaws.
A few months ago, AAP began putting advertisements on autorickshaws slamming claims made by the Congress and BJP. If the Congress was peeved enough for Dikshit's political secretary Pawan Khera to write an open letter to Kejriwal questioning the content of the advertisements—inviting some derision for the CM —the BJP and Congress are now following the autorickshaw act.
"Autorickshaws are present across Delhi and penetrate by-lanes and colonies that cars and jeeps cannot. Lakhs of commuters depend on them. One cannot help but notice the ads," Sisodia notes. Autorickshaws also cut across Delhi's sharp class and income divides, used as these are by all sections of the society.
Admits a senior BJP leader, "The ads are gaining ground. We have advised all auto unions which support us to carry them."
However, autorickshaw drivers have not lent just their vehicles to AAP, but a growing number also their votes.
Originally from Bihar, Partap Singh came to Delhi 15 years ago in search of a job. "I finally started driving a rickshaw for steady income. I have been doing this for six years and barely get by," he says.
This reporter met Singh on a short 5-km commute.
After a few minutes of silence, Singh asked, "So the elections are coming, who will you vote for?"
I said nothing and shrugged.
"This Congress has ruined us all. Look at the inflation, corruption and nepotism," he said.
I asked about the BJP.
"They have been watching for 15 years. They have no leader of repute and their policies are as stunted as the Congress's."
So what option do we have?
"The only option here is Arvind Kejriwal," Singh said. "He is honest, he is a crusader and he can change politics itself. He has promised that the people will be the chief minister and he will only facilitate change." He also derides me for suggesting that I won't vote. "Everyone must vote. This is the most important election for Delhi."
That Singh believes a vote can make a difference is remarkable. Before the conversation began, he called autorickshaw drivers like himself "the most visible yet invisible lot in Delhi".
If conversations like this are occurring in many of Delhi's autos everyday, Sisodia claims the change is coming from within. "We did court the auto lobby since they are victims of police harassment, but it was their idea to actively campaign for us. The AAP ads they run are free of cost," he claims. Autorickshaw drivers confirm this.
For a more permanent campaign strategy, AAP struck upon another idea—the "human banner". Not being part of the government like either the Congress or the BJP, which controls the municipal corporations, waging a hoarding or banner war with either was always going to be tough for the party.
So they decided to go in for "human banners", such as Vikas Kumar. "We have been given a list of flyovers and foot overbridges. Every two hours or so, we take our banner that measures about 8 ft by 4 ft and stand there, hanging it down the side. If a policeman asks us to move, we take it down and come back when he leaves," Kumar says.
"We had such banners on both sides of a flyover a few weeks ago and Sheila Dikshit's cavalcade drove under it. I was standing above and could see the CM open the window and crane her neck out to see the ads," Gopal claims. "The ads were taken down 30 minutes later. But we won that war."
The Impersonal Show
With its campaign theme being cleaning politics, the party claims its decision-making is transparent and far from personality-driven. There are not even the usual designations that mark a more formal party structure, such as president, vice-president, general secretaries or secretaries.
The Delhi unit's ultimate decision-making body is the Political Affairs Committee or PAC, comprising nine members—Kejriwal, Sisodia, Sanjay Singh, Kumar Vishwas, Yogendra Yadav, Prashant Bhushan, Ilyas Azmi, Pankaj Gupta and Gopal Rai.
"It finalises candidates and also approves all major campaign strategies," Kejriwal says.
Decisions are taken by consensus, AAP says. "Everybody says exactly what is on their mind," according to Sisodia.
Then there are the screening and campaign committees, with eight and 15 members respectively. "Every candidate's name that goes to the PAC is first cleared by the screening committee. Each applicant is interviewed, their ideas and agendas fleshed out and their documents scrutinised," says Bibhav Kumar of AAP.
One of the first candidates to get approval was Surinder Singh, a former NSG commando who had sustained injuries in the Taj Hotel in Mumbai during the 26/11 attack. Surinder says he was declared unfit for NSG duty after the incident. "The government let me down," Surinder claims. "This pathetic approach to soldiers must change, which is why I joined AAP."
