Hanuman Road, New Delhi
It is a day of seasonal transition in New Delhi when the weather still bears the remnants of winter but the sweltering promise of the North Indian summer – dry and excruciatingly hot – looms large. On this day in late March, there is a flurry of activity inside and around an old-style, cream-coloured building on Hanuman Road. The most ramshackle of structures in the lane, this building is home to a bunch of unsuspecting political activists. A somewhat rusted metal arch clings to an equally rusted gate casually thrown open to journalists, activists, students, volunteers and just about anyone interested in the most recent and quite significant political development in India – the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Adorning the arch is a lopsided and casually tied poster of its leader Arvind Kejriwal, next to the party’s symbol, the teeli wali jhaadu or stick broom – a tool of street sweepers, maids and housewives turned into an aspirational symbol for a cleaner, corruption-free politics in India. The poster announces the start of a j haadu chalao yatra (wield the broom journey), next to which a non-corporeal picture of Mr. Kejriwal hovers, teeth slightly bared beneath a bushy moustache in what can be interpreted as a scowl or a grimace, or an assertion of his personal will.
This cream-coloured Hanuman Road dwelling serves as the Delhi headquarters of the AAP. Located near Connaught Place in the heart of New Delhi, the AAP is still to secure an invitation into the exclusive club of Lutyens’ Delhi, where other political parties have their headquarters and some party bigwigs have their residences. In stark contrast to the simplicity and unkempt nature of the AAP headquarters, located across the street is a modern, shining white building that proclaims its name – Capitol Point – with a DLF logo on one side.
The frisson surrounding the AAP office on this day is linked to an imminent press conference. The AAP’s ideologue-turned-political candidate from Gurgaon, Yogendra Yadav, is going to arrive there in less than two hours. In the small courtyard, chairs are being hastily arranged and a table with a compressed wood top and metal legs has been placed flanked by three plastic chairs on one side. Someone has tacked on a backdrop with the party name and symbol to the seating arrangement in an attempt to make things look a little more professional. The first media team to arrive at the scene is Times Now and the cameraman sets up his equipment across the tiny courtyard, finally placing one solitary microphone embedded in a rectangular strut bearing the name of his channel. An hour later, the microphone is nowhere to be seen as 20 similar microphones bury the original one.
Over the next hour, about a score of media channels and other journalists arrive. Those who get spots to set up earlier are the lucky ones. The latecomers are greeted with annoyed glances and grunts of protest as they drag their bulky cameras through the throng of people and try to set-up their equipment. Oddly none of the journalists know what the press conference is about and mill about asking each other if anyone knows what is going on.
I was on my way to the AAP’s Gurgaon office when I received a call from Vivek Yadav, a Ph.D student at Columbia University and an integral member of Team Yadav,
“He’s sick, we’re coming over to CP (Connaught Place) because he has to give a press conference”, he informs me. We decide that I will instead head to Hanuman Road and wait for the Gurgaon team there. Vivek Yadav tells me that the press conference is about asset declarations of certain candidates.
A female journalist shows up about 20 minutes before the conference starts and hollers at an old AAP volunteer, “Why aren’t there any chairs? Get me a chair!” I am standing next to a tall pillar supporting the verandah as the old man hurriedly tries to push a plastic chair past me.
The smell of sweating bodies is overwhelming, raising the immediate temperature by a few degrees and I realize quickly that most journalists treat their cellular devices as extensions of their bodies, not unlike soldiers and their weapons. A female journalist with a thick, frizzy ponytail takes up a spot in front of me. The space is so limited that her hair interferes with my notepad and my writing. Another complains of claustrophobia, while the woman in front of me remarks that she is bored and cannot wait for this to finish.
“Where IS HE?” she demands looking around. I tell her that Dr. Yadav’s team has told those of us who came before that he is very sick and is on his way from Gurgaon.
“So why does he want to hold a press conference?” She snaps while texting on her phone.
She then proceeds to imitate him and his manner of speaking and laughs.
