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AAP, Apps and WhatsApp

What Digitalization Does to (and Says about) Participatory Governance in Delhi
Stéphanie Tawa Lama


The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a young party that has been governing the city-state of Delhi since 2015, has placed (i) the fight against corruption; (ii) the development of participatory democracy; and (iii) good governance at the center of its agenda. The official discourse of the party, in its formative years, promoted participation through a major promise: if voted to power, it would govern with the people. This paper investigates the meanings and forms taken by this promise over the years. On the basis of (i) a textual analysis of the party’s “political text and talk” (manifestoes, speeches, interviews) and (ii) the observation of various participatory practices that it implemented over the years, the paper examines the AAP’s changing approach to participation. It focuses on the evolving technological infrastructures of these participatory experiments and shows that even as the dominant definition of participation evolved from “discussion” to “surveillance,” increasing reliance on high-tech, digital tools has meant that citizen participation, which was initially essential to its program, has become in the end nothing more than a means of political communication.

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  • 1 I would like to thank Khaliq Parkar, as well as the three anonymous reviewers, for their many comme (...)
  • 2 In 2013, the AAP became head of a coalition government with the Congress Party (see infra) that las (...)
  • 3 For a discussion of the role of both “old” and new media in the rise of the AAP, see Udupa (2014).

1The impact of digitalization on Indian politics has been well documented over the past decade, albeit with a strong focus on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that relied on the use of social media and data analytics earlier on, more systematically, and with greater effect than other parties (Singh 2019; Sinha 2017).1 The Aam Aadmi Party (party of the common man, AAP), though much younger and smaller than the BJP, ranks second in this regard (Lal 2017; Leichty, D’Silva, and Johns 2016; Udupa 2014). The AAP, created in 2012, was first a movement-party claiming to have entered politics in order to clean up politics, but met with exceptional electoral success in the city-state of Delhi (Farooqui 2021), where it formed the government in 2013,2 2015 and 2020. Although it failed both in the 2014 and in the 2019 national elections to establish itself across India, the party did win elections in the state of Punjab in 2022 and is now an important feature of India’s political scene. The AAP, just like the BJP, has used digital technologies extensively for its political communication and mobilization.3 However, over the years, it has also increasingly resorted to this technology in its governance of Delhi—a change that this paper sets out to document and discuss.

  • 4 Very early on, the party formed a “social media cell” made up of about 250 volunteers, many of them (...)

2Indeed, the Aam Aadmi Party appears to be a particularly relevant case for studying the relationship between digitalization and the transformations of urban governance for at least three reasons. Firstly, from its very foundation, this young Delhi-based party displayed a tendency toward technophilia. It derived from the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement (2011–2012) that owed much of its mobilizing capacity to the widespread use of social networks by its founders and supporters (Lal 2017; Sharma 2014). When the movement lost its impetus and the party was created in 2012, one of its distinctive characteristics was its intensive reliance on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, SMS and emails in both its internal workings and its campaigning work (Philipose 2015). A substantial number of its historic cadres come from the software sector; and more generally, the strong presence of young, male, middle-class, college-educated people among its volunteers (including those abroad) also explain the intensity of such “digital engagement” (Webb 2020).4

3Secondly, the party claimed loud and strong its transformative ambition. Transforming politics, according to the AAP, requires fighting corruption; and in this struggle, encouraging people’s participation is both a means and an end in itself. Thus, in 2014, the party’s manifesto declared:

Aam Aadmi Party is contesting elections not merely to form the government but to fundamentally transform the system of governance. We believe that decision-making power resides with the people and should be exercised directly by them. In our vision of Swaraj, every citizen of India would be able to participate in decisions that affect their lives. People will make the decisions and elected representatives would implement them…. (AAP 2014)

  • 5 Swaraj is the title of the book-manifesto published by Arvind Kejriwal in 2012 (Kejriwal 2012).

4Participation is a notoriously fuzzy concept (Leal 2007), but the above quotation shows that, in its early years, participation referred—according to the AAP’s discourse—to the Gandhian idea of swaraj,5 i.e. self-government. Regarding its practices, the party often adopted the definition of participation that dominates contemporary scholarship on participatory democracy, namely organized, direct interactions of citizens with public authorities around the management of local affairs.

