Politician or pop star?

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AamAadmi Party sees spectacular success in the Delhi elections, but leader Arvind Kejriwal needs to sustain the momentum, says Alys Francis

The AamAadmi Party (AAP) left many in India stunned when they managed to win more than a third of the seats in Delhi’s December election – just a year after the party was founded off the back of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption protest.

AAP’s leader ArvindKejriwal has now upped the ante, forming government in Delhi with the support of the Congress party and vowing to contest the 2014 federal election.

The question on everyone’s lips now is: can AAP maintain its spectacular success in the federal poll?

Pledging to “sweep” the corruption out of India’s political corridors, AAP secured a spectacular 28 seats in the 4 December election, while the ruling Congress party plummeted to 8 and the Bhartiya Janata Party won 31 seats in the 70-member assembly.

None of the established political parties predicted AAP would do so well. Congress state president JP Aggarwal was recently quote in the Hindustan Times as saying, “I admit that we underestimated the strength of AAP in this election. Well, we thought that they were greenhorns in electoral politics. They do not have any strong political background.”

AAP continued to surprise during negotiations to end the hung-assembly. The new party was invited to form government after BJP refused.  Having promised voters AAP would not join hands with any other party, it was expected that Kejriwal would also refuse, and Delhi would be forced to hold fresh elections. Instead, Kejriwal decided to put the decision to the people, calling for Delhiites to tell AAP if they wanted them to form government via social media, emails, phone calls and numerous public meetings.

With AAP operating like no other political party in India, it’s difficult to predict how successful they might be in the federal election.  Regardless of this, there are several key challenges that AAP needs to overcome in order to maintain its stellar trajectory.

ORF political expert SantishMisra believes the two biggest hurdles for AAP will be fulfilling the promises the party made during the election campaign and sustaining the momentum it has enjoyed from the anti-corruption movement.

But, like many political watchers in India, he believes AAP’s success in Delhi could actually work against the party.

“People in Delhi will be exposed to their function, operation, and governance and whether they come out successful in fulfilling the promises made during the campaign and in their manifesto,” he says.

The suggestion that AAP doesn’t have the experience or knowledge to govern has been levelled at the freshly minted party from many within India’s major parties. AAP will potentially have to rule Delhi for four to five months in the lead up to the national poll, expected to be held around May.

Fuelling these concerns is the fact that AAP made several promises to voters during the campaign that from the outside appear difficult to keep, including cutting power tariffs by 50 percent and providing every household in Delhi with 700 litres of free water.

Misra said AAP’s performance in Delhi would be closely scrutinised, and not just by India’s voracious media.

“Citizens will obviously demand they fulfil these promises,” Misra says.

“You form the government this moment, people expect you to start performing the very next moment,” Misra adds.

He also believes AAP’s supports are a difficult lot to keep happy.

“AAP’s success is largely based on support drawn from the lowest sections of society… and from the middle classes who are fed up with day-to-day governance delivery not being up to the mark. This section also gets disillusioned very quickly, so AAP doesn’t have a permanent voter base,” he said.

But Kejriwal has brushed off suggestions AAP will crash and burn in the driver’s seat.

“Our manifesto has been carefully thought out after public consultation. It is practical and implementable. Congress has not been able to fulfill its 1998 manifesto, so why are they are challenging us? It is our priority and we will achieve it,” he was quoted as saying in the Times of India.

AAP national secretary Pankaj Gupta was equally optimistic that the party – whose members include a former journalist, Supreme Court lawyer, engineer, Delhi University professor and social worker — would be able to tackle the governance process.

“We are here because the current generations of politicians are not able to run the government. If they have experience perhaps that experience is not needed. We want to run with a fresh set of people who have the courage to take strong action, motivation to create a country which is the dream of all of us,” Gupta said, speaking from AamAadmi’s headquarters in Delhi the day before the election.

Can they keep their clean image?

Founded on 3 August, 2012 by some of Anna Hazare’s closest supporters in the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement, AAP’s main platform has been to clean up Indian politics – the party’s symbol, a broom, is meant to send this message home. Hazare, on the other hand, has maintained his disdain for politics and separated himself from AAP.

AAP set out to show it was different from the major parties, that on a national level have been beset by corruption scandals in recent years, by publishing a list of all donations to the party on its website.

During the election campaign it was the subject of a hidden-camera sting by an online news outlet that claimed to show candidates accepting unregistered donations. AAP later disputed the claims, saying the tapes were heavily edited and its candidates were clean.

But Misra says AAP will have a tough time maintaining its corruption-free image.

“Until you are not exposed to power, you can afford to be honest. When you get into power, then the basic instinct of greed overcomes. I would not be surprised if their clean image starts denting after six months or a year or two,” he says.

But he believes that regardless of what happens in the national election, the outstanding success of AAP signals a “turning point” in Indian politics.

“AAP has made the established political class conscious of their deficiencies. They know that if they don’t take the AAP way, they’re going to be eliminated,” he says.

“Established political parties are bound to take note and they will have to focus on the grass roots,” adds Misra.

Misra says the passing of the Lokpal anti-corruption bill was evidence of this.

“On 18 and 19of December, you saw this amazing convergence between the political parties to pass the Lokpal bill.  There is no way this would have been passed without AAP,” he says.“If AAP had not won so many seats in Delhi the established parties still would have remained reluctant and ignored it.”

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