Dr. Yadav does have a particular manner of speaking. He is very measured in everything he utters and his command over language (English and Hindi) is very precise. He answers every question without giving a single hint that he is unsettled or disturbed. He never shouts and never raises his voice. This renders him unique in Indian politics. He does not believe in rhetoric and he does not believe in rousing emotions based on political identity. This also makes him an unviable candidate for the media trying to score a sound-byte with a particularly high decibel level that can be played in an eternal loop on television. Dr. Yadav distinguishes himself by not playing to this particular gallery.
After some more waiting, Dr. Yadav shows up at the venue. Unlike other politicos, security guards or sycophants do not flank him. He takes his seat at the table bearing the phalanx of microphones and doesn’t wait for any preliminaries. He begins speaking in Hindi, “Friends, the Election Commission has a requirement that every candidate declare their assets. That requirement is being laughed at.”
After guiding his audience through the EC’s requirement that properties of candidates be declared at their market value he continues, “The BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] and Congress [Indian National Congress] candidates have taken their properties and undervalued them.” Dr. Yadav then describes how his chief political competitors, Rao Inderjit Singh from the BJP and Rao Dharampal from the Congress have both found ways of declaring their assets well below both the market value and the established circle rate. He states an example where in the asset affidavit filed by Rao Inderjit Singh, a particular property is valued at Rs. 1.39 crores. According to the circle rate alone, the property should technically be Rs. 59.93 crores. The assets filed by Mr. Singh total Rs. 14.1 crores. But according to the AAP team, the real value of the assets has reached over Rs. 300 crores.
Mr. Dharampal, alleges Dr. Yadav, is one step ahead of the BJP candidate. He declared total assets of Rs.6.5 crores, but has placed most of his property outside of the asset affidavit by declaring smaller properties on which he pays income tax. Locations and measurements, says Dr. Yadav, of these properties are not given. Only the book value is shown. If the AAP is to be believed the Congress candidate has declared virtually nothing.
Dr. Yadav ends the press conference by making references to the “builder mafia” that he says operates in Gurgaon to which, he alleges that Mr. Dharampal, a property developer himself, has close connections. He says that “minimalistic betterment” that the EC is trying to usher in has been undone and more stringent measures need to be taken to make sure that affidavits reflect reality.
In barely 20 minutes, Dr. Yadav has shown what the AAP stands for – a cleaner, corruption free politics not defined by cronyism with big business.
The word aam aadmi in Hindi means common person. However, aam also refers to the well-loved mango fruit, a staple in the Indian summer. Sceptics initially referred to the aam aadmi as the mango people, an intended, somewhat comedic slur by political opponents that was appropriated by the party to generate some ingenious T-shirts, caps and other merchandise, involving mangos (mostly the safeda variety). One t-shirt even has a coquettish, grinning mango, while another has a mango with sunglasses and a crown that says aam aadmi ki to bas party hi party or loosely translated “the common man is here to party, only party”.
This odd appropriation and gentrification of the initial slur has meant that the party has come to be seen through two symbols – the pervasive broom and the equally pervasive mango fruit. Both are literally integral cultural traditions of most parts of India. The silence of almost every household, rural or urban, is broken everyday by the rhythmic scratches of the teeli wali jhaadu , and no summer is complete in most income-earning households without a steady dose of mangoes, inflation and affordability notwithstanding.
I am at the AAP headquarters to try and understand the phenomenal rise of the party, not from the point of view of the chief leaders and ideologues, but from the point of view of the volunteers and party workers that have collectively decided to throw in their lot with, what some political commentators see, as a bunch of political rookies. In later days, I travelled to the Mewat region in the State of Haryana to witness first hand their campaign strategy and methods of mobilisation. For this I visited two villages where Dr. Yadav held mobilisation rallies and delivered speeches.
The focus on Dr. Yadav emerged from a combination of curiosity and convenience. A well-known psephologist in India, who single-handedly pioneered the systematic study of elections and founded the Lokniti Network, Dr. Yadav is a well-known and respected figure in the field of political science and comparative politics. He has delivered numerous lectures worldwide on Indian elections, political economy, and, his work has focused on electoral systems and party politics. It is virtually impossible to be a graduate student studying Indian politics without encountering in one’s academic career a paper written by Dr. Yadav.
