They wore little white caps, called themselves “the common man,” fasted for days and shouted angry slogans against politicians during massive anti-corruption demonstrations two years ago.
Now, many of those activists are getting ready to roll up their sleeves and dive into what they have vilified as the cesspool of Indian politics.
The anti-corruption uprising that shook the nation in 2011 was India’s version of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring rolled into one. But unlike those in other protest movements fueled by similar middle-class anger, including the recent unrest in Turkey and Brazil, India’s protesters say that they cannot remain angry outsiders.
They formed a political party last year called the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Hindi for Common Man Party, and will contest their first election in November, for New Delhi’s city legislature.
This past month, the AAP named its first slate of 11 election candidates for the city, including an engineer, a car insurance agent, a dessert shop owner, a human rights lawyer, a fitness trainer and a former TV journalist. In the coming weeks, the party will name 59 more to run for the legislature’s 70 seats.
To help choose its candidates, the party is using crowdsourcing — grilling prospects with dozens of questions in public parks, verifying that they have no taint of criminality or corruption and posting their profiles online for people’s feedback.
The effort is an experiment to clean up Indian politics, they say, where criminal politicians abound.
But it is also emerging as a defining test for Indian activists who are trying to pivot from the easy idealism of street protests to the hard-nosed pragmatism of elections.
“We could not be permanent protesters, moving from one hunger strike to another,” said Gulab Singh Yadav, 34, the dessert shop owner and candidate. “We have to strangle the neck of the beast from inside the system. We can’t keep pulling its ears from outside.”
Under the party’s rules, all candidates must pledge that if they are elected, they will not accept perks such as government housing, police security and cars with red beacon lights, a symbol of political power here.
But in recent months, the activists-turned-politicians have struggled to recapture the heady news headlines and outpouring of support they attracted in 2011, when demonstrators tried to force the government to pass their version of a sweeping anti-graft ombudsman law. At that time, many ruling politicians taunted the activists, telling them to stop dictating from the streets and contest elections instead.
Last year, when Indians grew fatigued with the endless fasts, many of the activists formed the AAP, a step that eventually split the movement.
For a couple of months, the party rekindled public anger by staging a series of dramatic corruption exposés, but TV networks became wary of covering them because of the threat of defamation suits from politicians and businesses. This year, when party members drew attention to rising electricity rates and urged the city’s poor to stop paying utility bills, the domestic media were mostly silent.
Now, the party relies almost entirely on social media and YouTube videos to broadcast its message.
“The political turn was a decision taken in haste. They panicked when the protests had started to draw less and less crowds,” said Pawan Khera, political secretary since 1998 to New Delhi’s chief minister, Sheila Dikshit of the ruling Congress party. “The bubble has burst, and bubbles can’t be sewn.”
Since exposing blockbuster national corruption scandals in the beleaguered government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the activists have gone local — they are talking about utility bills, open drains, uncollected garbage and the safety of women.
“This is a necessary and difficult transition for the activists, garnering votes one by one instead of parachuting into the policymaking arena through street protests,” said Santosh Desai, a social commentator and columnist in New Delhi. “There is a need for a new political alternative. But the distance between ‘this should be supported’ and ‘I will vote for them’ is big. But they are showing that they have the stomach and stamina to stay the distance.”
Critics say the activists need to shed their shrill anger and negativism if they want to be successful vote-getters. A poster campaign last week by the AAP warning of more rapes in the city if the government is not overthrown drew widespread condemnation.
“Why should we not be angry? Why should we cease to be activists? It used to be the job of the politicians to be activists, but they have forgotten that,” said Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the party and the chief architect of the decision to turn political. “We are here to redefine politics, not play by the rules set by the corrupt, cozy politicians.”
On a recent day, Mohammad Saleem, an auto-rickshaw driver who hopes to be chosen as an AAP candidate, walked around his slum putting up campaign posters. One by one, his neighbors came out of their homes wearing tiny white caps reading “I am the common man” and joined him.
“I want a politician that I can catch hold of after elections, not someone who runs away after getting my vote,” said neighbor Shyam Gopal Gupta, who sells women’s footwear.
“It was unthinkable that someone like me would even be allowed to contest elections by a political party,” said Saleem, 43. “Politics is dominated by people who have money and brute power in our country.”
Becoming a politician also requires some skill in semantics.
“The ‘politician’ is a defiled word today. It is synonymous with everything wrong,” said Shazia Ilmi, a candidate and former television reporter and activist. “I still cringe when people look at me and say, ‘The politician has come.’ I tell them I am an ‘anti-politician politician.’ We have to re-brand the word.”