India's upstart party preaches anticorruption. What else does it stand for?

One of the founders of the Aam Aadmi Party resigned yesterday. The party's popularity has surged, but its candidates espouse an almost farcical range of policies.

Ajit Solanki/AP
An Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, supporter wears a giant party cap during an election rally party leader and anti-graft activist Arvind Kejriwal in Ahmadabad, India on Mar. 8, 2014. India will hold national elections from Apr. 7 to May 12.

When Ashok Aggarwal yesterday quit India's newest political party, which he had helped set up in November 2012, he took a parting swipe at his erstwhile allies. 

“The movement seems to have become directionless, causing doubts in the minds of people and even in people like me,” he wrote in his resignation letter. The vision of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or Common Man Party, founded on a staunch anticorruption platform, has “taken a back seat” to personal political ambitions, he charged. 

Mr. Aggarwal’s resignation showcases some of the difficulties the AAP faces in trying to channel popular frustration over political graft into success at India's upcoming national polls. The parliamentary elections in April and May are widely considered the most important in years and, given its surge in support, the AAP is expected to be in whichever coalition government emerges. But its slate of candidates is a grab bag of contradictions – leaving open the possibility that its pitch to voters may be undone by its differences. 

“It is for sure that the AAP will be the wild card in the upcoming elections,” says Delhi-based political analyst Neerja Chowdhury. Opinion polls put the party at between 6 percent and 14 percent. 

In December, the AAP trounced the ruling Congress Party in state elections in Delhi. Its surprise victory led to the formation of an AAP administration that resigned in February after the defeat of an anticorruption bill. 

Regardless, the party has seen a flood of applicants from politicians of varying backgrounds seeking to run under its banner. In some cases, they are even former adversaries. 

In Mumbai, the two AAP candidates standing for the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament, are Meera Sanyal and Medha Patkar. Two decades ago Ms. Sanyal led a bank that was financing a power station in Mumbai for US energy firm Enron. Ms. Patkar led protests against it, accusing Enron, which later went bankrupt, of human rights and environmental violations. Since then, the women have been enemies. Now they’re both standing for the same party. 

Still, for India such an umbrella party has strong precedents, says Ms. Chowdhury. “The Congress [Party] under Jawaharlal Nehru was a party that had people from all ideologies. Sixty years ago, they were united under the Congress banner because they believed in the idea of building a new India."

Similarly, the political forces joining the AAP have one clear goal – tackling India's endemic corruption. It's a popular message: seven in ten Indians are dissatisfied with how things are going in their country, according to a poll released last month by Pew Research Center. Thirty percent of the 543 sitting lawmakers in the Lok Sabha have criminal charges against them, according to the Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms.

Public discord among leaders

The AAP has run into problems over its divergent public statements. In January, senior AAP leader Prashant Bhushan said he supports a referendum in the divided Jammu and Kashmir state on the role of the Indian Army in its internal security. Two days later, party chief Arvind Kejriwal issued a clarification on what remains a controversial subject in India. "We don't agree with what Prashant Bhushan said about Kashmir, it's his personal view," he said. 

Despite its initial fumbling, the party's embrace of diverse candidates could pay off in the long run, says Shiv Visvanathan, a professor of public policy at the OP Jindal Global University in Haryana. “In front of the AAP, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is likely to come to power, will look more and more authoritarian and homogeneous. And AAP will look like it is more representative of Indian democracy with divergent views,” he says.

As national elections draw closer, the AAP's leaders have tried to pull together their platform, including its policies on India's economy, which has slowed sharply in recent years. 

Arun Kumar, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and an advisor to the party, says that it has a "centrist" agenda. During its brief tenure in Delhi's local government, the party banned foreign-owned supermarket groups from operating there, but it has yet to spell out a national policy on issues such as foreign investment in mining and other industries.

For the 9.8 million potential voters who have joined the party through January, though, fighting corruption seems to be a platform in itself. “As long as you deal with corruption, it doesn’t matter whether you do it using right-wing policy or left-wing policy,” says Chowdhury. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.