Last week, the Aam Aadmi ("Common Man's") Party of India, the most unusual new political formation of substance to have appeared here in the last two decades, formally announced its election symbol. The icon of the party led by the anti-corruption crusader (and former civil servant) Arvind Kejriwal is the humble Indian jhaadu, or broom.
Symbols are indispensable in Indian politics, enjoying a currency that has dwindled in the West. In a hugely multilingual country where a large part of the electorate is either illiterate, semi-literate, unable to read English or unable to read the language of a particular region, political communication is often as much visual as oral and textual. At the ballot box, voters often choose a symbol rather than a name (a snapshot of an Indian ballot paper is here). When the next general elections are held in 2014, voters will be exhorted at political rallies to vote, variously, for the upraised hand of the center-left Congress Party, the lotus of the Hindu nationalist BJP, the ears of corn and sickle of the Communist Party, the BSP's elephant or the Samajwadi Party's bicycle.
Once claimed by a party, these symbols can't be poached. From the hurricane lamp to the conch, the sun (without rays) to the electric bulb, India's political scene is a beautiful and sometimes bizarre carnival of icons of universal or local significance. The election symbols of the seven parties that pass the technical requirements to be called a "national party" are well-known. But the Election Commission of India then has to allot symbols to the dozens of parties that have a presence in one or state or another, while also holding off the advances of, at last count, the 1,392 other "registered but unrecognized" parties that express the political aspirations of some class, group or sect or perhaps just a single ambitious person.
In a 2009 notification about election symbols, the Election Commission helpfully put out a list of available "free symbols" for new political parties. In choosing a new symbol this year, however, the Aam Aadmi Party ignored this inventory, passing over (if one considers just the letter "b") balloon, banana, basket, bat, battery torch, basket, bread, brief case and brush, and choosing the broom, instead. Last Saturday, explaining the party's choice of symbol, Kejriwal said:
The broom symbolises that the time has come to clean the politics of the country. The Aam Aadmi Party has vowed not to give a ticket to any tainted candidate. The broom will become our weapon from now on. We will fight shoulder to shoulder with this community to clean this country.
The choice of symbol derives from the party's origins, in 2011, in India Against Corruption, a mass movement orchestrated by Kejriwal and the septuagenarian social activist Anna Hazare (who has since faded from the scene). When the movement was mocked as unrepresentative by elected politicians from the major parties, the brain trust of IAC decided to use its goodwill among the middle-class, financial capital raised from donations and influence in the media generated by its campaign to set up a political party in November last year.
The new formation immediately showed it wasn't a force to be taken lightly, rocking the two biggest Indian political parties with a series of carefully aimed charges of corruption in their topmost echelons. In March the party was recognized by the Election Commission, and it has declared its intentions to contest all 70 seats in assembly elections in Delhi later this year, and put up a number of candidates in next year's national elections.
A couple of months ago, I attended the retirement function of a friend, an executive at India's largest insurance company. I asked what his post-retirement plans were. "I'm going to be joining the AAP as a volunteer," he said. "It's my way of giving something back to the country." It's unlikely that such a choice would have existed for a previous generation of educated professionals, who sensed an invisible wall between themselves and the profession of politics.
To middle-class Indians such as my friend, Kejriwal's allure lies in that he appears to be someone just like them. He's not a first- or second-generation dynast set up in politics by fond parents (such as the bumbling, cliche-spouting Congressman Rahul Gandhi and dozens of other dubbed "hereditary MPs" in 2011 by the writer Patrick French), or a politician conveniently drawing power from and speaking for a particular regional, ethnic or linguistic group (that's most Indian political parties), or a businessman bartering financial power for a ticket to parliament, or yet another rhetorician walking the tired old roads of religious chauvinism and communism. And he's promised that the party won't field anybody who answers to this description either.
The party's "vision document" is somewhat utopian, its economic program as yet inchoate, and its ideology a strange melange of contempt for and idealization of political activity. But at least it speaks the language of citizenship and public-spiritedness, which is an idiom that had long fallen by the wayside in Indian politics. And it offers thousands of Indians the novel experience of signing up on a website and turning up at a neighborhood meeting in one of the large Indian cities to discuss local and national issues without sensing that their efforts are politically irrelevant. Indeed, in a party where all positions are new, new members can even contemplate standing for public office themselves. The party is currently soliciting candidates for assembly elections in Delhi through an open nominations process that declares:
100 voters of any assembly constituency can come together and propose the name of a person they wish to be the candidate for their constituency. Also, a prospective candidate himself, with the approval of the 100 voters from his constituency, may propose his name... Application forms can be downloaded online or can be obtained from any of our party offices.
With India's first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all electoral system, it's always been difficult for small or new parties to share in the spoils of power, which is one reason why so many Indian political parties confine themselves to small regional strongholds. So it may be a long time before the Aam Aadmi graduates to being something more than a spoiler -- if even that. But for now, the sight and spirit of its broom on the fairground of Indian politics is most welcome.
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