Dr. Yadav is a tall, slim person with a well-manicured beard and a measured manner of speaking that has become his trademark. He is equally fluent in English and Hindi, and his supporters inform me, Urdu as well. For many in the world of academia, his leap from political scientist, to party ideologue to political candidate has come as a surprise. What remains to be seen is whether a political scientist can win an election using a specific set of skills particular to academia.
I first encountered Dr. Yadav as a Masters student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2003. As part of our methods training we were given an assignment to conduct a survey in rural Malihabad, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s constituency, also famous for its mangoes. Since Lokniti and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) were the only organisations that conducted surveys with any level of confidence at the time, our class took a sample pre-poll questionnaire and trotted off to Lucknow with second-class compartment tickets partially paid for by the University Grants Commission. Dr. Yadav came into our classroom and offered us some instruction and tips on what needed to be done, how to request voters lists from local electoral officers and how to do sampling and why all of this was important. Once the survey was conducted (we got a total of about 700 respondents), we were taught how data is entered and then we got down to the brass tacks of how to look at data and find patterns. Dr. Yadav patiently instructed us over two days and answered our questions, letting us believe that we had done a good job, when the truth was that the sampling was off, because not everyone in the class wanted to run around in a village finding Abu or Salim or Rakesh from the voters’ list. Since the survey was only a practice exercise and was not ever going to be made public (because the quality was off by miles), we returned with stories of the trip and many students complained about how much hard work was involved in political science.
Much later, as an academic personally, I have returned many times to Dr. Yadav’s words of wisdom – pay attention to the method, the devil is in the details, try and push your thinking to find why patterns emerge. When he visited Berkeley and addressed our South Asia working group, he encouraged all students to not always give in to the seduction of large-N analysis, saying that sometimes well-done case studies reveal a lot more.
For many people like me, Dr. Yadav’s switch from being an academic and a poll pundit to a politician has set off a series of questions and thoughts. Is there anyway to turn electoral campaigning into a more precise enterprise, much like what has happened to polling and electoral studies in India? Do any of the theories we learn about median voters, party ideology and electoral systems affect the manner in which a political scientist will conduct a campaign?
The Birth of the AAP
The AAP has had a meteoric birth, entry and rise in Indian politics. In April 2011, a veteran Gandhian and prominent social activist, Anna Hazare, launched a satyagraha to protest corruption in the country. The movement came to be known as India Against Corruption (IAC), and involved Hazare going on an indefinite hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Since 2004 there had been a record number of scams in the country at both the national and State levels (numbering at 131) that included multi-crore scams.
To observers these scams exposed a variety of linkages and the movement that begat the AAP had much to say about corruption. First, as Siddharth Varadarajan has adequately point out in this recent piece 1 , the movement rallied against cronyism – political and economic. There was an overwhelming public sense of despondency about the condition of politics in the country. The Indian public over the years has become habituated to small doses of corruption at the local levels of the bureaucracy and the police. However, the same public was astounded at the capacity for and scale of wrongdoing possessed by the political class. It was therefore not surprising that people joined the Anna movement in droves. They took to the streets, starved themselves, shouted, protested, marched on government buildings and spoke out against kleptocracy and cronyism.
Second, the movement demanded the creation of the post of local ombudsmen across India, who were to be individuals of some repute and ethical standards and could act as local watchdogs against corruption. The demand was simple – create a new local parallel bureaucracy that exists only to investigate local corruption. The idea was also not new. This ombudsman, or the Jan Lokpal, had been an imaginary political hero demanded by parliament as far back as 1968 and passed by the Lok Sabha in 1969. For various reasons, the Rajya Sabha did not pass the bill in 1969. Subsequently the Lok Pal Bill was introduced in 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2005 and 2008, but never made it into actual legislation 2 . With no cross-party resolution on the need for such a post, the bill to create this parallel bureaucracy was aborted several times by either one or both houses of parliament.
