As far as an ending goes, the showdown between Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal during the last round of the election could not have been written more dramatically. Both are contesting the seat representing Varanasi, India’s ancient city of death, which will be an apt description for all the candidates (42 total candidates will be on the ballot) but one. Politically, that is.
Yet despite the geographical proximity, it seems that each national party is fighting on a different battlefield. The BJP camp has been confident in their victory here, but has lately geared up their efforts in response to a vigorous AAP campaign. Congress seems to have largely abandoned Varanasi, where they have only won once (2004) since 1991. Rahul Gandhi is taking a road trip through the city tomorrow in what is being seen as a vengeful jab at Modi for doing the same in Gandhi’s district, Amethi, last week.
Then there is the AAP, who is only partly campaigning for the vote that will take place on May 12. While they are playing to win, and Kejriwal seems confident, many in the party are already looking past 2014.
Outside the AAP office on a sidestreet of the Varanasi neighborhood called Mahmoorganj, there is a buzz of excitement. Volunteers have been pouring in from across India for days and there is plenty of work to be done. Among those present is Anita Pratap, an award-winning journalist from Kerala who recently converted to politics and ran on the AAP ticket in Cochin.
“When I saw what Arvind Kejriwal was saying on TV, it was the exact same opinions, feelings, experiences, conclusions that I had come to. I’ve never met the man, but it was a complete confluence of ‘these are the problems and these are the solutions.’ It was an incredible experience because I had given all hope on reforming India, as a journalist, but he rekindled hope by recognizing the problem for what it was,” she says.
She then called the one friend she knew who was an AAP member and expressed her desire to volunteer:
“My name had been suggested by people in Kerala as a candidate but I was not interested in politics at all. It is such a dirty field. I said, ‘No way.’”
Pratap happened to be traveling to Cochin the next day and her contact suggested a meeting with the local AAP leader who convinced her that she should contest for the local Lok Sabha seat on the AAP ticket.
“In Kerala, the Communist Party tentacles are so deep and strong—30% of the electorate are card-carrying members of the Communist Party—and the other 30% are card carrying members of the Congress. They’re so entrenched; there’s no space! Even the BJP has no foothold in Kerala. Then comes AAP and the party is only 3 months old and my election campaign was just two weeks but it was incredible, the response! It was incredible.”
Bearing in mind these enormous obstacles, I ask her if she thinks there is a chance she could win in Kerala.
“There is no chance of winning this election [in Kerala]. A two week campaign, three months as a party, no money… it’s not possible. But what I saw was the complete acceptance of AAP and of me. Why did this happen so quickly? Because people are fed up across the country.”
This is the excitement that the other volunteers in the AAP headquarters feel. They are working on a project that is much larger than what the election results will say on May 16. They are eternal optimists and with good reason. The story of the AAP is a re-run of the proverbial underdog. For Americans, the easiest comparison to AAP would be the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which Pratap referenced in our conversation: Disgust with the status quo leads to people taking to the streets and demanding change. Except, in India, the AAP has crafted something they are convinced will be enduring and, with the creation of a political party that has fielded 434 candidates, they have already made it much further than their American counterparts.
Durgesh Nandann is a social entrepreneur from Lucknow who quit his job at a startup to come work for AAP. He was previously in Amethi and arrived in Varanasi on May 5.
“It feels amazing here—couldn’t resist,” he says.
His view is also that the real contest is not about necessarily winning in Varanasi, or anywhere, but about disrupting the political order. Everyone I speak to is very open about the immaturity of the party and that mistakes are inevitable. Their focus is on making an audacious challenge to the system by just showing up, an accomplishment they will point to as the party matures.
Pratap feels like it has come full circle and recalls when she was in college in 1977 and she and her friends were fighting a similar battle against Indira Gandhi after the Emergency.
“Back then you had censored media saying Gandhi was going to smash it. Today the media is bought and sensationally obsessed with Modi. Same thing. But I have been covering elections for 35 years and I have never been this excited for India since 1977. The people know what is wrong and they are sick of it from both parties and the change is happening behind the scenes.”
Tara Maithreyan, a 56-year-old woman from Pune who is the director of her family’s machinery manufacturing company, agrees. Her son first got involved with AAP working on flood relief in Uttarakhand and then roped her in. Deepak Bajpai, the AAP media director, left his job as a bureau chief for a TV news company to join AAP. His vision is also long term. So is the entrepreneur from Bandra, Mumbai, the student from London, the shop owner from Bihar, and the Sony worker from South Korea. Elections do not move people this way, revolutions do.
“AAP is a microcosm of India,” says Pratap, “and once upon a time that used to be the Congress party that used to represent different sections of India. It started as pan-India but you get in power so long and your interests become entrenched.”
What, then, is the conclusion on AAP that people should take away from this election?
“This election is saying that we have opened our account, we are here for the long run, this is the trailer—watch out, the movie begins now. The next election, you can really see what AAP is capable of.”