Fresh faces to front Delhi polls next month

NEW DELHI - As election preparations gather momentum in the capital city Delhi, which goes to the polls next month, professionals turned politicians have taken centre stage.

The focus is not on leaders who have worked for years in Delhi politics but instead on fresh faces, with even a traditional party like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bringing in former supercop Kiran Bedi to front its campaign.

Ms Bedi, 65, took part in the anti-corruption civil movement of 2011. In the 1980s, she forged her reputation as a tough cop, famously towing away then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's car because it was parked in a no-parking zone.

She is also known for introducing reforms such as starting yoga and literary classes for prisoners in Delhi's Tihar Jail, South Asia's biggest prison.

She joined politics last week as the BJP's candidate for chief minister and is seen as the BJP's answer to Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal, another non-traditional politician who also rode into politics on the back of the 2011 anti-graft movement.

In the last Delhi legislative assembly elections in December 2013, Mr Kejriwal's party of political upstarts consisting of social activists, lawyers and journalists caught the fancy of voters, winning 28 of the 70 seats and forming the government in Delhi.

However, Mr Kejriwal, 46, a former income tax officer, was unable to make the transition to power and quit as Chief Minister after just 49 days over the inability to push through an anti-graft law.

Delhi has since been under the President's rule, with next month's elections called to put a government in place.

Mr Kejriwal is still respected for his honesty and simplicity - he turned down a large security detail and a big house as chief minister - and is hoping to get a second chance and move past criticism that he quit power for no real reason.

"The compulsion for BJP to bring in Kiran Bedi is because they wanted to bring in someone who could counter the popularity of Kejriwal. All polls showed that Kejriwal was far more popular compared to any other BJP leader," said Professor Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

Explaining Mr Kejriwal's popularity, Dr Sanjay said: "In Delhi, class has become the biggest factor rather than caste. Voters get divided along class. And the initial popularity of Kejriwal was on that consideration because in a city like Delhi you have a large middle class which shares the notion that all politicians are corrupt. So when they saw some professional coming, they cheered."

The city, more than any other in India, is a melting pot with over half belonging to the middle class.

For the BJP, fielding Ms Bedi appears to be the right move. A poll by Indian TV channel ABP News-Nielsen showed Mr Kejriwal to be the most preferred candidate with support from 47 per cent of those surveyed, while Ms Bedi is a close second with 44 per cent.

Some see it as a good sign that neither of the two main contenders are traditional politicians.

"Delhi is a big metro with a lot of infrastructure problems and it needs an out-of-the-box solution and a non-traditional kind of politics. It needs a politician with a vision," said Dr Mohammed Badrul Alam, head of the Department of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University.

Other political freshies include lawyer Nupur Sharma, 30, of the BJP and the daughter of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, and kathak dancer Sharmistha Mukherjee, 48, who is standing on a Congress Party ticket.

Congress is the only major party in these polls fronted by a veteran politician - former Cabinet minister Ajay Maken, who has called the leading candidates "opportunists" for riding on their popularity as activists to enter politics.

This article was first published on January 23, 2015.
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