But the IAC was treading in dangerous waters. Soon the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s political opponents were supporting the movement, as was a self-styled yoga guru with a mass following – Baba Ramdev. In what followed, allegations were hurled like snowballs. Baba Ramdev had an RSS connection, some papers reported, so the IAC had right-wing germs. Political parties were hijacking this movement for their own political purposes, stated some sections of the media.
The Ram Lila maidan (ground) in New Delhi saw much of this action. After a week or so of pontificating, the UPA agreed to get citizens’ input into the drafting of the Jan Lokpal Bill. For perhaps the first time in post-independence Indian history, a popular civil disobedience movement was playing political consultant to a sitting government.
Soon, however, news broke about tensions in Team Anna. The entry of Arvind Kejriwal created much discussion. Mr. Kejriwal was no stranger to politics, activism and controversy. A former officer with the Indian Revenue Service, he quit his bureaucratic job and began a career in activism. Before the 2011 Jan Lokpal agitation, his most famous involvement was with the Right to Information campaign, where alongside the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and former bureaucrat, Aruna Roy, the collective fought for the right to information to be established as a fundamental right. They won in 2005 when the Right to Information was conferred as a fundamental right for citizens of India.
In a piece in The Caravan magazine, Mehboob Jeelani, aptly profiled Mr. Kejriwal. The piece was titled, “The Insurgent”, and featured a picture of a defiant Mr. Kejriwal holding a piece of paper, the corner of which is aflame.
With Arvind Kejriwal’s entry, Anna Hazare’s movement no longer belonged solely to him. Mr. Kejriwal began to be seen as the “brains” behind IAC. He was the master planner, the pawn-placer, the strategist. He played Karl Rove to Anna Hazare’s Bush. Soon there were political differences between the two. Mr. Kejriwal wanted to institutionalise the movement by turning it into a political party, while Mr. Hazare wanted to remain outside of the electoral fray and continue with his “second freedom struggle”.
A split was inevitable. A part of Team Anna followed Arvind Kejriwal as he constituted the AAP in November 2012, with a carefully written constitution drafted in part by Yogendra Yadav with a gentle foreword by Anna Hazare.
Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP eclipsed Anna Hazare and his movement. The media played up their quotes, which oscillated from catty comments, to demurely supportive statements declaring there was no bad blood, to studied silences on international television.
Since then, Anna Hazare’s movement has virtually disappeared from reportage. In 2013, everyone watched expectantly as the AAP stumbled through neighbourhoods in New Delhi, evolved to a crawl and finally a powerful march in the Assembly elections. Out of 70 seats, the AAP won 28, a number even their polling team had underestimated. The BJP edged them out with 31 seats, while the Congress was reduced to eight. In essence, Mr. Kejriwal beat three-time contest winner from the Congress, Sheila Dixit, by a margin of 25,864 votes.
However, making the government was a separate matter from winning an election. The assembly was hung, but the AAP managed to get outside support from the Congress and a couple of other Janata Dal and independent MLAs. During his swearing-in ceremony on December 28, 2013, Mr. Kejriwal not only became the youngest Chief Minister of New Delhi, but prominently also became a Chief Minister who sang at his own inauguration. The AAP also became the first political party to ask voters to text message their decision about the party forming a minority government. In response to popular affirmative messages received over SMS, they did form a short-lived government.
Mr. Kejriwal accused the two main national parties – the BJP and the Congress of scuttling legislation and resigned in protest on February 14, 2014. The government in Delhi lasted a total of 49 days, which later prompted the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, to bequeath a sobriquet on Kejriwal - AK-49 - Arvind Kejriwal- 49. This dubious moniker has been hard to shed and residents of New Delhi stated in interviews that for many of them personally, Mr. Kejriwal did not act like a Chief Minister. Based on 49 days in office, they believed that he didn’t have a clue about governance.