The screening committee also includes a "crack team" that scrutinises every applicant for an AAP ticket. "The investigation team comprises volunteers from outside Delhi, usually from Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh. When a shortlist is prepared, this team investigates candidates' backgrounds," a senior leader says.
The investigation team, usually with just a few members, then builds a profile of each applicant. "They don't admit to being AAP members and quietly go to the applicant's neighbourhood, speak to those around, family if possible and police," an AAP leader says.
Another candidate is Mukesh Hooda, standing from Rohtas Nagar. Once in the Indian Air Force, Hooda left to become an advocate and fights pro bono cases, while Krishan Rathi (Mundka candidate) is a former police constable who quit to join the Lokpal movement two years ago. Saurabh Bhardwaj, fielded from Greater Kailash, is an IT professional.
The Kejriwal Factor
On Wednesday evening last week, Arvind Kejriwal courted voters in Chander Vihar in Nangloi, some 25 km west of Chandni Chowk. "Why should you vote for us? Because we are like you," he said as the 200-strong audience applauded, in an area that has seen few politicians canvass for votes in the last decade.
The AAP founder and national convenor delivers a carefully scripted message which stays the same whether he campaigns in posh South Delhi suburbs, the congested lanes of Old Delhi or the villages that ring the national capital. He packs in a busy day, starting at 7 am for micro public meetings, followed by brainstorming sessions with party leaders, and wrapping up generally with a bigger rally in the evening.
In meeting after meeting, the Lokpal argument comes first. Always. "If the Lokpal Bill is enacted, more than half of the country's politicians will be in Tihar Jail. I vow to you, if voted to power, we will enact a Lokpal within 15 days," Kejriwal says. He then moves on to Delhi's "problems" — including water shortages, inflation and power tariffs. "If you want to change the system, you must vote and bring at least a 100 people with you," he adds.
In fact, therein lies AAP's comfort. "Delhi's voting percentage has hovered between 50 and 55 per cent. But what we have observed is that the people most interested in AAP are those who never vote. We are sure the voting percentage will increase this time and all these votes will come to us," says a senior leader.
Both the Congress and BJP dismiss the AAP allure. "They won't be a factor," says Dikshit. The BJP's Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly, V K Malhotra, insists: "We are not worried about AAP eating into our vote share." According to the two parties, people will reject a party that was started only a year ago. Even so, there are few denying it has come a long way.
Q & A with Arvind Kejriwal
AAP has its roots in the campaign for a Lokpal Bill, where politicians were derided. How have people accepted you in active politics?
I have to admit that the transition to active politics has not been very easy. We have always been about a movement. But our methods or strategies have not changed. We are new to politics but what has helped us is that the dirt and corruption in politics have reached such a level that people have accepted AAP as not just a viable but the only alternative to the Congress and BJP in Delhi. The people are ready to be part of the process to change the entrenched political system.
AAP purports to be different from mainstream political parties. But isn't the party built around Arvind Kejriwal?
Personalities and leadership are important, but in AAP, it is about the decision-making process. I cannot make snap decisions to suit my own needs. Every significant decision is taken through consensus. At best, I can make suggestions.
The Congress and BJP are courting the Poorvanchali electorate. Has AAP made caste-based calculations?
As of now, caste has never been a part of the equation or a problem in our decision-making process. We promise a systemic change and to do that, we have to rid ourselves of such old-world ideas. Moreover, corruption is an issue that affects all sections of society. That said, I believe caste will not play an important role in this particular election.
Does the party have a plan for governance as well?
We have constituted a 32-member panel anchored by Yogendra Yadav to do just that. This policy panel discusses issues that need to be addressed and how to go about it. The panel includes a range of people from diverse backgrounds.
Are you the CM candidate for AAP?
We are not fighting this election to prop up a CM. Earlier, I had requested Kiran Bedi to contest on an AAP ticket and become our CM candidate. No clear decision has been taken yet and the PAC will decide when it is time.
Is Anna Hazare involved with AAP?
We do still speak regularly. But he has made it clear he will not be involved in active politics.
Recent surveys show AAP winning a few seats.
(Laughs) These polls and surveys are a joke and are all fixed. I would like to issue an open challenge to those who conducted the surveys to sit with us and analyse the findings. If they are true, I will quit politics for good. If not, these people should get out of the survey business.