'Common man' makes political waves

Delhi's newly sworn-in chief minister, Mr Arvind Kejriwal, has still to prove himself and will kick off his tenure by seeking a vote of confidence for his minority government on Thursday.

Nevertheless, the leader of the fledgling, anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has already changed the dynamics of India's general election this year, which, until now, had been seen as a personality contest between the Congress party's Rahul Gandhi and Mr Narendra Modi of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The two parties were left calculating the fallout of their loss in last month's Delhi state election to the AAP, which has announced its intention to contest the general election due by May.

"They (AAP) won the second-largest number of votes in a state election. It would be foolish if that wasn't taken into account (by parties)," said BJP spokesman Nirmala Sitaraman. "At the same time, we have to see how the new Delhi government performs."

Mr Kerjriwal had launched his party - aam aadmi means common man in Hindi - in November 2012 amid growing anger, especially among middle-class Indians, at a slew of corruption cases.

In the Delhi election, the AAP won 28 of the 70 assembly seats, trouncing the Congress, which had eight, and stopping an outright win by the BJP, whose 31-seat tally is five short of a majority.

Political analysts believe the AAP, which has already begun looking for "honest" candidates to field in many of India's 530 parliamentary constituencies, can do some real damage to the older parties even if it were to end up contesting in only a limited number of seats.

"The threat the AAP poses is more in the urban rather than the rural areas. So the Congress can be a little less worried than the BJP," said Professor Sanjay Kumar of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The BJP's core voters are in the urban areas, while the Congress' main backers are the rural poor.

With opinion polls having given Mr Modi the edge over Mr Gandhi in the coming election, the BJP reckoned that it would defeat the Congress to become the single largest party in Parliament, allowing it to form a ruling coalition with other parties. "Earlier, the BJP was only concerned about the Congress," said Prof Kumar.

Since last month's state elections, the media limelight has been on Mr Kejriwal, a social activist turned politician.

His "common man" ways - he took the subway to his own swearing-in - attracted a following, and some have joined his party. One of them is Mr Remo Fernandes, a popular singer in Goa state, who wrote on Facebook: "For the first time in my life, I believe in a political party."

In Haryana state, 5,000 people signed up as AAP volunteers, while a handful of politicians from different parties have publicly expressed interest in joining the AAP.

Against the Congress, the AAP is planning to take the fight to the first family of Indian politics. A prominent AAP member, Mr Kumar Vishwas, will challenge Mr Rahul Gandhi in the Gandhi family seat of Amethi.

Both the Congress and the BJP have started taking steps to ward off the AAP advance.

On Dec 18, the Congress-led coalition government passed a tough anti-corruption Bill, a key AAP demand. It is also preparing to take strong action against those involved in a Mumbai housing scam in which apartments meant for war widows ended up being sold to top bureaucrats, defence officers and politicians at ridiculously low prices.

As for the BJP, the party is now talking about giving tickets only to clean candidates.

Both parties are also assessing the popularity of their own MPs.

But the AAP is racing against time as it tries to move out of Delhi, an urban melting pot, to other parts of the country where people are known to vote strictly along caste and religious lines or where powerful regional leaders hold sway.

"It is still very early for the party to do well or make its presence felt in so many constituencies. I think they would be strategic, contesting more in urban and less in rural areas. It would be a mixed strategy," said Prof Kumar.

Said Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst Sudhir Panwar: "If people want major changes, they will not look at the BJP or Congress. It will be the AAP, which is seen as a vehicle of change. But we will have to watch and see how it performs (in Delhi)."

At least the BJP has sniffed at suggestions of a three-cornered fight.

Said its spokesman, Ms Sitaram: "Due proportion has to be given... Mr Modi belongs to the principal opposition party with years of developmental achievements to show for, while the other (Mr Gandhi) is the vice-president of the oldest party (in India)."


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