Arvind Kejriwal was a unique Chief Minister. He spent his 49 days making promises of cheaper power and more water to the middle classes, but did not really say who would bankroll the enterprise and how it would be done. Over the months, he had become glib on television, like other members of the AAP. He could be found dodging questions from reporters in an adept manner, a skill that he did not seem to possess initially. During his tenure, he spent some time sleeping outside the New Delhi Railway Station cementing his connection to the poorest of the poor. Sometimes in ill health, he developed a trademark cough that was relentlessly parodied over YouTube in small sketches. During his tenure, his Law Minister, Somnath Bharti staged a crack investigation at Khirki Extension in New Delhi, ostensibly to break a narcotics and sex trafficking racket. A mob, allegedly led by Mr. Bharti, assaulted four African women leading to a debate on vigilantism, racism and misogyny.
Oddly, in spite of how unconstitutional the raid was, the AAP stuck by the Law Minister saying they had evidence of wrongdoing in Khirki. They said law-abiding residents of Khirki supported the raid because they were fed up of foreigners and the alleged prostitution in the area. The AAP began to lose some public space in Delhi, as a consequence. A resident of Vasant Kunj, expressed her reservations about the AAP. She said that under Kejriwal she wasn’t sure how much electricity they would have over the summer. She also suggested that the AAP’s vigilante raid on prostitution was no better than that of the right-wing conservatives.
This ideological ambiguity has perhaps been the strength and an inbuilt weakness of the AAP. Starting as an issue-based political group, the AAP is yet to fall on some ideological side. The statements issued, especially after the Khirki incident led many to take a call that the AAP was just a less saffron version of the BJP. It was telling that during their sweep of New Delhi in December 2013, one constituency where they lost was Okhla, which includes Jamia Nagar, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood.
This ideological ambiguity has allowed a wide spectrum of people to align themselves with the AAP. On the one hand there are the reformed left-wingers, annoyed with the communist parties and not as radical as the Maoists. On the other hand, there are professed right-wingers, academicians, lawyers, journalists, students, entertainers and middlemen. Perhaps by not declaring an ideology the AAP is playing catchall, knowing fully well that to be a national party, it needs to get either 6 per cent of the votes in four States and win 4 Lok Sabha seats, or, get recognised as a State party in at least 4 States, or, win 2 per cent of the vote from at least 3 States in a Lok Sabha election. To achieve official national party status means that the AAP has to effectively eat into the vote shares of other national and regional parties.
Despite initial hiccups and the very public performance of a government in protest against itself, the AAP still brought a number of changes to how the political game was played. As Dr. Yadav said in a meeting at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy in Chennai, they reinvented door-to-door campaigning in Delhi. The AAP volunteers would knock on every door and speak to the residents for support and a small contribution, even two rupees. They would then ask the resident of a particular apartment or house, if he or she would be willing to take them to one more house in their neighbourhood. They used this to gauge their support in a particular neighbourhood. As Dr. Yadav said, “if they go even to one house with us, that says something.”
The AAP has strictly abided by EC rules. At one point, they asked autorickshaw drivers to put AAP posters at the back of their vehicles. The EC frowned and the AAP took them down. Similarly, the AAP practiced transparency in declaring its sources of contributions. Under the Election Commission guidelines, every party has to reveal any contribution in excess of Rs. 20,000. Some parties, like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), have filed affidavits that suggest that they have never got any contributions above Rs. 20,000. Most political observers find this hard to believe.
Between Dr. Yadav and Mr. Kejriwal, the AAP is today poised on the cusp of changing the manner in which electoral politics is conducted in India. As Mehboob Jeelani wrote in The Caravan , “His [Kejriwal’s] essential message never changes: only a powerful independent anti-corruption agency, with wide-ranging authority and minimal government interference, can cure the plague of graft—and anything less will fail”. 3
The AAP and Mr. Kejriwal view corruption in India in a game theoretic way. They believe that there aren’t enough institutional measures to fight graft and corruption, such that engaging in corruption becomes a risk-free enterprise with high returns. 4
The People Behind the AAP
Back at the AAP office on Hanuman Road, I sit in the media room where there is a sign in the corner that tells me that I am under CCTV surveillance. There is also a huge poster of Mr. Kejriwal that says “yeh desh ke liye tan man aur dhan nyochhavar karne ka avsar hai” . This is the time to bequeath your body, mind and wealth to the nation. It seems many have responded to this call for sacrifice. I speak to Ravi Bhogal who sits in a room opposite to the media room at the AAP office. He says, “We joined the party because we [his wife and him] were attached to the principles of the party and the issues so that our country can be number one. We are dedicated volunteers and we are dedicated to the nation and want only the victory of truth.”
