Names of parties are often evocative but misleading. The Indian National Congress brought the term aam aadmi—the common man—into currency during its 2004 general election campaign. It used to be commonplace to talk about ‘the poor’ as a key social constituency. Congress tried to broaden its appeal to the ‘general public’—a vague notion which, on the one hand, would not alienate the middle classes and, on the other, would allow everyone, bar the very rich, to believe themselves included. The Aam Aadmi Party (aap), led by Arvind Kejriwal, is an extraordinary example of a newcomer that hijacked the lexicological initiative of Congress—itself accustomed to tapping the opposition’s slogans and ideas—and used it to dramatic advantage by winning the elections for Delhi’s Assembly. Their deployment of the same term sought to invert Congress’s claims by suggesting that the poor actually constitute the average Indian citizen and that aap’s politics would centre on them. ‘Aam Aadmi Party’ literally means the party of ordinary people, thus implying that the other parties cater to entrenched interests; the acronym forms the Hindi word aap—you—a further appeal to identification.

In 2011, just when it seemed that formalized party competition had become entrenched and strong social movements were in decline, India witnessed an upheaval that shook the complacency of its political establishment. Comparable to the popular assertion of Occupy Wall Street later that year, the anti-corruption protests unleashed trenchant criticism of crooked politicians and the marginalization of citizens within India’s democracy. Five years on from those dramatic weeks in August, when the aam aadmi occupied Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, many of the capital’s roads, and unending hours of television time, we can offer a provisional assessment of the motivations and tensions that gave rise to a new political party, which emerged from street protests and went on to form a state government elected with 54 per cent of the vote.footnote1 As an electoral sweep—albeit one concentrated in the capital, not the country as a whole, where aap has yet to make headway—this was greater than the percentages achieved by Syriza or Podemos in Europe.footnote2

By the end of its first term, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (upa) government had become engulfed in scandal. It was widely reported that bribery had pushed through the Indo-us Nuclear Deal and the attendant vote of confidence. As Kejriwal put it in his pamphlet Swaraj:

In July 2008, the then upa government had to prove its majority on the floor of the assembly. mps were being bought and sold. Certain tv channels showed these mps accepting money openly. Those video scenes gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. If mps could be sold like this then what is the value of our vote? Today the leaders are buying the legislators of the country to save their party.footnote3

That year, India’s 2G spectrum was handed over to phone companies at a us$39 billion discount; it later emerged that coalmine blocks had been parcelled out to private investors for a potential loss several times that figure. The spiralling cost and misconduct of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi then hit the headlines. Members of the ruling party faced charges, including some ministers, but the investigating agencies were accused of protecting the culprits. In 2011, a national survey found that 38 per cent of respondents believed corruption to have intensified over the past few years. Only 15 per cent of respondents did not consider the upa government to be corrupt.footnote4

Urban protests started to gather momentum in April 2011. Some civil-society groups, coordinated by a small band of leaders with Kejriwal at the helm, began to push for a national Ombudsman, or Lokpal—people’s watchdog. While many states have their own Ombudsman (Lokayukta), in most cases they are ineffective (or inoperative) bodies. The campaign, which was launched under the banner of India Against Corruption (iac), an umbrella group of mostly urban-based activists, proposed a comprehensive legislative framework that would grant the Lokpal powers to investigate even the Prime Minister if necessary. At the forefront of the protests was Kisan Baburao ‘Anna’ Hazare, a Gandhian anti-corruption crusader, who went on a fast and attracted nationwide attention. The issue of corruption in high places became a common topic of drawing-room conversation and prime-time tv debates, but the main political parties failed to grasp the resonance it had among ordinary people. Hazare’s fast ended after he was promised that a joint committee comprising civil-society activists and ministers would be formed, and the Lokpal Bill soon passed. While Delhi was the main focus of these developments, public sympathy for the protests was evident in many other metropolitan centres.

Born in 1937 to a poor peasant family in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, Hazare was educated up to the seventh grade, and served as a soldier in the Indian Army from 1963 until his retirement fifteen years later. He returned to settle in his native village of Ralegan, where he dedicated his life to voluntary work. Hazare’s activism began with the control of alcoholism in the village, later expanding to a watershed development programme, crop management and food self-sufficiency. His successes in rural transformation rested on public engagement and a paternalism stemming from his personal moral authority in the village. In 1991, he formed Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan (People’s Movement Against Corruption) to take on the state government, led at the time by Congress, later by the Shiv Sena–bjp alliance; this gave him a non-partisan image. Hazare subsequently went on to fight for strengthened freedom of information legislation—redubbed the Right to Information—in Maharashtra. A self-made social reformer, Hazare drew his religiosity from the devotional Bhakti tradition, Swami Vivekananda and Gandhi.