The first thing you should know about Rakhi Birla, 26, is that she is not a Birla. The last name of the upstart Aam Aadmi Party’s youngest minister in Delhi is a misspelling from school records.
As the bright, articulate former journalist works nights inspecting state-run shelters and homes, she has little time or inclination to tell the national and local media that her last name is Bidlan, which is many worlds removed from the Birlas, a prosperous business community.
The Bidlans are of considerably more modest means. They are low-caste Valmikis, aam aadmis, ordinary folk. Rakhi’s mother is a safai karmachari, a cleaner, and her father, a social worker.
They live in Mangolpuri, a hardscrabble, north-west Delhi working-class suburb. Unlike her chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal — for whom finding a modest, State-provided house in ruling-class Delhi is proving a controversial task — Rakhi, the city’s new woman and child-welfare minister, does not intend to move from her teeming neighbourhood of illegal factories and rickety homes.
“Bungalow?” she said with impatience on a television show. “What do I do with a bungalow? I am hardly going to sit in a bungalow and address this city’s problems.”
In a country where politics is often driven by caste, community and other forms of religious identity, Bidlan — who refused a police escort despite an attack on her official car (a Toyota Innova without a red light) — echoes her party’s ethos by refusing to cash in on her old, caste classification or official, new privilege.
I was deeply sceptical of the street protests that spawned the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) 14 months ago. The party’s anti-corruption methods are muddled in conception and naive in ambition. Yet, it is impossible to dismiss the excitement the party and its shaky new government in Delhi has floated in urban India. In the last four days, more than 1.2 million people have signed up for AAP. The prospect of seeing more interesting, upright people, such as Bidlan, in government raises the hope of a new political dialogue for India.
It is, admittedly, no more than hope.
Delhi is certainly not India, and AAP’s petri-dish government must function in a city where the Union government controls the real power and purse-strings. It is admirable that the party wants to reinvent governance, but it will quickly need to demonstrate a model that moves beyond street consultations and sting-and-shame methods. It needs to talk to us about the boring things, including taxation, agriculture, market and labour reform; capital flight and sceptical capitalists.
“The challenge is how to sell what is right, not peddle whatever sells,” tweeted Jayaprakash Narayan, a former bureaucrat whose Lok Satta party, launched 17 years ago in a meeker, more disconnected India, was the precursor to AAP (both parties are now in talks to work together).
The power of hope is such that AAP — despite some flaky economic beliefs, the odd dubious member and many unarticulated policies — is attracting some fine minds from amongst an India that has cynically locked itself out of politics.
This hope is primarily driven by a great relief that there could be an alternative to the Congress or the BJP. The negative feelings for the two national parties among uncommitted voters can be distilled to two words: corrupt (Congress); communal (BJP). Of course, the Congress can also be regarded as selectively communal and the BJP selectively corrupt and such simplifications overlook talented, honest and hardworking people in both parties, but the general perception is valid.
That there might be a party shunning sectarian, dishonest tendencies and capable of attracting people like Bidlan and psephologist-turned-ideologue Yogendra Yadav is enough to imbue middle-class, urban India with hope. When Yadav says “we stand for the vulnerable, we stand for the last person” and admits — as he did in an interview with Mint this week — a lack of “very elaborate plans” for national elections, for many this is enough, for now. Such a party, we believe, is worthy of attention, excitement and involvement — for now. It is too early to judge them.
So it is that I find AAP flyers in the ramshackle play area in Richards Park, my little patch of green in globalised but crumbling, corrupt Bangalore. Outside, young men and women in pointy, white Gandhi topis, urge me to join the party, as millions are now doing in cities across India. I hear how entire, excited company offices are signing up. I feel the enthusiasm of friends previously disinterested in politics.
Across India, there’s enough mass excitement to shake even the BJP, which until now believed its time had come. As for the cynical Congress, fattened by its years in power, AAP is no more than a heaven-sent means to derail the BJP, even if Rahul Gandhi talks of learning from them. When the police, in Delhi, detain a man for overtaking the convoy of his brother-in-law, Robert Vadra and, in Haryana, beat senseless a poor rickshaw driver for mistakenly straying into the path of the Congress chief minister’s motorcade, it is obvious there is much to learn.
In the political equivalent of the blink of an eye, AAP’s new conversations find echoes. Rajasthan’s imperious BJP chief minister, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, descended from royalty, has in her newly inaugurated second innings decreed fewer escort cars, minimal security and maximum austerity.
In a fickle India of short-attention spans, its changing opinions shaped by a herd-like mass media, the winter — to paraphrase a fellow columnist — may indeed have belonged to the BJP, and the spring may indeed belong to AAP. We do not know what the summer winds will bear. But we do know they will blow in more Bidlans than ever before.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.