Mr. Bhogal is a 44-year-old construction engineer who has a small business in Kalkaji Extension in New Delhi. He has never joined any party. He looks at one corner of the room and says to no one in particular, “this is not a party but a revolution. I am proud to be a part of this revolution.”
Mr. Bhogal informs me that he has travelled to many countries and has “lived” in Europe and other Asian countries as a tourist. After returning he wondered why India couldn’t be like other places. These thoughts, he says, propelled him to join. As a lifetime resident of Delhi, Mr. Bhogal and his wife were disturbed by the New Delhi gang rape case of 2012. The protests that followed, where the AAP became involved as well, seemed to him like a “good platform and a good NGO that can change the world.”
As the party developed and performed through agitations for a number of people and causes, Mr. Bhogal became more involved in what he calls a “war on corruption that we have to defeat.” His business was affected but he says he can get by and that he is doing something more useful for the nation. He did door to door canvassing, data entry and donated the Kalkaji assembly office for use by the AAP.
When asked how party workers responded to Mr. Kejriwal’s resignation, he said, “both parties were not even ready to talk. Amendments were not even considered… both parties did not even want to talk. 42 people came together and decided that no one will even discuss it… We had 28 [MLAs]. If we had 36, then things would have been different. AAP has done things in 49 days. The BJP formed the government in many States but they did nothing in the same amount of time in the other States… If they don’t let him work he has to resign”.
After some time a tall man bustles into the room followed by his wife in a blue salwar-kameez with a dupatta covering her head. He is Harbans Lal Bhagat, the AAP’s Jammu candidate who is a bit flustered because the local electoral officer has been giving him a spot of trouble in Jammu and Kashmir. Apparently, he showed up in time to file his nomination with the requisite official, but after being made to wait past 3 pm he was told the office was closing. Mr. Bhagat believes this is all part of a design to ensure that AAP candidates have a hard time as they challenge contenders from national political parties. He identifies himself as a common man who has worked as a Block Development Officer in the past and has also been a plan production officer in his home State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Mr. Bhagat says that he has a finger on the pulse of the people because he has served at the local level as an official with the capacity to make changes. He is noticeably happy to be talking to people writing about the AAP. As he tells me, “I came only for an interview, but the mandate came home. Aam aadmi ko khaas aadmi bana diya hai .” They have turned a common man into a rare man.
Boasting of millions of followers in spirit and a couple of million on the rolls, the AAP has opened up a political space for many young people and older political hopefuls that could never have crossed the high barriers of entry set by other bigger political parties or richer regional ones. As some recent data has shown, parties prefer to give tickets to richer candidates, making it difficult for a person with limited means to make an effective political inroad either independently, or through a party. The AAP has lowered such barriers of entry. For the AAP what matters is the honesty and popularity of the candidate in a particular area.
Mr. Bhogal briefs me about the manner in which candidates are selected. The AAP has a political affairs committee with 26 people that was formed along with the inception of the party. There are State committees that recommend the applicants for tickets and then the central committee makes a final decision. Since the AAP is still in the process of institutionalising and getting members, they have not paid much attention to internal elections, saying that some of this will evolve as the party grows. In the beginning they simply picked people they thought could get a particular job done. However, says Mr. Bhogal, they do have teams of active volunteers everywhere. Prof. Ajit Jha, another party volunteer, looks after the formation of district committees. From a metropolitan tier one city they typically receive 40-50 applications for tickets, while from rural areas they get 10-15 applications.
This tells us that for now the AAP remains a party rooted in the middle class, while championing the urban lower income groups (not the absolute urban poor). Their reach in villages is still limited, but concerted campaigning, as I noted, in rural areas is happening, although it is unclear what the local residents in rural areas think about these attempts.
