By Samantha Clark
Monday, India wrapped up six weeks of voting in its parliamentary elections. Some 551 million people — 66.4 percent of the more than 800 million eligible voters — went to the polls to choose 543 members of India’s lower house of Parliament. It’s been described as the largest democratic election in history.
Here in the Bay Area, a large number of Indian expatriates are avidly following the results, which are expected to be announced on or by Friday, May 16.
And many are doing more than watching. Last Friday night, teams of Indian expats in San Francisco, Fremont and Sunnyvale worked all night calling voters halfway across the world to urge them to vote for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Bay Area Indians have poured a large amount of effort, money and technology into the AAP, even though party leader and candidate for prime minister, Arvind Kejriwal, is a long shot to win. The campaign is worth it, the party’s supporters say, because they are investing in a long-term effort to eliminate the corruption that has long characterized India’s bureaucracy.
During Friday night’s calling marathon, a team of about 15 volunteers, mostly tech workers, gathered in a four-room insurance office in Sunnyvale, ate samosas and helped one another connect to a weak Internet signal.
Then they began making phone calls to voters in the city of Varanasi, where Kejriwal is running against Narendra Modi, leader of the powerful Bharatiya Janata Party that’s expected to win the national election.
“Hello. Namaste,” they each said into their iPhone headphone mics as they paced around the rooms, gesturing as if the people they were speaking to were right in front of them.
“We don’t have a script. It’s just us talking, not the party,” volunteer Parwaz Virk said. “When we tell them we’re calling from California, they listen because it’s surprising. What we have to say must be important if people from all the way over here are calling in the middle of the night.”
Pro-AAP teams throughout California made nearly 7,000 calls Friday night, almost a quarter of the party’s total of 28,000 campaign calls that night.
Most of the volunteers in Sunnyvale said they’ve had little or no interest in politics before this because India’s established parties offered no progress and no platforms they could support. They called the AAP a cause and a movement.
“The revolution has turned it into a political party,” Virk said. “It’s just based on issues people care about. It’s heartening to see India become more democratic.”
Kejriwal and the AAP (which translates as the Common Man’s Party) say they are committed to cleaning up a system polluted with graft, nepotism and other types of criminality. The AAP grew out of an anti-corruption movement that emerged inside India in 2011.
Some Indian expatriates have been leaving their jobs to volunteer for the party or even return to India to run on the AAP’s ticket. Others are using their technical skills to support the AAP.
“Indians who’ve come to the West, they see how politics and bureaucracy work,” said Pran Kurup, CEO and founder of e-learning company Vitalect and a coordinator for the AAP Bay Area group.
“And then they go back to India where people don’t have basic necessities like water and electricity,” Kurup said. “The Aam Aadmi Party is doing things that haven’t been done before in Indian politics. After seeing what Obama said about hope, people here saw there were opportunities to do similar things in India. It’s a powerful message that has had a, what we call in Silicon Valley, viral effect.”
There are about 400 AAP volunteers in California and 2,000 nationwide. Kurup helped run the more than 200-strong volunteer base in Silicon Valley, which at the start of the elections became the party’s unofficial technology team, working closely with colleagues back in India.
“Tech workers are very involved because there is a lot of scope for technology to be applied,” Kurup said. “A huge chunk of the underlying technology platforms were developed by tech workers out of India. We can’t all be involved in the ground operations, but involved in cyberspace. We can apply our skills to a cause that matters to us.”
The Silicon Valley team built back-end systems using open-source software. The resulting social networking site, my.aamaadmiparty.org, connects supporters by listing them in a database and allows them to share information, such as news articles and blog posts. They also coordinate Google Hangout sessions between the party’s candidates and voters, and they built the infrastructure for a phone-calling campaign.
But perhaps their biggest contribution has been the building of a fundraising system that promotes financial transparency. The name of everyone who donates and the amount are listed. So is how the party spends the money.
“Every penny that the party gets is accounted for,” Kurup said. “This is unheard of in Indian politics. The purpose of the AAP is not to grab power but to change how politics function in India. The first step was to change how funding works, so we stepped up.”
He likens the party’s emphasis on transparency to the open-source movement.
“Overall, the open-source movement helps to move technology forward,” Kurup said. “So transparency is a huge part of what the party stands for. Linux was not to put Microsoft out of business. At some level, it was to keep Microsoft honest and to give people more options and move technology forward. That’s precisely what the AAP can accomplish.”
Priya James used to make marketing videos for startups in Silicon Valley, but she decided to quit her job to volunteer for the AAP. From her home and from the community workspace Hacker Dojo in Mountain View, she creates and edits almost all of the AAP’s political videos.
“The AAP has peanuts compared to the other big parties,” James said. “I told myself I have to give at least one year of my time to the AAP.”
From Volunteer to Candidate
Maya Vishwakarma also left her job as a UCSF cancer cell researcher, working on leukemia vaccines and bone-marrow gene therapy, to work as an organizer for the AAP, after she founded the Bay Area group.
Leaving San Francisco in January, she returned to her hometown of Hoshangabad, a town in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, to help the AAP find a local candidate for Parliament.
“I lived five years in the U.S. When I go back to India, I do not see any change — that bothers me. They always ask for bribes,” Vishwakarma said. “The roads are still bad. No hospitals, no access to clean water, people are illiterate. If we can have it in the U.S., why not my country?”
But she had no luck finding someone to run on the party’s ticket, so her AAP colleagues suggested she should run herself.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’ If you are not part of the system, you can’t change anything,” she said.
Vishwakarma then went door to door, asking people about their concerns and for their votes. She said this campaign strategy is unusual in India.
“I found a different India than what I see on the news,” she said. “For the first time, candidates are asking their problems. They were really glad. They feel like we don’t want their money. We just want to solve their problems. These kind of experiences, you get them not from reading a news story or watching TV.”
Vishwakarma said if she doesn’t win, she’ll continue to work with the party.
The Bay Area volunteers in Sunnyvale on Friday night said they know change will most likely come slowly.
“To me, if Kejriwal doesn’t win, it would be a failure,” Virk said. “But out of 543 seats, even if we won 20, it would be a big success.”
He said securing just a few seats might win more supporters. Just a year after the AAP formed in 2012, the party surprised people by beating the ruling Congress Party in Delhi’s state elections. Then last December, Kejriwal was elected as chief minister of Delhi.
“That was when I decided I need to be part of it,” said Virk, who called himself a “fence-sitter.” “I am hoping if we have even a little bit of success, more people jump in.”
Later this year, there will be more state elections in India. Virk said he’ll continue volunteering for the party.
“This movement is going to continue in the same spirit because, for us, it is the revolution,” Virk said.