The political scene in India is not something I am very close to. But during the Christmas holidays, whilst catching up with my parents, I found one particular news coming up in our conversations quite often; news making headlines back in India that’s being referred to as a kind of revolution in Indian politics.
The news was about the appointment of a certain individual as the chief minister of Delhi, who took his oath on 28th December 2013. For me, this news wasn’t really about the chief minister elections nor was it about the overall political scene in Delhi, it was really about this very intriguing story of an individual who made an astonishing journey to becoming a very influential figure in Indian politics, all effectively in a space of 2 years. Arvind Kejriwal, 45, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, worked in the private sector Tata Group briefly before he worked in the Indian civil service as an income tax commissioner. He took voluntary retirement in 2006 and set up an NGO – Public Cause Research Foundation – to work full time to promote transparency in government and to create awareness about the Right to Information movement.
In India, what Mr Kejriwal achieved in the Delhi Chief Minister elections is a scenario you don’t really come across every day or even think is possible. In addition to requiring vast amounts of money and resources to campaign and run for elections, corruption and crime dominate the scene. This is not an accessible arena and is broadly perceived as a profession of the corrupt.
For most of the years since independence, the federal government has been led by the Indian National Congress (INC), The two largest political parties have been the INC and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which have dominated Indian politics. In December 2013, Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party AAP (also known as the Common Man’s party) captured the national attention with a stunning electoral debut in the election to Delhi’s Legislative Assembly. Formed less than a year ago in October 2012, AAP emerged as the second largest party in the assembly. It relegated the Congress Party, in power for 15 consecutive years, to third place. Finally, AAP decided to accept the “unconditional” support of the Congress Party and formed the state government; Arvind Kejriwal was elected chief minister.
For me, this has been an intriguing story. I don’t think I have come across such a scenario before, let alone it taking place in a country like India. It has been inspirational to watch this individual make this enormous achievement in his electoral debut, and has interested me to look into some of his and his party’s strategies to achieve this.
Identifying the gap in the market
The amount of corruption in India is not exactly a secret. Its causes go back by a few decades and can be attributed to the economic model adopted after independence sometimes referred to as Nehruvian Socialism. One has to read no further than Atlas Shrugged to get a good picture of how it all came about. Excessive regulations, complicated taxes and licensing systems, numerous government departments each with opaque bureaucracy and discretionary powers, monopoly by government controlled institutions on certain goods and services, and a lack of transparent laws and processes, are just a few characteristics of the system which provided the perfect breeding ground for corruption. The truth of the matter was that it affected everyone, frustrated everyone but not one did anything about it. Most people with no vested interests helplessly fitted themselves into the system rather than attempting to change or challenge it. None of the political parties attempted to resolve this more so because they themselves were not free of corruption themselves. With the need for an honest party left unfulfilled, AAP entered the system, hitting the nail on its head as far as addressing the one issue that affected everyone was concerned. AAP members started out with the Indian Anti-Corruption movement. For the common man, finally seeing a political party addressing the one issue that everyone talked about but did nothing about, provided a deep sense of hope. Knowing that this party would resolve that one issue that would fundamentally change their lives was sufficient to gain their full support.
Actions before words
Fulfilling the gap in the market was instrumental but not before demonstrating that one was actually capable of bringing about change. Actions speaking louder than words and this was absolutely crucial to the success of AAP. To the general public, this political party was not just another political party merely talking about its policies to tackle an issue like corruption, its members were individuals who had demonstrated genuine activism before they resorted to the political route.
Two years ago, Arvind Kejriwal set up a group called India Against Corruption aimed at putting pressure on the government to bring about tough anti-corruption laws. Mr Kejriwal came to the limelight in 2011 as the backroom organiser of the anti-corruption campaign led by Mr Hazare. They had drafted a Jan Lokpal bill which sought the appointment of an independent body to investigate corruption cases. Public awareness efforts and protest marches were carried out to campaign for the bill, and Mr Kejriwal worked behind the scenes to make the agitation a success. They gained support from millions but the government stalled on drafting an anticorruption law demanded by the activists due to procedural and political issues. Despite the results, Mr Hazare and Mr Kejriwal who still continue to work on the bill, gained the support and faith of millions who witnessed the work they had put in to bring about this change.
Despite his initial hesitance, Mr Kejriwal decided to change his strategy and go political. He said “Politics is muck, but now we have to get ourselves dirty and clean up the muck.” So he parted ways with Mr Hazare and focussed his efforts on forming a political party to change the system from within.
Having a clear strong objective from the start
Another important strategy to highlight is the fact that this party always demonstrated a clear objective from the start. Starting with activism and then as part of political campaigning, Mr Kejriwal and his party were clear on their mission. They focussed on anti-corruption, and continued to concentrate on their core unique selling point which ensured they leveraged what they had started out with and helped them retain the public’s confidence.
Seeking public feedback and support throughout the process
From the very start, this party fully involved the public not just to build its policies, but their decision to stand for elections was also based on an overwhelming response from the public.
Reaching out to ordinary people via public consultations and asking them what should be adopted by the party in its election manifesto was an impressive strategy. It ensured that the public were actually shaping the path the party was taking, and gave them a kind of ownership. This sense of ownership was instrumental in gaining their support and ensuring they were on the inside, fully involved in the party’s strategies to solve their problems.
Some of its strategies included offering the citizens of Delhi the option of going to a set of public meetings that would return a single “yes” or “no” answer by popular vote, or of sending in their answers by text message or by phone. Facebook allowed them to conduct simultaneous rallies in 64 cities. One interesting strategy requested for missed calls from the general public as a mark of solidarity. These cost callers nothing but allowed to party to quickly identify 800 new volunteers.
Running for elections is an expensive affair. The size and population of India can act to your disadvantage when it comes to the efforts required for campaigning but I think AAP certainly made it work to their advantage, and also their continued focus on reflecting their ideals in their own practices. Core to its strategy of involving the public every step of the way, AAP solicited funds from ordinary citizens and, in a transparency unusual for Indian politics, posted the names of its donors on the party website.
Since they started about a year ago, AAP claim to have received over Rs.12 crores (equivalent to around 1 million GBP) as donations from a cross section of people from rickshaw-pullers, to traders, to Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and most of them were first-time donors to a political party.
Funds donated from NRIs have been substantial with one Hong Kong-based NRI donating Rs.50 lakhs (around 50,000 GBP). Encouraging and providing NRIs the medium to donate is quite key I believe. What this political party is offering, in a way, strongly resonates the aspirations of NRIs – individuals who frustrated with the system in India chose to work and settle down in other countries. Having fled corruption, they represent a group of people who would find a strong sense of satisfaction with having corruption resolved. This has stood out as a key strategy for me: thinking broadly about your full audience and where the money is.
Learning about the case of Arvind Kejriwal has been a very interesting case study not just because he became the chief minister of the Delhi but because of the road he took to get there. As a struggling entrepreneur, I found some of his strategies extremely smart. But more important than that has been witnessing how some of the strategies has helped this political party achieve something that many perceived as impossible in a country like India. It inspires to me see that he achieved a key milestone. There is still a long way to go to see how this party and Arvind Kejriwal performs in the political scene, but it’s certainly a great start.