Meet Kejriwal’s friends,who were behind success of Aam Aadmi Party

Behind big success of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi elections,lay many such small stories.

Written by Naveed Iqbal | Published: December 15, 2013 2:59 am

From those who raised the funds to those who formed the manifestos,from those who marked out AAP online to those who established it door-to-door,from jan sabhas to campuses,from workshops to polling booths.

Aditi Vatsa,Naveed Iqbal and Dipankar Ghose trace those who made AAP possible

Photo: Aam Aadmi Party

They were the nowhere people who were everywhere — working away from the cameras that now won’t leave them alone,and under the noses of the political parties that ignored them; reaching those parts of Delhi that had fallen off the map and others that made up its faultlines; and standing out from the crowd even while emphasising their merging-in. Behind the big success of the Aam Aadmi Party on election day on December 8 in Delhi,lay many such small stories.

Almost all began at 41,Hanuman Road,particularly a small room on the first floor with an ambitious name tagged on the door and two brooms hung crossing each other like a coat of arms on one of its walls. ‘War Room’,a small,unadorned paper with just the party’s utilitarian symbol of broom on it,declares at the door,going on to list the names of those allowed in. At the top is Arvind Kejriwal. Other names have been scribbled on later. Since December 8,many of them are among those trying to decipher AAP for excitable TV channels.

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Photo: Aam Aadmi Party

Pankaj Gupta,among those with access to the ‘War Room’,says the battle began with mobilising resources. Following the formation of AAP,party members say,there was “a lot of goodwill” but this was not translating into financial assistance. “On the first day,Shanti Bhushan gave us Rs 1 crore. That was enough to begin work. An online portal was launched in January,” says Gupta.

Soon after the online fund-raising campaign was kicked off,donations started pouring in. “In the beginning,we would collect around Rs 1 lakh on one day,” Gupta says. However,afraid there would not be enough for the party to contest the polls,AAP launched an e-mail drive. “The amount jumped to Rs 3-4 lakh,” says Gupta,“still not enough”.

Photo: Aam Aadmi Party

At the same time,he adds,they were conscious of finding a balance between “enough money” and “too much money”. So,under the guidance of Gupta,who had been associated with the Jan Pratinidhi Manch that contested municipal elections in Delhi and Gurgaon,AAP came up with a figure of Rs 20 crore for contesting the Delhi Assembly polls. “Each candidate required around Rs 15 lakh for campaigning. Thus we needed a little over Rs 10 crore for all our candidates. The remaining Rs 9-10 crore were required for miscellaneous things — advertisements,meetings,etc,” Gupta says.

Leaders were clear that a limit needed to be publicised,to ensure that the electorate still saw AAP as “the party with a difference”.

In September,with three months to go for the Assembly polls,the fund-raising team decided that it was time to step up the donation drive. Meetings were held with business groups in several cities — Delhi,Mumbai,Bangalore,Gurgaon — where Kejriwal interacted with entrepreneurs. “More than Rs 25 lakh were raised in a single meeting. Around 150 people who attended the first few meetings would convince others to attend similar meetings,” says Gupta.

The party next put their cause to the Indian diaspora. “We announced Google hangout sessions with Kejriwal. Nearly Rs 50 lakh were raised in one meeting,” he adds.

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Photo: Aam Aadmi Party

Next on their agenda was how to take on entrenched cadres,often paid workers,of the two big parties. AAP decided that the only option they had was convincing people to work for them,based on their professed ideals. Their website soon sported a ‘Become a Volunteer’ option,with people exhorted to join not for money but for “a desire to change the nation”.

“Bringing volunteerism back into politics,when all parties were getting paid workers,was a significant achievement,” says AAP’s Dinesh Vaghela. A retired businessman based in Panjim,Vaghela spearheaded the party’s volunteer force.

Eventually,more than one lakh locals volunteered for the party while another 15,000 from across the country extended help. In addition to this,nearly 300 Indians living abroad volunteered. Some helped from own cities — making phone calls to ask others to vote for AAP,handling the social media. Others took leave from work or studies to come to Delhi,going door to door canvassing.

