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don't count him out
India's Common Man Shoots for the Stars

The most popular man in India right now is the 45-year-old former tax administrator and now Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal. Kejriwal is two weeks into his service as the head of the Delhi assembly and is already making headlines as he struggles against the political corruption that is so widespread in India. Meanwhile, officials and volunteers from his Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) party tour the country, gathering thousands of new members and drumming up an impressive showing of support. Not many people would have put money on any of this 15 months ago when the AAP was founded.

One of Kejriwal’s first acts as Delhi Chief Minister was to refuse to live in the house offered to him. The Ministry of Urban Development had prepared two adjacent five-bedroom duplexes on Bhagwan Dass Road for the new CM, a luxurious arrangement (but apparently less ostentatious than the monster bungalow where his predecessor lived). Kejriwal requested a smaller house. Then he went on Twitter to say he was dealing with a rather severe case of “Delhi belly”: “Running 102 fever since yesterday. Severe loose motions. Sad that I won’t be able to attend office today,” he wrote. The post went viral. “How’s this for a transparent CM?” journalist Samanth Subramanian tweeted in response.

Overcoming his malady, Kejriwal announced the establishment of an “anti-corruption helpline” for Delhi residents. On Wednesday he explained the move: “This helpline number makes every citizen of Delhi an anti-corruption inspector. State vigilance department has a team which will look into the matter.” The helpline proved immediately popular with over 11,000 calls received, according to the Hindustan Times; the calls ranged from a girl complaining about her boyfriend to serious corruption grievances. “One Delhi government official has been caught following a complaint to the helpline,” Kejriwal said, adding that 16 other cases are “ripe for sting operations to nab corrupt officials.”

While Kejriwal gets off and running in his new position, his colleagues in the AAP are touring the country to gather support before national elections in just a few months. By most accounts the response has been remarkable. Indians ranging from Bollywood actors to rural farmers have volunteered to help the AAP’s campaign. In Maharastra alone the AAP has gathered 500,000 new members in only ten days. As the Economic Times noted in an editorial on New Year’s Day, “the anti-establishment mood today is strong, and AAP has generated such euphoria among youngsters and the middle class that India may be at an inflection point” where voters reject the two big parties—Congress and the BJP—in favor of (gasp!) someone different. The editorial also said that the AAP winning 70–80 seats in the national election this year is not out of the realm of possibility.

But despite such impressive growth and widespread popularity, the favorite for India’s next Prime Minister is still Narendra Modi. Modi’s BJP is much richer, more powerful, and more experienced than the AAP, which is puny by comparison. Modi is especially a favorite of Indian big business. According to a poll from September, before the AAP’s remarkable rise had begun, fully 74 percent of Indian executives want Modi to be Prime Minister over his competitors (just 7 percent chose Congress’s Rahul Gandhi). And as the Economic Times editorial notes, if the AAP somehow emerges from the election with enough seats to form a coalition government, “the Sensex will collapse and India Inc will fear witch hunts.” During this time of slow growth and rising inflation, the last thing India’s economy needs is a collapse of confidence. But the AAP’s impact has been remarkable, and it would be unwise to bet against it in the upcoming elections. As the president of a think tank in New Delhi wrote in an op-ed, the AAP has helped Indians overcome the “corrosive cynicism” they felt about their democracy. “The AAP’s single biggest achievement has been to change the mood of significant sections of the country.” And that surely is something worth celebrating.

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  • Andrew Allison

    The acid tests will be: will the electorate vote for AAP; and will, if elected to power, the AAP behave any differently that all post-Colonial governments. It’s easy to adopt a platform to achieve power, but history suggests that once power is achieved, it’s business as usual.

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