“Candidates are selected based on their calibre and their background”, says Mr. Bhogal.“If we find a candidate with any criminal background he will be expelled. For this there is an internal investigation team which has legal experts, judges and advisors.” He explains how Bollywood actress, Gul Panag, was chosen as the AAP’s candidate in Chandigarh. He says that she comes from a defence background and one can be relatively certain that people from a military background are more honest than others. The AAP, he reports, also disqualified a candidate from Moradabad for being involved in bank fraud.
The next day I went to Mewat district of Haryana, which has a population of about one million. Mewat is home to the Meos, a curious group of people. The Meos were originally Hindu Rajputs that embraced Islam in the late 1100s. However, they have managed to retain a uniquely syncretic identity where they hold on to Hindu traditions, just as strongly as they practice Islam. Over time, many other groups also converted to Islam in the region and are collectively called Meo.
Mewat district was carved out of Gurgaon in 2005 to become the 20th district of Haryana. It has a sex ratio of 906 females per thousand males and a literacy rate of 56.1 per cent. However, for the purposes of polling for the Lok Sabha, Mewat is subsumed under Gurgaon parliamentary constituency.
Dr. Yadav is the AAP’s candidate from Gurgaon. As part of his electoral campaign, he has spent the last few months covering every part of Gurgaon parliamentary constituency, which includes the villages of Mewat district.
The drive from New Delhi to Nuh, the district headquarters of Mewat in Gurgaon parliamentary constituency is riddled with contradictions. People usually tend to associate Gurgaon with state of the art call centre buildings, posh high-rises testifying to the economic strength of a 400 million strong middle class. This middle class now has expensive consumer aspirations and the dream of Western suburban, gated communities. In Gurgaon, these are rendered in a uniquely Indian manner where the communities do exist surrounded by clusters of the poor that work in the richer homes as domestic help.
An hour away from Gurgaon and its glitter, the story is altogether different. We reach Nuh but Dr. Yadav is hard to track. His day, says Banasmita Bora a key member of Team Yadav who worked with Dr. Yadav at CSDS, starts at 7 am. The team starts out early and has planned in advance all the villages he will visit throughout the day. With over 500 villages to visit, this is a Herculean task but not something that deters the young people that stage his visits. Between Banasmita Bora and Vivek Yadav, I triangulate Dr. Yadav’s position. He is giving a speech at Kairaka, a village an hour and twenty minutes away from Gurgaon. During each day, he typically visits between 8 to 10 villages.
On the way from Nuh to Kairaka, I suggest that we ask for directions. We stop at Rohtak Dhaba, where a few truck drivers sit on coir charpoys (cots) eating a simple meal. We ask for tea. The owner/manager comes over and shouts to a man behind him in a makeshift kitchen asking for tea to be served. The dhaba is a truckers’ stop, but there are not many trucks at this time of the afternoon. I ask the way to Kairaka. The man asks me why we want to go there. I tell him I am tracking Dr. Yadav’s campaign for a piece and ask him if he knows about the AAP.
The man smiles and says yes, “jhaadu wali ayee thi” . The woman with the broom had come here.
He is referring to Dr. Yadav’s sister, who has been campaigning for her brother as well. The sexism and sarcasm of that statement is not lost. By equating a female campaigner with a street sweeper the man has already made clear his political emotion for the AAP. There is a casual dismissal of the AAP in his tone. The AAP has received much condescension from various quarters. Being a party of non-elites that valourizes the common person, the AAP is trying to upset social boundaries and norms, apart from ushering in institutional change. They have focused on mobilising female voters and have wanted women to come out and vote in large numbers. Some of this has not gone down well within families dominated by patriarchs in especially male-dominated north India.
Upon reaching the rural enclave of Kairaka, the AAP team is not hard to find. The driver is directed by children slamming on the bonnet of the car to the “big rally” being held in the space that doubles up as the village square. There are about 150 people in attendance. There are few women. Girls, as young as five swaddled in salwar-kameez and with heads covered with dupattas , balance younger children on their hips. Many women are working in the fields outside the village with a handful of men. Some of the women walk past with bales of hay or other loads on their heads. They don’t seem to have the time for speeches. They don’t stop what they are doing, put down their loads and listen. Families have to be fed, and children governed and disciplined.
