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In India, upstart Aam Aadmi Party is shaking up traditional politics

ElectionsPolitics and GovernmentIndiaBusinessLaws and LegislationU.S. CongressFinance

KURUKSHETRA, India — Sakit Poswal, an engineering graduate and aspiring actor, never gave much thought to politics until last fall, when a new party burst into the spotlight promising total transparency and handing out white caps stamped with the message, "I am the common man."

The grass-roots group that has upended India's staid political scene is the Aam Aadmi Party, whose name means "common man" and whose platform amounts to a full-throated rejection of a system that many Indians regard as hopelessly corrupt.

"Before this, people had no options, but this party has changed the meaning of politics among the youth," said the stubble-faced Poswal, 23, sporting a gray hoodie and one of those white caps, which have sprouted like mushrooms across parts of India.

The party swiftly won control of New Delhi's state government and installed its leader, an unassuming former tax inspector named Arvind Kejriwal, as the state's top official. It launched plans to contest parliamentary seats nationwide in elections due this spring.

Then, just as quickly, Kejriwal resigned Friday after failing to get state lawmakers to back an anticorruption bill, having spent just 49 days in power.

Across India, the move was hailed as a tactical masterstroke that would cement the party's image as righteous crusaders — or, alternately, mocked as the most glaring sign yet that it was unfit to govern.

Either way, the Aam Aadmi Party's rise may be the most exciting and unpredictable development in a generation in Indian politics, which, for all the rhetoric about being the world's biggest democracy, is dominated by family networks, opaque financing and brazen appeals to voters' caste and religion, all of which Aam Aadmi says it seeks to avoid.

"We clearly have stepped onto something which is much bigger than we thought it was, something bigger than we were capable of creating, something bigger than we deserve," Yogendra Yadav, the party's chief strategist, said in an interview between campaign stops recently in Kurukshetra, an agricultural community three hours north of New Delhi.

"Clearly there is some deep sense of disgust with politics as it's being practiced and a desire to find a way out."

In this town famed for its Hindu temples, the upstart is challenging the Congress Party, home of the Gandhi family dynasty, which has led India for much of its post-independence history. Few believe it can win more parliamentary seats than the deeply established Congress Party or the main opposition group, the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party.

Some early moves — including a highly unusual, 33-hour sit-in last month in the heart of New Delhi, the very city it had just begun running — immediately fueled questions about whether a party that grew out of street-level anticorruption protests was prepared to lead a government. But Yadav, 50, believes that India at the moment is tailor-made for a political insurgency by — as he put it — "a set of young nobodies."

The Congress Party may be in its weakest position ever, beset by massive corruption scandals, flagging economic growth and a leader widely regarded as not ready for prime time: former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's grandson, Rahul. The Bharatiya Janata Party's standard-bearer, Narendra Modi, has a strong economic record running the western state of Gujarat but is dogged by allegations that he didn't do enough to stop deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002.

With a record 150 million Indians ages 18 to 23 eligible to vote — more than the total number of Americans who cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election — the Aam Aadmi Party is banking on strong support from young people whom it has rushed to sign up through text messages and social media.

It has solicited campaign contributions from average Indians and listed the source and amount of every donation, some as small as 5 cents — an unprecedented move in a country where political financing is notoriously murky. Its officials have shunned the sprawling bungalows, security details and other perks usually granted to politicians; Kejriwal conspicuously rode the subway to his swearing-in ceremony in December.

"They have tapped into two things: the nostalgia of the nationalist movement and its idealism, and the feeling among young people that there can be a new and more responsive economy with better service delivery, better efficiency, more transparency," said Shiv Visvanathan, a political science professor at O.P. Jindal Global University outside New Delhi.

But while it ran Delhi, some populist moves backfired. The January sit-in was a public relations failure, largely because its objective, to demand more local authority over the Delhi police, was overshadowed by the bizarre image of Kejriwal, a shawl wrapped around his head, sleeping on the street. A plan to hold weekly darbars, or public hearings, had to be scrapped after participants were nearly trampled at the first one.

Ashutosh Varshney, director of the India Initiative research program at Brown University, said such setbacks have cooled the fervor of supporters, particularly urban middle-class voters who propelled the party to power in Delhi.

"Government is not supposed to be a street marcher, a street protester," said Varshney, author, most recently, of "Battles Half Won: India's Improbable Democracy." "It's supposed to govern rather than bring the heart of the capital down to its knees."

Other decisions have proved more popular, such as surprise inspections of schools and hospitals and a telephone hotline to report corruption. The party also fulfilled a campaign pledge to block foreign-owned superstores, including Wal-Mart, from opening in Delhi, saying they would drive India's ubiquitous family-owned shops out of business.

In Kurukshetra, whose dusty town center is lined with small kiosks hawking goods as diverse as tires and fresh fruit, many said they supported the party's policies, a sign that it is making inroads on urban-adjacent and rural areas that have been Congress Party strongholds.

Limiting foreign investment "is absolutely a good idea," Poswal, the young party supporter, said during a rally. "We have a lot of engineers, a lot of technical people; we have everything we need in India. Why would we call foreign companies to be here?"

Even as the more established parties have shrugged off Aam Aadmi's surge, they are co-opting some of its tactics to reach voters. The Congress Party launched a section on its website to solicit public donations, and the Bharatiya Janata Party said it would invite voters to submit policy proposals online.

"We have managed to leave a stamp on how other political parties are conducting themselves," said Yadav, the Aam Aadmi strategist. "If we manage to leave that stamp all across the country, that to me is success no matter the number of votes and seats we receive."

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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