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Silicon Valley Is Meddling in India’s Elections

The Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) ability to act like a start-up has helped make up for the party’s disadvantage on the national political stage.

by Grace Wyler
Apr 9 2014, 8:40pm

Photo by Reuters

This article originally appeared on VICE.

Voters in India began heading to the polls this week, kicking off a six-week national election that will determine control of the powerful lower house of Parliament. With more than 814 million people eligible to vote, the general election is expected to be the biggest democratic undertaking in human history. And after years of corruption scandals, rising prices, and bureaucratic incompetence, recent opinion polls suggest that many of those voters are looking for a change.

For some Indians, that change has come in the form of the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a new political enterprise that sprang out of anti-corruption protests in 2012 and has campaigned to clean up India’s opaque political system. The party’s message has resonated with the country’s urban, middle-class professionals, channeling frustration with entrenched cronyism and endemic corruption.

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But APP has also found a surprisingly strong base outside of India, among Indian-born technologists in Silicon Valley attracted to the party’s push to clean up politics in their homeland.

“People from India who have come to the West, they’ve been exposed to a different way of life, and they realize that in India people still don’t have access to the basic things that they need to live,” said Pram Kurup, the CEO and founder of Silicon Valley e-learning company Vitalect and spokesman for AAP’s digital volunteer team in the US. “Now you have someone who comes along and says that all of those problems boil down to corruption—that message is really powerful. It’s been spreading like wildfire.”

The two-year-old Aam Aadmi Party is aiming to build on the dramatic success it had in the Delhi Assembly election of 2013.

Setting aside the tech world’s usual disdain for politics, AAP volunteers in Silicon Valley have quietly taken over the party’s digital campaign operations, developing back-end software systems and open-source tech platforms to cultivate support and raise money both inside and outside of India. These tools have essentially crowd-sourced AAP’s campaign to its supporters, Kurup said, allowing voters and volunteers to provide policy feedback, track donations, and reach out to other supporters via online phone banks and social media. Inspired by their first foray into Indian politics, some US volunteers have even returned to India to work for the AAP full-time, including Maya Vishwakarma, an AAP organizer who left her job in the Bay Area to run for parliament on the party’s slate.

“Unlike a traditional election campaign, this is not a top-down approach,” Kurup said. “What has happened in the US and other parts of the world is that small groups started springing up and it grew into an army of people getting together all over the world.” He estimated that “a few hundred people” have volunteered in California alone. “Somehow, magically, all of the pieces are coming together.”

The AAP’s ability to act like a start-up has helped make up for the party’s disadvantage on the national political stage. Founded in 2012 by tax collector-turned-anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP, whose name is translated as “Common Man,” made an impressive political debut in Delhi’s local elections last December, running on a populist anti-corruption platform that included new electricity and water subsidies and scrapping foreign investment for supermarkets. Emboldened by their success in Delhi, the party announced this year that it would field candidates for 425 seats in parliament, setting up high-profile clashes with India’s dominant parties, the incumbent Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party led by controversial Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi.

Ahead of India’s general elections, Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Shri Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Buxar, Bihar, on April 2.

So far, analysts predict AAP will win only a few urban seats by the time results are announced on May 16. But the party—and its grassroots network of supporters—has already managed to rattle India’s entrenched political establishment, bringing issues of corruption and transparency into the national dialogue, and enfranchising voters turned off by caste-based politics as usual. “This is not old-style politics,” said Gurcharan Das, a former head of Procter & Gamble India who is now a writer and political commenter.

“It's a reflection of a new middle class that has come of age and is ready to vote in its first election. These are people that have come up in the high-growth era—they are impatient, they see a difference in how they behave and how the political class behaves, and they see the effects of corruption.” Das added that he thinks these voters—what he calls the “neo-middle class,” made up of upwardly mobile, educated city-dwellers—now accounts for a third of the population, and will rise to half within ten years.

But like any ideological movement, AAP’s ideas may be better in theory than in practice. In particular, AAP and its leader, Kejriwal, lack governing experience, Das said, and the economic and government reforms the party has proposed are underdeveloped, at best. “There is something illiberal about them, and that worries liberals like me,” he said. “A protest movement can only take you so far—it can awaken people, but it can't solve your problems.”

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Looking beyond India’s elections, the AAP awakening among technologists in Silicon Valley could have interesting implications for the US, where Indian Americans make up an increasingly powerful ethnic bloc. With a population of more than 3 million, Indian Americans are one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the country. They are also one of the most well-educated and affluent ethnic communities, with an average household income of $88,000, according to data from the Pew Center. But despite their numbers—and economic potential—the latent political power of Indian Americans as a voting bloc has mostly been unrealized. “For most Indian Americans, even voting is dirty,” said Shalabh Kumar, an Indian-born Chicago businessman and political donor whose Super PAC, Indian Americans for Freedom, aims to recruit candidates of Indian descent. “If we had an awakening of Indian Americans in the United States, we could get at least half of the seats, if not more, at every policy table.”

This goal is slowly being realized, with a growing roster of US elected officials and 2014 candidates who are of Indian descent. And if excitement over the AAP translates into political involvement in the US, Kumar’s vision could move closer to reality. But support for the anti-corruption party also stands in marked contrast to the political tastes of older Indian Americans like Kumar, who tend to put their support, and their money, behind the country’s old guard.

In an interview from India, where he is campaigning for BJP’s Modi, Kumar seemed baffled by the AAP’s sudden popularity. “I can't say whether this is a Congress plot,” he said. “Right now, most of India views it as just empty talk—maybe they have good intentions, but they have no ability or expertise. It doesn’t make sense.”

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