Most of the houses in such villages are made of brick and concrete, but are understandably poor. Gurgaon’s urban development has not reached here and there is no visible trickle-down effect from the gains of the international economy just an hour away. The contradiction is stark and unsettling.
Most of the people in Mewat are agriculturalists. Combined with local traditions, being rooted in a land economy has meant that many women are uneducated. In a conservative environment, women are not expected to learn or even step out on voting day. For this purpose the AAP has asked Dr. Preeti Mann to volunteer. Dr. Mann is responsible for mobilizing women in rural Mewat. A graduate of Oxford University with a Ph.D in anthropology, she has been working on the Mewat region as part of her research for the last few years. Her grasp of the socio-economic and gender dynamics of the area is firm.
As we walk down one gali in Kairaka, she tells me about how the AAP has been reaching out to women. Dr. Mann, along with a few others, asks the older women to meet with them. Any living room becomes a gathering where they try to impart information about politics to the women, including informing them about their rights and how to exercise the franchise. The response, she says, has been very good. However, she says, it is difficult to get women to meet in more public areas. The most effective strategy it seems is to turn private spaces into semi-public meeting areas, where men are less likely to interfere.
After the polling in Gurgaon was over, the AAP alleged that there had been massive booth rigging and very few female voters had shown up to vote since there were efforts by other political parties to depress turnout. Gurgaon apparently registered 74 per cent voter turnout, but Team AAP has stated that this seems to be a trumped up figure. Most women that they came across in villages did not have the ink mark on their fingers. On another day, Team AAP stated that men had cast proxy votes for the female voters. There had been local efforts to depress turnout, undercutting the entire mobilisation done in the region by Dr. Yadav’s team.
When Dr. Yadav has finished a cup of tea with Kairaka’s local residents, the AAP team tells us that the next stop is Nausera village about 15 minutes away. Midway through his lecture at Kairaka, a small goods carrier with AAP posters and other paraphernalia and a mobile sound system had already made its way to Nausera. By the time Dr. Yadav would arrive there, the scene would be all set. The AAP does not go to a central field and then bus crowds in from the neighbouring villages. Instead, most of their candidates stand under trees, on street corners, under makeshift shelters, on equally makeshift podiums and speak about politics.
In Nausera village, Dr. Yadav speaks atop the chopal , the place where typically village elders gather. His message is mixed with promises of development, like any other politician, but importantly, it was also full of the dangers of a Modi government. He tells his audience that he has a serious matter to discuss with them and talks about communal violence and human rights. He also says that the AAP are the biggest challengers to the BJP and by contesting from Varanasi against Mr. Modi, Mr. Kejriwal is the man to back. He also states that the Congress lacks the gumption to successfully contest against Mr. Modi in Varanasi.
As an observer, it is unclear what kind of an impact such speeches have made locally. There are small crowds listening, but enough numbers of drifters, who have not found the immediate satisfaction of nationalistic passions being stoked. At one point in Nausera, an AAP volunteer begins distributing caps to the people, which creates a rush and interrupts Dr. Yadav’s speech. “I’m talking about something serious”, he says chastising his errant team member, his patience slipping a bit.
For people in Nausera, Kairaka, Nuh and other regions of Gurgaon, political rallies don’t come home to roost. And they are usually not this small. Most leaders in India prefer to walk onto a constructed stage in a vast open field and deliver a scripted speech. Volunteers of parties hand out goodies- posters, pens, stickers, caps, badges, flags. The AAP’s strategy of neighbourhood mobilisation is unique. However, for an electorate used to getting some immediate benefit (economic or emotional) from attending a rally, the AAP may disappoint. There is no nationalistic fervour, there are no broad claims made; people are asked to help stop the rot in the system and make things better. They are told they can do this by voting for the AAP.
Compared with the witticisms aimed at political opponents passing off for logic and the general chest thumping passing off as nationalism that this campaign has seen, the AAP’s message is remarkably humble and simple. We are the small guys… the nobodies, the message goes, vote for us.