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RTI and anti-corruption activist-turned politicians score big wins in the electoral arena in Delhi

Dear all,

Some of you might be following up on the results of elections held to five State Legislatures in India during the months of November-December 2013. The results are out throwing civil society and the political establishment into a tizzy since yesterday. The Indian National Congress which is the leading political party in the United Progressive Alliance that is running the Central Government has fared poorly in four of the five States where it contested elections. The results of the elections in the fifth State are awaited where this party is seeking reelection.
The single biggest feature of the election results in the State of Delhi (the national capital) is the stunning debut performance of the newest party on the block- the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man/Person Party). Its core group of leaders - Mr. Arvind Kejriwal and Mr. Manish Sisodia started their careers in civil service and journalism, respectively. Later they cut their teeth on civil society activism by focusing on the right to information (RTI). Mr. Kerjiwal won the prestigious Magsaysay award for his work of promoting RTI and the accountability of public authorities. Between 2009-2011 along with several other reform-minded citizens and civil society actors they launched a country-wide campaign for a strong anti-corruption law particularly demanding a strong anti-corruption Commission (Lokpal) at the Centre and in the States (called Lokayuktas). Apart from the two of them Mr. Anna Hazare a social reformer cum anti-corruption crusader who went on a hunger strike demanding implementation of the RTI law in the Centre and in the States in 2004-05 was roped in. He became the most popular public face of this movement while Mr. Prashant Bhushan and Mr. Shanti Bhushan, both experienced and senior lawyers of the Supreme Court formed the intellectual vanguard of this unique people's movement against corruption. 
In 2004-05 CHRI had worked with Mr. Kejriwal and the Bhushans apart from other well known RTI advocates such as Mrs. Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Prof. Shekhar Singh and a range of other members of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information and other civil society activists and mediapersons (including the Late Prakash Kardaley) to draft India's RTI law in 2004. Ms. Charmaine Rodrigues represented CHRI in the civil society drafting committee. I began working on RTI only after the civil society draft had been prepared, so I will always be the latecomer to the effort to get a strong RTI law enacted in India.
Coming back to the people's movement of 2010-11, it was the result of many factors, scam after scam tumbling out of the cupboard of the Central Government, people's frustration at not getting much traction from the system despite unearthing numerous instances of corruption using RTI and the major suspicion about billions of dollars allegedly being stashed away in Swiss Bank accounts to avoid payment of taxes. Many civil society actors, academics and mediapersons joined Mr. Kejriwal and group in the effort to mobilise public opinion in favour of a law creating a strong anti-corruption agency, while business leaders expressed support openly to the issues raised by them. Soon the Central Government bowed down to this people's pressure and formed a committee consisting of the top members of this movement and senior Ministers of Government to draft the law for establishing strong and effective anti-corruption bodies- another unparalleled event in Indian history. Unfortunately, the entire debate became very partisan with politicians treating this spontaneous people's movement as a challenge to the power of Parliament to decide what laws to enact and to what effect. Despite the anti-corruption legislation (known as the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill) and a slew of other laws designed to protect whistleblowers, provide time bound delivery of public services to people and also make the higher judiciary (judges in constitutional courts) accountable for proven misbehaviour (including corruption)  being tabled in Parliament, the political establishment engaged in stalling tactics and none of these laws have been adopted till date.
Frustrated with these developments Mr. Kejriwal and his supporters minus Mr. Anna Hazare held public consultations on their future course of action and decided to launch their own political party last year. Mr. Hazare refused to enter electoral politics. The Aam Aadmi party under Mr. Kejriwal's leadership decided to contest elections and ironically chose the 'Jhadoo' (broom stick) as their election symbol to highlight their agenda of cleaning up governance mired in deep-rooted and all pervasive corruption. The traditional political parties which had challenged them to prove their mettle in the electoral arena instead of mobilising people on the roads and streets of urban India, tried to dismiss them as inconsequential elements when the Aam Aadmi Party decided to contest elections. However the polls to the Delhi State Assembly held in November have shown how wrong they were in gauging the public mood against corruption and the support that the Aam Aadmi Party of Mr. Kejriwal and his supporters received from the electorate. This party took care to ensure that no individual with pending criminal cases against him/her was given a ticket to contest elections on behalf of the party. Demanding that candidates with clean background be put up for elections was another major agenda of the founders of this party during their days of civil society activism and they lived up to this demand when it was their turn to select their candidates. Many of their rival parties were happy to nominate candidates with pending criminal cases against them for the alleged commission of offences such as murder, rape, arson, dacoity, fraud etc. The Association for Democratic Reforms has analysed the criminal antecedents of candidates contesting this recent round of elections. Their findings are available on their website:
The Aam Aadmi Party has won 28 of the 70 seats to the Delhi Legislative Assembly making it the 2nd largest political party in the elections next only to the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party. The erstwhile Indian National Congress was decimated in Delhi winning only 9 seats although it had run the State Government for 15 years. Mr. Kejriwal  defeated the three-time Chief Minister Mrs. Sheila Dikshit by a convincing margin in her pet borough. The educated middle class went out and voted in a big way for the Aam Aadmi Party making this the highest voter turn out ever at elections held in Delhi. As none of the parties have succeeded in getting a clear majority, government formation is likely to be a serious problem with Aam Aadmi Party leaders publicly saying that they will not join up with the traditional parties to form the government as they have been critical about them all the way for their corrupt activities and mal-governance. Talks of minority government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party are floating around although I am skeptical as to how that will work at all as it would run contrary to the very idea of the majority support based representational government reflected in the Westminster model of government. The Aam Aadmi Party is willing to fight another round of elections to try and get a clear majority for themselves in the State Legislature while other election weary parties are not enamoured by the idea because the elections to Parliament are only six months away in 2014.
This party is one of the few parties that have elected to make information about the donations and contributions they received from the people, publicly accessible on their website - a demand they themselves had made of all political parties during their civil society activist days. All in all, this party has shown that high standards in public life can be a major attraction for the voters if only if the party members adhered to those standards instead of merely mouthing them as pious intentions. The path of transparency and accountability is best lived than merely preached. 
Will keep you posted on future developments.
Venkatesh Nayak
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DATED: Monday, 09 December 2013 15:34
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