In India, the 'common man' party attracts interest, not crowds

At last week’s protests over the rape of a five-year-old girl in New Delhi, you could spot students, office workers and social activists in caps that said “Aam Aadmi”.

Aam aadmi means the ‘common man’ in Hindi and those wearing the caps were members of a relatively new political party led by 44-year-old anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal.

The Aam Aadmi Party hopes to make a transition from protesting to policymaking later this year, when it contests legislative elections in Delhi.

In a country where politics is complex and dominated by caste and religious considerations, Mr Kejriwal’s party is being seen as something of an experiment.

It has no clear philosophy, no discernible leanings to the right or the left.

What it does have are some lofty aims and a somewhat novel way of participating in the election process.

“We have entered politics to change the current corrupt and self-serving system of politics forever,” the party claims on its website.

Its founder, Mr Kejriwal, is a former income-tax officer who gave up his job to become a social activist a decade ago.

His journey to prominence began two years ago, when he set up a group called India Against Corruption and persuaded Gandhian Anna Hazare to be the face of the movement to push through tough anti-corruption laws.

The movement exploded in 2011, cornering the government during a time when it was facing a slew of corruption cases.

For the first time, hordes of middle class Indians joined the street protests.

The movement eventually lost steam, however, and Mr Kejriwal joined politics last year.

The anti-corruption legislation - which provoked the protests - remains stuck in Parliament.

The party launched with a bang last November, with Mr Kejriwal firing off accusations of corruption against politicians, their kin and corporates.

Mr Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, was accused of involvement in a shady realty deal and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid was accused of embezzling money for the disabled.

None of the accusations stuck but the party got plenty of publicity.

Since then, the party has moved on to bread-and-butter issues like high electricity bills and to emotive ones, like the safety of women.

Some of Mr Kejriwal’s methods, for instance, asking people not to pay electricity bills to protests tariffs, are quite unconventional and have been questioned.

Mr Kejriwal and his group also seem to have lost their sheen after joining politics.

“As an independent entity fighting corruption, they were taken more seriously than as a political party,” said Delhi-based political analyst Bhaskara Rao.

“Now whatever he is doing is politically motivated which has further eroded his public image.”

Still, there is no doubt that people are curious about this new entrant into politics.

“I think they deserve one chance,” said Mr Raj Singh, a 27-year-old auto rickshaw driver.

Mr Kejriwal may no longer draw the crowds he once did but he has managed to attract an eclectic group of people.

Lawyers, social activists and journalists are among the core members of the party.

Two weeks ago, the party hit the headlines when it announced it would let the public chose candidates for the Delhi state elections, likely to be held in November. They also vowed to bar those with “criminal backgrounds” and those with connections to India’s political families.

“People from all walks of life have joined the party, some people have even left their work to work for the party,” said Ms Aswathi Muralidharan, a spokesman for the Aam Aadmi party.

She also said there was a “good response” from people suggesting candidates.

The party has announced a laborious candidate selection process with a strict vetting process, including door-to-door visits. This process is also aimed as a critique of other parties where candidates often pay big money to be selected.

The big question is whether the gambit will work and the party can make a dent in a contest that is dominated by the country’s two main national parties - the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and the ruling Congress.

“He could get votes in some areas but it might not add up to anything,” said Mr Rao, the analyst.

“At the same time, Indian politics at the moment is in a stage of flux, so one can’t really tell.”

Some are convinced, however, that this is an experiment that will work.

Among them is 22-year-old Nidhi Lov, a business management student, who joined the Aam Aadmi party last year. She is juggling party work, which includes taking part in protests, and studies.

“I believe in this,” she said.