Realising that many of the volunteers had no experience of elections,AAP conducted workshops. “Training was given on a range of things — from handling logistics of the party and campaigning,to making phone calls to voters,” Vaghela says.

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It was the constituency work undertaken by AAP volunteers in Delhi that,says the party,made it realise that there were many local issues that needed to be dealt with at the Vidhan Sabha level. This resulted in the framing of 70 constituency-specific manifestos — an instant eye-catching departure from other parties. The idea was also in tune with AAP’s espousal of decentralisation of power and swaraj.

In the beginning of 2013,31 ‘policy groups’ — comprising not just party members but academics and social activists — had been formed. “They met over a period of seven-eight months to decide various matters. While their recommendations were related to national policy,they did become a precursor to the manifesto formation process,” says Aatishi Marlena,who was a part of the manifesto-making team.

The choice of broom as the party symbol came out of a list of options which were made available to AAP in May. “At a national executive meeting,the broom symbol became the choice of most members,” Marlena says. It symbolised a cleaning of the system,by the most basic of objects regularly used by the aam aadmi.

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Of the three frontrunners in this election,AAP marked the strongest virtual presence. With more than 2,30,000 followers on Twitter,they are just shy of the BJP’s 2,60,000 and way ahead of the Congress’s 23,525. AAP launched its online presence across platforms — Facebook,Twitter,Google+ along with blogs and its website — the same day as it announced itself as a political party,on November 24,2012.

The man behind creating this virtual presence and bringing the party’s supporters together online is 29-year-old Ankit Lal. As AAP’s National Council Member and IT Admin,he handles the party’s entire online outreach. Lal calls himself a social-political-online activist and states that,more than a political party,this is still a movement for him. He believes that,through its online engagement,AAP was able to convert the “apathetic citizen” and make him join the movement. “We are not a cash-rich party. Besides going door-to-door,social media was available to us free of cost,and we were determined to make full use of that,” he says.

A team of six permanent members and several volunteers work with Lal out of the party’s Ghaziabad office. The team worked on a three-pronged strategy for the polls — establishing presence,defining issues and engagement. “We were clear about what we stand for and we only had to translate it online,” Lal says. He believes that engaging with the voters directly was what worked in the party’s favour. This is something,Lal says,that the traditional parties cannot afford “because of the skeletons in their cupboards”. He emphasised that the purpose of the AAP campaign was to make everyone a stakeholder in its success,and this is how “neutral people” started engaging with the party.

At his first meeting with the team,Lal says,Kejriwal warned them,“No abuses”. “Arvind was clear that we did not want to be a party trolling others online.”

However,the social media team didn’t just reach out to the literate audience. As an experiment,the team carried laptops to non-urban areas of Rohini constituency and showed voters photos of jan sabhas in areas like New Delhi. “We had no idea if this would work,but the voters were impressed by the crowds present at Arvind’s public meetings,and they told us so,” says Lal. According to him,that experiment worked for them in 10 non-urban centres.

The age group that engages the most with the online team is 18 to 24. According to Lal,they are the ones who made Kejriwal a “brand name”. He adds,“Unlike other political leaders,Arvind likes to manage his online accounts himself.”

Since the election results were announced,the party’s official email address has received a deluge of messages,and all of these are being answered. “We do not send any automated messages. Even if they are just congratulatory emails,we reply to all of them,” Lal says.

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Following the formation of the party,a two-member team which had been associated with the India Against Corruption movement was entrusted the task of handling mediapersons. As the campaigning for the Delhi Assembly polls picked pace,the number of phone calls to media managers increased.

With 28 seats won,each leader has been assigned a party member who has been made in charge of handling all media inquiries.

“My phone does not stop ringing. We try coordinating with as many journalists as possible — sending them press releases and making calls to inform them about any development. The media management team is going to be expanded as the party prepares for the Lok Sabha elections,” says one of the media coordinators,Aswathi Muralidharan.

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If unpaid volunteers were the workforce of the party,at the level of each constituency,the campaign managers were the brains. Meetings would be held with the party leadership,mostly at the Hanuman Road headquarters,and instructions given out. “Detailed plans were made,and the entire constituency,its populace charted out. Some areas,mostly high-density,low-income areas,were identified as priority zones. In the run-up to the polls,the candidate’s daily routines revolved around these plans. He would meet the people in these zones regularly,and this planning was the job of the campaign manager,” says Gaurav Tiwari,campaign manager for Delhi Cantonment seat.

