Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ordinary-man party proves extraordinary

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PUNE, India -- A year ago thousands of people took to the streets of Delhi to protest the brutal rape of a young woman and demand stronger legislation on violence against women, with some success. Now 80,000 people have left their homes to welcome Delhi's new state government, headed by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the party of the ordinary man.

So determined are the leaders of this new party to cast off the perks and corruption of the older political parties that on Dec. 28 all seven cabinet members headed for the inauguration on the Delhi metro, carrying brooms to symbolize their intent to run a clean government.

Throughout India, millions watched the noon-hour ceremony on TV. Delhi is a small state of a mere 18 million people, but the experiment in democracy there interests everyone.

Politics here is like the weather to a Canadian -- a topic to be monitored constantly, and commented on at the drop of a hat. Whenever I hear my husband throw the phrase "bloody crooks" into an otherwise Punjabi conversation, I know he is referring to the latest scam.

Examples of corruption are rife, from the highest political levels right through the civil service. Since the last federal election in 2009, five federal cabinet ministers have been forced to resign on account of corruption charges. Closer to home, I know a man who has been owed money by a state government for four years. The bureaucrat in charge refuses to sign the cheque without a 40 per cent kickback.

The spotty persecution of culprits has led to the demand for the establishment of independent ombudsmen at the federal level and in all the states. Anna Hazare, following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, fasted until a lokpal (ombudsman) bill was finally tabled in the federal house in 2011.

Then, a year ago, some of Hazare's followers formed the AAP. Unlike Hazare, they believed the only way to assure clean government was to step into the political arena themselves. Already, they have been proven right. As soon as the AAP won in Delhi, the ruling Congress coalition finally pushed through the federal lokpal bill.

This May, there will be a federal election in India. Until the AAP took office in Delhi, there were only two real contenders federally, the Indian National Congress (the party that led the independence struggle and has dominated India ever since), and the BJP (a Hindu nationalist party that last formed the federal government 1999-2004).

It looked as if BJP leader Narendra Modi, a man untainted by corruption personally, was poised to become India's next prime minister. Now, if the AAP shows competence in governing Delhi, the anti-corruption vote could swing to them, or split, leaving Congress in power. At this point, the results are anyone's guess.

The AAP, unlike the BJP, is not sectarian. At the moment it represents the best of India -- its youth, its idealism and the unity of people of diverse religions, languages and cultural groups. All over the country people are paying 10 rupees to sign an AAP membership card.

In some ways the movement reminds me of Jack Layton's orange sweep in Canada's last federal election. Here is a young, educated, idealistic crowd engaging in politics at last.

At 45, AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal is a clever, articulate man who gave up a good job in the Indian Revenue Service to work for reform of the system. (His wife, also an IRS officer, kept her job.) The problem is his task is huge, expectations are high, and he and his cohorts have no political experience at all. A great weight has fallen on the fragile shoulders of an ordinary man. So far he is bearing up. In the first days of his administration, he announced radical changes in water and electricity rates in an effort to provide those essential services to low-income residents.

If intelligence, sincerity and determination count, Kejriwal and the AAP might succeed in providing clean, efficient government in the nation's capital. And what an important example that would set in a country where more than 50 per cent of the population is younger than 25.

Faith Johnston is a Winnipeg writer who spends her winter months in India with her Indian husband.

STILL SPRING IN TUNISIA

The constituent assesmbly of Tunisia adopted a proposal to require gender parity in all legislative assemblies, and then sang the national anthem, a display that brought tears to writer Noah Feldman's eyes. Read his account at wfp.to/comment.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 0

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