As she walks through a Mumbai slum in a crumpled cotton sari, crisp white Gandhi topi perched on her head, Medha Patkar looks nothing like the typical Indian neta on the campaign trail. There are no flunkies holding chilled bottles of mineral water, no air-conditioned SUVs trailing, or loudspeakers booming slogans. In fact, there is no visible change in the 59-year-old veteran activist, who is making her electoral debut on the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party) ticket, hoping to direct politics towards issues she holds close to her heart — namely, fair and inclusive development and progress.
A Magsaysay award winner, Patkar has hit the headlines often for her activism against well-entrenched political parties — she took on the Bharatiya Janata Party during her agitation against the Narmada Dam project in Gujarat, and more recently the Indian National Congress for targeting slums in Mumbai — positions that have come back to haunt her in this campaign, where she has been frequently jeered at for her ‘anti-progress’ stand.
However she enjoys strong support among the slum dwellers in her constituency, Mumbai North East, who say she has been a “partner in all our struggles”.
Patkar says the decision to enter politics was not an easy one, and that she was pushed into it as a result of “the widespread corruption and complete callousness displayed by leaders from the major parties”.
The other star AAP candidate is the chiffon and silk clad Meera Sanyal, who is contesting from the tony South Mumbai constituency.
Sanyal, who quit her position as India head of the Royal Bank of Scotland to join AAP, contested as an independent in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, but lost massively to Milind Deora of the Congress.
Now Sanyal is up once again up against Deora, who enjoys the support of manymoney bags from the South Mumbai constituency. Sanyal’s stance against crony capitalism has lost her some of that deluxe demographic, but she is confident the results will be in her favour this time.
"I believe the people have become aware of the need for right-thinking, honest leaders”, she says. “This time we have a sizeable percentage of young voters — all first time voters — and they are raring for a change”.
That mood for change was evident in the 2013 Delhi Legislative Assembly elections, when AAP emerged as the second-largest party.
With no party in a clear majority, AAP formed the government with conditional support from the Congress. It was a significant mandate considering that the party had been launched just over a year ago.
Within hours of forming the government in Delhi, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal, who became the chief minister,announced a string of populist measures, including subsidised water and electricity.
But when his attempt to introduce a bill to allow charges against political leaders to be investigated, was repeatedly blocked by other parties, he resigned after 49 days.
It was a move that earned AAP wide criticism, with leading newspapers and commentators accusing them of failing to transition from agitators to administrators. Kejriwal recently admitted in an interview that while he did not regret the decision to resign, the party had failed to communicate the ‘principle’ behind the move to the public.
AAP’s aborted Delhi experiment has adversely affected the party’s support base among the middle and upper-middle classes. The party has also seen a spate of high profile resignations in the last few months,which has reinforced the impression that this is a party lacking clear direction.
“A large section of the middle-class is not ready for the kind of politics AAP has brought into the system”, says Shikha Trivedy, a senior journalist with NDTV, who is travelling across India for the ongoing polls.
“They are used to seeing politicians behave in a certain manner, so when they see a Kejriwal sitting on the road, there is instant alienation. But even in this short span of 49 days they have been able to bring about change. Leaders now think twice about having a lal batti on their car, or asking for a bribe”, adds Trivedy.
Kejriwal may be a maverick, but he has dared to bring certain high rollers under public scrutiny. The influence wielded by industrialists like the Ambanis, or the deals struck by Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, were never discussed. There was a collusion among political parties that select proper nouns were not to be touched. Kejriwal has made touchables of them all.
AAP’s chances of a meaningful role in forming the next government is scant, but there is no denying that they have influenced the political discourse.
“A couple of things have happened”, says Ankur Garg, co-founder of the ‘i for India’ initiative, which uses technology as a means to empower citizens politically. The people who sit on the fence are now supporting AAP. These are the voters that any party would try and influence. This chunk has got charged up. Also, AAP has forced the BJP to get their act right. There is such a strong anti-Congress wave, that the BJP had become complacent. Now they are on their toes and this is good for democracy”, adds Garg.
“There is a lot of optimism and excitement because there may be an AAP candidate to vote for”, says Vivek Gilani, founder of Mumbai Votes, which tracks the performance of political candidates in Mumbai.
“I don’t know if they will win even one seat, but they cannot be written off”, says Trivedy. “They have brought to the fore a certain way of conducting politics. If they don’t lose their way, they can emerge as an alternative to the Congress and the BJP. They have the drive and the guts, and at this point you need street-fighters to shake people out of their complacency”.