Campaigns were also moulded around the personality of the candidate. Tiwari,for instance,planned jan sabhas where Surinder Singh’s past as an NSG commando — he was at the Taj during 26/11 — was brought to the fore. “He would wear his old Army uniform,so his credentials could be established. The volunteers were also told to remind people of his past,” Tiwari says. Delhi Cantonment,largely home to servicemen and villages,saw Surinder Singh beat the established Karan Singh Tanwar of the BJP by a slender margin.

With an influx of volunteers from outside the city,some even from outside the country,some ideas evolved as the campaign progressed. Rajeev Reddy,a Boston resident, for instance,shot a video of AAP volunteers on a lark. “He was a volunteer for the New Delhi constituency,and wanted to use technology to spread the word. So he shot the video. It went viral on YouTube. So we started shooting videos of candidates to introduce them to online viewers,and the idea took flight,” a volunteer says.

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While the party does not have a registered youth wing,it found support among college students. Many who had been a part of the India Against Corruption movement came forward to support the rookie party.

In the run-up to the Delhi Assembly polls,as universities held student union elections,campuses became an arena where student wings of the BJP and Congress clashed with each other. The unregistered student wing of AAP,however,decided to refrain from student union politics. “We had decided that our priority was the Delhi polls,” says Subhav,a third-year student of Dyal Singh College,and an AAP member. This bunch of student volunteers garnered support for AAP by initiating a voter ID registration drive. During this,survey forms were handed to students,asking them if they would volunteer for the party.

One person in every Delhi University college was made a coordinator,whose job was to bring in more volunteers. Meanwhile,top leaders of the party reached out to campus voters. Kejriwal held meetings with students at St Stephen’s College and Hansraj College. AAP leader Yogendra Yadav took part in a rally at North Campus.

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Closer to election day,the party found itself in the eye of a storm. A sting operation conducted by a news portal,MediaSarkar,alleged that party candidates had accepted money using “illegal means”. Even as the issue went up to the Election Commission and the party came out in support of its candidates,claiming that the videos had been “doctored”,campaigning in constituencies received a setback,a party member admits. “In R K Puram constituency,there was some amount of confusion since it was not clear if Shazia Ilmi was going to step down because her name had appeared in the sting operation,” he adds.

In the wake of these developments,the party decided to form a “buzz team”,which would concentrate on the last 10 days of canvassing. “It was primarily a visibility campaign. By distributing posters,caps and increasing the frequency of phone calls,the idea was to create a buzz — especially in markets,at Metro stations and parks,” says Pankaj Gupta.

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With a majority of the candidates completely unfamiliar to politics and legalese,a legal cell was also seen as a necessity. Prior to the elections,when the model code of conduct came into force,AAP members admit,a large number of complaints were registered against party leaders. “None of our candidates knew how to fill a form,how to get permission from various authorities to hold meetings and rallies. To deal with the situation,a legal cell came into being,” says Rishikesh Kumar,part of the legal cell. The cell had a workforce of around 10 people,seven of whom had law degrees.

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With around 11,500 booths in Delhi and most volunteers lacking prior election experience,managing polling booths on election day seemed one daunting proposition as D-Day finally dawned.

“We needed at least three persons outside each polling centre. But our volunteers did not know the kind of work which was required at the booths on election day. The primary challenge was to get so many mature and trained people,” says T N Panchapakesan,who handled polling booth management for the party.

Less than a month before the elections,AAP decided to go the ‘corporate way’,Panchapakesan says. Essentially,in each constituency,a leader was identified who was supposed to bring together a group of volunteers in that area. “The number of volunteers kept multiplying. With around 10 days left for polls,we took out the Election Commission manual,went through the list of do’s and don’ts and decided to conduct workshops for volunteers. We would quiz them at various points,and finally told them to report at the polling booths at 6 am,” he says.

On December 4,95 per cent of the polling booths had an AAP presence. Four days later,they made history.

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