January 21, 2014 1:24 pm

Delhi’s AAP accused of failing to swap activism for governance

Supporters of New Delhi's Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, break down police barricades during a demonstration against the police in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Kejriwal, who created and leads the Aam Aadmi, or Common Man's Party, has accused the police force of targeting the poor for petty offenses and refusing to combat serious crime. (AP Photo / Altaf Qadri)©AP

Push comes to shove: supporters of Arvind Kejriwal break police barricades in New Delhi on Tuesday

When India’s year-old Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, party, unexpectedly took power in Delhi last month, euphoric residents of the city hoped for a much-needed revolution in governance from a party rooted in a popular anti-corruption movement.

But the AAP’s political honeymoon is ending fast, as its street-fighting tactics, including vigilantism and protests threaten to alienate the middle-class voters who helped propel it into power and raise its aspirations for a bigger role on the national political stage.

“In my view, the AAP’s magic has lost its shine,” says Dipankar Gupta, sociologist and author of books on India. “On the national front, the AAP has kind of blown it. Either they don’t have a game plan, or they are not able to plot their strategy properly.”

Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, on Tuesday called off a 36-hour street protest he had instigated to back his demand that authority over Delhi’s police be transferred from the national government to the local administration.

The demonstration, and the police closure of metro stations and blocking of main roads to prevent AAP supporters from joining the protest, caused serious traffic jams and huge problems for commuters.

The rabble-rousing tactics have also prompted fierce criticism that the AAP is failing to make the transition from activism to governance. It has even fuelled speculation that Mr Kejriwal is angling for the Congress party, which has backed his minority administration, to withdraw its support and spare him the difficulties of governing the city of 17m people.

“Delhi govt goes missing,” screamed a banner headline in The Indian Express newspaper on yesterday morning. Inside, a scathing editorial said: “Despite heading a state government now, Arvind Kejriwal’s party seems to know only one trick – that of showy, permanent insurrection.”

The AAP’s stunning electoral upset in Delhi – on the back of strong middle-class support – prompted talk of it as a wild card in upcoming parliamentary elections, offering a fresh alternative to voters fed up with both India’s ruling Congress and its rival Bharatiya Janata party.

They’ve brought in a militant protest culture and a confrontational attitude

- Swapan Das Gupta, political analyst

But even before Mr Kejriwal’s street protest, serious doubts had emerged about the new administration’s style that critics say seems rooted in vigilantism or mob rule.

Its first step in the battle against corruption has been a new telephone hotline that coaches citizens on how to carry out sting operations against bribe-seekers. Party volunteers dispatched to assess state facilities like schools and hospitals were accused of manhandling the staff.

Then last week, Somnath Bharti, the AAP’s law minister, led a mob in a controversial raid in which four Ugandan women complained of being held hostage in their car for hours. Other African women complained that mobs tried to kick down their doors.

Mr Kejriwal’s street protest – which began with the Delhi police’s refusal to obey Mr Bharti’s orders to arrest the Ugandan women without proper warrants – amplified doubts.

“This is the instinct of people who have always agitated,” Swapan Das Gupta, a political analyst, said of the current demonstration.

“They’ve brought in a militant protest culture and a confrontational attitude. They will certainly alienate the middle class. Chaos is something they don’t want.”

Additional reporting by Avantika Chilkoti in Jaipur.

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