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In India, a clean sweep for honest governance

An anticorruption party's big election victory in India's capital may reflect a popular mood in many of the world's fast-growing cities: Urban poor seek honesty in officials.

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    Leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man’s Party, Arvind Kejriwal, center, waves to the crowd after a landslide election victory in New Delhi, India.
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More than half of the world’s people now live in cities, according to the United Nations, with most urban dwellers living in poverty. Among the poor’s daily indignities is having to pay petty bribes to officials. In the world’s second largest city, New Delhi, resentment against such corruption – and a demand for honest governance – finally exploded last weekend in a popular vote. The anticorruption party, Aam Aadmi (Common Man), took 67 of 70 seats in New Delhi’s state election.

The size of the victory was not the only surprise. Voters in India’s capital also sent a message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party. Just nine months ago, Mr. Modi was elected in a big victory with a similar promise of clean government. But with few results to show the people so far, his party could win only a few seats in this pivotal election. And it didn’t help that the prime minister had lately been wearing a suit with pinstripes of gold threads that repeat his name and cost an estimated $17,000.

The leader of the Common Man party, Arvind Kejriwal, said after his victory that his top priority is to end bribery in a capital well known for its endemic corruption. “When you walk on the path of truth, all the power of the universe is behind you,” he told supporters.

In a recent survey, more than half of all Indians said they had paid a bribe in the past year. As prosperity has risen in India, so, too, has an anticorruption movement. Mr. Kejriwal and his party were able to win the last election in New Delhi in 2013 but resigned after their reforms were blocked. Now they are back in a new political context and in an even stronger position.

“In a city where the livelihoods of the poor are criminalized on a daily basis, a party which vows to redress these brutal inequalities becomes a change agent,” wrote journalist Sagarika Ghose in The Times of India.

It is worth watching the anticorruption efforts in rapidly urbanizing nations. China, Indonesia, India, and Brazil, for example, are now in an anticorruption mode of politics. Among those, India may be making the most progress. In a “corruption perception index” by Berlin-based Transparency International, it has improved its standing and now ranks as less corrupt than China.

In 12 of the 15 countries with the worst corruption, there are insurgencies or extremist activities, according to TI. “From terrorist activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria, drug traffic in Mexico, and patronage networks in Afghanistan to autocratic structures before the Maidan in Ukraine, a common issue that links all those events is corruption,” states a TI report given last week at the Munich Security Conference.

Whether the Common Man party can deliver in the rough politics of India’s largest city remains to be seen. The party will need more than its symbol, a broom, to clean up government. But for burgeoning cities elsewhere in the world, this election’s clean sweep sends a signal of hope that the old ways need not be the only ways.

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