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A few weeks back, the Delhi Police invited citizens to take part in a “global police station visitors’ week”. Not a big deal, you might think. The advertisement on the front page of The Hindu pictured a friendly “beat officer” greeting a group of smiling young Delhi-ites. But the picture was accompanied by an extraordinary reassurance: “It is an exercise in public interest,” the advertisement promised gravely. “It will have no repercussions of any kind on you.”
That tells you how low the reputation of the police has sunk in the Indian capital, whose residents have grown weary of paying bribes and of risking arrest or worse at the hands of lazy police officers for crimes they have come to report.
It also helps explain the sudden rise to power in Delhi of Aam Aadmi, the party of the “common man” founded by Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax inspector who has made honesty and the fight against corruption the core of his political programme.
Before Mr Kejriwal won 28 of the 70 seats in last month’s Delhi state election and was installed as chief minister, Shazia Ilmi, a television anchor turned AAP activist, was explaining how the party was being funded by thousands of donations from ordinary people.
She told us how she had tried to dissuade a fruit vendor on the street from giving 500 rupees ($8), on the grounds that he could not afford it. He had retorted that he regularly paid the same amount in protection money – to every passing policeman.
The AAP is now the talk of the city. It is a popular urban insurgency in politics that challenges the domination of the two established national parties, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata party, and whose every step and stumble is followed breathlessly by the media.
Nor is the phenomenon confined to Delhi, whose 17m inhabitants would constitute a fair-sized country in Europe. In the forthcoming general election, Mr Kejriwal is planning to field candidates in other cities and contest every seat in Uttar Pradesh, where a sixth of India’s 1.3bn inhabitants live. Copycat parties are being mooted in neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan.
But will it last? When I moved to Delhi in 2012, an anti-corruption campaign by Anna Hazare, with whom Mr Kejriwal was once allied, had just fizzled out. Another campaign against “black money” was being launched by “Baba” Ramdev, a popular yoga guru, who attracted thousands of people to his rallies in central Delhi. He too has lost his allure, and is publicly backing the BJP and its leader Narendra Modi.
The difference between Mr Kejriwal and his predecessors in the fight against corruption in Delhi is that he won executive office. The exercise of power, unfortunately, is already proving more difficult than winning votes.
Last weekend, he called a public gathering outside the Delhi Secretariat for people to explain their grievances in person to him and his state ministers, but was forced to flee in fear of a stampede when the overenthusiastic crowd surged through the barricades. Now they will have to complain via a helpline, or wait for him to visit the slums or the suburbs in which they live.
Less than three weeks after he took office, sections of Delhi society are already grumbling about the AAP, either because the party is not fulfilling its campaign promises, or because it is: one of the state government’s first acts was to ban foreign investment in supermarkets and department stores, a populist concession to small shopkeepers which prompted expressions of dismay from Indian business organisations concerned about food prices and inefficient supply chains.
Unembarrassed AAP leaders are charmingly frank about their lack of coherent policies and their surprise at finding themselves in charge of one of the world’s biggest cities.
Among other tasks, they are now struggling to fulfil ambitious promises to provide cheap water and electricity to the poor. Even in some of the smartest parts of Delhi, water flows weakly through the main for only a few hours a day, leaving householders to pump it to rooftop tanks themselves and filter it repeatedly to extract the filth.
As he grapples with water shortages, lack of sewage treatment, bad schools, traffic jams, air pollution and an annual influx of hundreds of thousands of rural migrants, Mr Kejriwal is fast discovering that Delhi – even if it had an honest police force – would be one of the toughest cities in the world from which to launch a national campaign.