NEW DELHI, India — Ever since 1947 when South Asians threw off the yoke of the British Raj, India has been dominated by the Congress party, led by the Gandhi family, with occasional interruptions from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Now a new force in Indian politics has emerged that threatens to wreck the established order.
Late last year, the Aam Aadmi Party, a ragtag collection of political amateurs, crushed the Congress party in elections for the Delhi assembly. And against everyone’s expectations, the party has taken the reins of power to govern the Indian capital.
The party’s leader, former tax inspector Arvind Kejriwal, engineered a political decapitation by defeating local Congress leader Sheila Dikshit, ending her 15-year tenure as Delhi’s chief minister. He did it resoundingly, with a whopping 25,600 margin.
AAP won 28 seats out of 70. That left Congress with only 8, and ruined the BJP’s hopes of a landslide victory by limiting them to 32 seats. The two big parties dared Kejriwal to form a government and he called their bluff, insisting that Congress supports AAP without conditions or influence in government. He was sworn in as chief minister a few days after Christmas.
Kejriwal had launched the Aam Aadmi Party — Hindi for “common man” — in 2012 with the promise of a “political revolution” to sweep corruption out of India after widespread demonstrations against graft, led by his mentor Anna Hazare.
The activists, who adopted the broom as their symbol, were dismissed by the big parties as a joke, a collection of childish idealists who were just playing at politics.
AAP’s detractors were stunned by the party’s extraordinary results in Delhi.
Now Kejriwal and his supporters are turning their attention to the national parliamentary elections, likely to take place in May 2014.
So, does the Aam Aadmi Party really stand any chance of winning a large number of seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament? And what would they do if they came to power?
It is no small task to campaign in a country of 1.2 billion people with 22 official languages. The only truly national party is Congress — the BJP has little or no presence in many of the southern states and both parties have relied on complex coalitions to govern.
AAP grew from the networks of anti-corruption campaigners who joined Anna Hazare’s protests at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in 2011.
Kejriwal was among Hazare’s advisors, but a rift grew between the two men after Kejriwal decided to enter politics — something Hazare insisted he would never do.
The 45-year-old activist-turned-candidate built a network of volunteers from the students and young people who had joined the Jantar Mantar protests. During the Delhi elections, around 120,000 people canvassed for votes. Some had come from other states to help out.
Outside Delhi, few people believed AAP would get anywhere.
Odisha local leader Nishikanta Mohapatra told GlobalPost the party had a paltry 400 volunteers before the Delhi elections. He now wants 100,000 volunteers, to put a candidate up for every parliamentary seat in the state.
“We have a presence in 20 out of 30 districts here,” he said. “Right now lots of people are interested but we have to see how much they are dedicated to our cause.”
Since the Delhi elections on Dec. 8, AAP claims to have gained 500,000 members and opened offices in more than 320 districts across India.
Party leaders had aimed for a relatively modest 100 candidates for the national poll, but say the huge swell of support means they will stand in at least 300 of the 545 constituencies.
But some commentators believe AAP is naive to believe it can overturn the established political order.
Praveen Patil, a political blogger who works for the Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi think tank, said he rates their chances of further success as “practically none.”
“I don’t even think they could replicate their performance in Delhi,” he told GlobalPost.
“They need infrastructure. Each state has about 150 to 200 polling booths. You need 10 to 12 volunteers at those booths to get voters in. So you need about 100,000 to 200,000 volunteers in each state.”
India has 28 states. Even attracting 500,000 volunteers in three weeks would not be enough for a truly national campaign.
AAP leaders seem to recognize the scale of the task. Activists have been asked to each donate 2014 rupees ($32) in pursuit of a $16million election war-chest.
And still people keep signing up, building the party infrastructure. In Punjab, AAP leader Harjot Singh Bains has been getting hundreds of calls a day.
“About 300 people are joining every hour,” he said. “We had maybe 5,000 members in Punjab before.” Three weeks after the Delhi vote, they claim to have about 100,000 in the state.
Bains, a 22-year-old law student, has interrupted his studies to campaign. “They have given the responsibility of a state-level position to a student. None of the other parties would do this.”
The challenge to other parties is not lost on them. Rahul Gandhi, the likely Congress candidate for PM, promised his party would “learn from” AAP after the Delhi poll.
The opposition BJP candidate, Narendra Modi, had seemed to have gathered unstoppable momentum. Now he is facing a possibly serious challenge in his home state, Gujarat, where the AAP say they will field candidates for every seat and a reported 7,000 people have signed up in a day.
Worse still for Modi, his solid support from business leaders is being undermined by high-profile executives coming out for AAP. Supporters include Captain Gorur Gopinath, the founder of budget airline Air Deccan; former Royal Bank of Scotland CEO Meera Sanyal; and Infosys exec V Balakrishnan — who was widely tipped to become the firm’s next chief executive but resigned before Christmas and is devoting his time to Kejriwal’s cause.
Congress and the BJP believe running a state government will distract AAP too much from the national campaign.
Kejriwal hopes Delhi will be a showcase. So far he has given the city’s population an allowance of free water — shortages are common — and cut electricity bills in half for low-use customers.
It’s too early to call AAP a revolution. But no one is dismissing Kejriwal as a joke any longer.