New Force Emerges In Indian Politics: Common Man Party

As India prepares for elections this spring, there are signs the electorate is agitated and ready to throw out the ruling Congress Party. The main opposition BJP looks poised to benefit most. But a new political kid is harnessing public anger about corruption and it could be a game changer.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In India, the latest thing in politics is the common man. That sprawling Democracy - the biggest in the world - also has a big reputation for corruption. And with a national election coming up, the many Indians who are weary of corruption may be poised to throw out the ruling Congress Party, partly because the Congress Party faces a stiff challenge from its usual big rival, but also because a new political player has captured the public imagination. It's fascinating stuff, and we turn to NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi to find out more. Good morning.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, Julie, we're talking here about a new party that's making national news. Tell us more about it.

MCCARTHY: Yes, yes. This is a huge anti-incumbency year here in India, and the ascendance of what's called the Aam Aadami Party - which translates as Common Man - is all part of that, perhaps the leading edge of that wedge. They were unexpectedly voted into power in December to run the local government in the capital. Delhites are fed up with violence against women and with corruption. The infamous Delhi gang rape of 2012 still reverberates here. The 2010 Commonwealth Games here in Delhi ran into trouble - lots of corruption - and sullied the name for a lot of people who live here. And the AAP - this Common Man Party - their style has also gained followers. These local officials now want no security entourage. They refuse the big houses that Indian politicians get. In fact, as we speak, Renee, the newly elected chief minister of Delhi - which is like the governor of the capital city - Arvind Kejriwal, has spent the night in the streets leading a sit-in against the central government. This is confrontational politics with the central authorities.

MONTAGNE: So, he is the - as you just said - chief minister of Delhi. And he's actually sitting in the capital, Delhi, protesting against the national government. But what exactly are they protesting?

MCCARTHY: Well, Kejriwal has taken up the cudgel of reforming the Delhi police, which is under the national government right now. And his party says, you know, the police, they're unresponsive at best and complicit with criminal elements at worst. And he wants several of these officers who allegedly shielded offenders, criminal offenders, to be suspended. And he wants the police basically under local control, not the national government's. And so Kejriwal and his ministers have hit the streets and told police and honest cops to join them. And this is like, you know, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Renee, calling on Washingtonians to rise up against the federal government over home rule. It's novel stuff here, and it goes to the heart of who governs whom and how.

MONTAGNE: OK. But he's in a sit-in, in a protest camp, of sorts, but he's still doing the government business. Do people that he's serving buy that?

MCCARTHY: Well, the headlines say things like: "Delhi Government Gone Missing." The chief minister insists, look, I'm working at this sit-in, I'm - files are being brought to me. But it is a bit of a media circus. And you've got critics saying he's behaving more like the chief agitator than the chief minister. When central Delhi is shut down, the metros are closed, and there's worry that these protests, if they continue, are going to disrupt the Republic Day parade on the 26th, which honors the date the Indian constitution came into force. But on the other hand, this new party is saying, look, under that constitution, we have a right to be heard. And their claim is that Gandhi was called a disruptor. Gandhi was called an anarchist when he challenged the establishment. We're not anarchists. We're democrats with a small D. You know, but all this good will that swept them to power, Renee, could evaporate over all this disruption.

MONTAGNE: Well, what do you think? Can the performance of this Common Man Party in Delhi have an impact on the national landscape?

MCCARTHY: Well, no one really knows that yet. They've only been in power for about three weeks. But their membership across the country is growing, and their uncompromising message on corruption has caught the public mood in a country that's fed up with self-enrichment by the political class. And the fact that the opposition BJP Party and the ruling Congress Party - two very traditional parties - are running a bit scared of this new kid on the block and its ability to plug into public disgust over business as usual may suggest that they're doing something right.

MONTAGNE: OK. Thanks very much, Julie.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Julie McCarthy, speaking to us from New Delhi.

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