Rising above the dark bylanes of Kena village near Shahdara in east Delhi, a row of people clad in Nehru caps climb a narrow staircase. Holding his six-year-old daughter’s hand, Amar Nath Rai shares a smile with his wife as he welcomes the people to his humble abode.
“After Arvind Kejriwal’s appeal, thousands of volunteers from across the world have poured into Delhi to help the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). We are expecting 7,000-8,000 more. They have left their jobs and families and are here to work for change,” says Rai, 28, as the group of volunteers jostle to find a seat in the cramped room. “Offering my house to them is the least I can do.”
On a daily basis, half-a-dozen AAP volunteers come to stay in Rai’s narrow house. The three-member family and the volunteers share four small rooms.
Putting his small bindi business on auto-pilot for the past few months, Rai, who considers himself a neutral voter, has been working as a full-time volunteer with the party — going door to door from 9 am to 9 pm every day.
“I know the value of my vote and it’s not for sale,” says Rai. “Over the years, I have voted for different candidates and parties, choosing from the available options. But like everyone else, I’m aware that political parties have been cheating the people. In AAP, I see an opportunity to change that. If we miss this historic moment (Delhi Assembly election), this groundswell of support may never come again. That is why I have left everything, fought with my parents and opened my house to the volunteers because abhi nahi to kabhi nahi. The time for change is now.”
Short on funds, space and volunteers, AAP had appealed to the aam janta the for support and they have delivered. While 45,000 donations have taken the party’s bank balance to Rs 11.5 crore, thousands have quit work to join the andolan. Like Rai, ordinary people — 36 and counting — have opened up their homes to volunteers.
Part of this refreshing trend is Gurbaksh Singh. Living in the backdrop of Ferozshah Kotla Stadium, Singh has set up his basement to accommodate up to 30 volunteers.
“I have always voted and my criteria was to vote for the candidate that I thought would win,” says the 58-year-old businessman-turned-property investor. “I always regretted my decision later but there was no choice.”
Like many others, Singh found hope for change in Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement and subsequently the AAP. “The political parties are not going to change themselves and check their corrupt practices,” he says. “The entire system has been compromised and there are no checks and balances, so I felt that it was important for a political movement to emerge from Anna’s andolan.”
“I support the party because it represents the change that is much needed in society. I was not born during the Independence struggle, so I could not participate. But this is a new stage in our political history, and I will do whatever I can to help the party come to power.”
Sitting next to his laptop in Singh’s basement, techie Hemanth Pothula, 26, reads an SMS before answering the question. “I had to quit my job with a bank in Minneapolis because they refused to give more than a month off. Now I will lose my work visa as well,” he says. “Though my parents aren’t happy about my decision, I’m here to work for the party. I strongly believe that we can change the system only from within.”
Like many volunteers, Pothula believes that AAP offers a ray of hope, a chance for a better political system that is corruption-free and based on the needs of the people. “The next three months are crucial for India,” he says. “If AAP wins in Delhi and is able to fulfil some of its promises before the General Election, people will believe in change. So I’m here to work to make that possible.”
Abhijeet Wagha, 26, a Gwalior resident who left his job with an MNC in Jhansi to work as a full-time volunteer with AAP, echoes the sentiment. “Where I come from, politics is driven by caste and bahubal (musclepower), so political parties never have to focus on real issues,” he says. “People want change. There hasn’t been an option until now, but I see AAP as the instrument to overhaul the political system. If we win in Delhi, support will pour in across the country. That’s why I’m here to make that happen.”
Many have shifted their political allegiance. A former Congressman, Mahender Goyal, 50, has given a 26 sq m space to house AAP volunteers. “I always voted for the Congress, but things changed when they arrested Anna. I couldn’t believe that the Congress had fallen so low as to do that to a man fighting for a good cause,” says Goyal.
The range of volunteers and their passion for AAP is interesting and refreshing. The party seems to have given an option to those who knew change was needed, but shied away from the country’s ‘dirty’ political system.
Jay Nath Misra, 77, a retired professor from London, left everything back home to go door to door campaigning for the party in Delhi. He also brought a hefty donation of Rs 30 lakh from AAP volunteers in the UK. “It may have taken us 66 years, but this opportunity to change our political system has finally come,” he says.
Rahul Inquilab sold his courier company in Indore and works full time for AAP. “I always voted for the BJP. I guess it was because of my exposure to the RSS’ teachings when I grew up, but all that changed when I read a pamphlet at an Anna rally, which explained the fallacies of our political system,” he says. The 28-year-old, who was inspired by Bhagat Singh to change his name to Inquilab, has put his life on hold to help AAP come to power.
Each volunteer comes with a different story, but their end goal for change and their sense of hope is the same. Many like Alok Gupta, 33, are suffering financial losses, but continue to help the party in whatever way they can.
“I have never done any kind of social work in my life. For years, we have all been suffering at the hands of the political class. I believe in Kejriwal. So despite facing financial loses, I’m volunteering with the party and have opened up my house to other volunteers,” he says.
Gupta, who runs a computer business in Rohini, has not only given a floor in his house but has convinced his neighbour to provide space as well and can now support up to 30 AAP volunteers. “Before AAP, no party asked the people what they wanted. They never created an inclusive system where you could approach the party to give your feedback or even work with them,” he says.
In a political system notorious for buying votes, it seems interesting that AAP is going door to door not only asking for votes but also money and logistical support. As volunteers flow in, the people in Delhi continue to offer their houses to a party that they feel will deliver change.
Will Kejriwal deliver on his promise? No one can say. “There are three paths before us,” says Omendra Bharat, 35, a graduate from IIT Kanpur, who is now volunteering for AAP. “Two known paths — that of the Congress and the BJP — and we have already walked down these paths and seen the darkness. Why not try the AAP path?”