NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Some of the biggest celebrations of state election results in Delhi on Sunday were not for the winners, but for a brand-new anti-graft party that stormed India’s establishment to win a close second place.
Hundreds of activists wearing boat-shaped “Gandhi hats” bearing the slogan, “I am a common man”, gathered at the party’s modest headquarters, cheering and waving brooms in the air to symbolise a clean-out of rotten politicians.
The upstart Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party is led by mild-mannered former civil servant Arvind Kejriwal who has vowed to end the stranglehold of India’s two largest parties in the capital and beyond, and clean up politics in the process.
Kejriwal defeated the three-time chief minister of Delhi in her own constituency and his party came close to winning control of the city. The challenge for him now is to grow his movement in time for national elections due by May - a task that could pit him against leading opposition candidate Narendra Modi.
“I‘m fully confident that finally the country will win, people will win, democracy will come, and India will win,” Kejriwal said, addressing supporters after bringing to an end Dikshit’s 15-year run in the city.
The metropolis of Delhi is a city-state with a burgeoning population of about 16 million.
The remarkable rise of the bespectacled Kejriwal from the ashes of a street protest movement two years ago has shaken national parties which, only days before Sunday’s results, had dismissed the buzz around the new party as hype.
It is uncertain how much the Aam Aadmi Party can grow in time for the general election, especially since one internal survey ahead of the Delhi election found that about a third of the party’s supporters wanted to see Modi as prime minister.
The state results in Delhi, along with three other state elections whose results were counted on Sunday, were a resounding rejection of the Congress party, which has ruled India at a national level for two consecutive terms.
In Delhi, the anti-Congress party vote was split between the Aam Aadmi Party and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the county’s second largest political group after Congress. The BJP won a majority in three states but Kejriwal’s strength resulted in a hung legislative assembly in Delhi.
Kejriwal promises transparent political funding in a country where parties often deal with unregistered bags of cash, and offers populist policies, such as slashing electricity prices, that appeal to both the middle class and poor Delhi residents.
The party’s door-to-door campaigning on a shoestring budget performed well against the multi-million-rupee advertising blitzes and mass rallies of the Congress and the BJP.
Any growth of the new party outside Delhi could also eat into BJP support.
Prominent party activist Atishi Marlena said the Aam Aadmi Party had 309 committees across 22 of India’s 28 states.
“We chose to focus all our attention in this first election in Delhi,” Marlena told a TV news network.
“We will be expanding to all other parts of the country and I think the scope for alternative politics exists, and it’s a trend that we see not just in India, it’s a trend that we are seeing all over the world.”
Rahul Gandhi, leading the national election campaign for the ruling Congress party, and who as heir to the Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty epitomizes India’s political establishment, praised Kejriwal on Sunday.
“I think the Aam Aadmi Party has involved a lot of people who the traditional parties did not involve,” he told reporters.
“We are going to learn from that and we are going to do a better job than anybody in the country, and involve people in ways that you cannot even imagine right now,” Gandhi said.
Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Tony Tharakan and Andrew Roche