  • 6 For an analysis of the role of programmatic politics of welfare in AAP’s electoral success in Delhi (...)
  • 7 See for instance, Centre Versus Delhi Government: An Undemocratic Vendetta (

5Thirdly, after rather tumultuous beginnings, the AAP evolved from a revolutionary stance to proclaim its prioritization of good governance. In effect, it gradually became known as the party of good urban governance,6 because, up until 2022 (when it won elections in Punjab), its electoral successes were limited to the city-state of Delhi. Note, however, that the party has occupied a paradoxical situation: on the one hand, it has dominated Delhi politics because in both the 2015 and 2020 Vidhan Sabha elections it won a large majority of seats; on the other hand, Delhi is not a full state, and the Delhi government and state legislature have no power over three crucial domains which the central government controls—land development, police, and law and order. Moreover, the central government, dominated by the BJP since 2014, has increasingly restricted the powers of the Delhi government dominated by its political rival.7

6In spite of this specific and very constraining institutional and political configuration, the AAP government launched over the years a series of participatory initiatives that I prefer to call experiments because they were always new, sometimes spectacular, and often short-lived. An analysis of these experiments and their seriality, I argue, reveals that participation, as theorized and practiced in Delhi by the AAP between 2013 and 2020, has undergone a shift from “discussion” to “control” and finally to “surveillance.” This change runs parallel to the change in the party’s project as a whole, from revolution to good governance or, in other words, from direct democracy to efficient management. I also argue that the increasing reliance on digital technologies is both a cause and a symptom of this change: digitalization has had a specific impact on participation, and it reveals its changing conceptualization within the party.

7In terms of methodology, the analysis of discourse is based on a textual analysis of a corpus collected between 2014 and 2019: 36 interviews with AAP members (cadres and volunteers), four election manifestoes, seven speeches by Arvind Kejriwal, the founder and main leader of the party. I used Atlas.ti in order to code and analyze this “text and talk”(Dijk 1997), and to see what the party as a whole says about participation.

8As far as practices are concerned, the analysis is based on (i) these interviews with AAP members; (ii) a series of eight interviews with other actors of Delhi governance: NGOs, bureaucrats, teachers; (iii) the direct observation of two school assemblies (mahasabhas) and video recordings of five others; and (iv) press reports.

9The paper is structured as follows: I first situate AAP’s discourse on participation with regard to the party’s genesis, and analyze the main meanings attached to this word in this context. I then describe the three main types of participatory experiments implemented (however briefly in some cases) by Delhi’s AAP government, with a focus on the place and role of digital technologies in each case—thus distinguishing the “low tech” and “high tech” practices at work. The third section sets out to show that participation underwent a high-tech turn from 2019 onward, and reflects on how this change affects participation, and what it says about the place of participation in the party/government.

Participation in the AAP: a unique emphasis, many different meanings

10One of the original features of the AAP when it was created in 2012 was its emphasis on participation. In order to understand the multiple meanings attached to this word, one must first look briefly at the intellectual and organizational genesis of the AAP which derived from two social movements: India Against Corruption (2011–2012), also known as the Hazare movement; and, before that, the People’s Campaign for the Right to Information (1996–2005)—bearing in mind that there were important intersections between the two movements, in terms of both ideas and people.

11The emphasis on Swaraj in the AAP’s early text and talk evidently signals its proclaimed proximity to Gandhian thought. Thus, in his book-manifesto published in 2012, Arvind Kejriwal writes:

“We want swaraj … Swaraj means self-rule; our rule. We will be able to take decisions concerning our village, our town and our community. The laws made in Parliament and the legislative assemblies will also be made with our consent and participation” (Kejriwal 2012: xxi).

12Here Kejriwal can be seen as a successor to Jayaprakash Narayan who, in the 1960s after Gandhi in the 1930s, contributed to the elaboration of an Indian imagination of participation, made of discussions aimed at consensus among local communities, with the idea that that mode of governing public affairs was the only way to (morally) regenerate democracy (Narayan 1959).

  • 8 On this question, see Chowdhury (2019).

13Concern with the moral decay of Indian democracy was indeed central to the IAC movement embodied by the Gandhian leader Anna Hazare (Sharma 2014) but actually led by a small group of activists, including Kejriwal and several future founding members of the AAP. Born in the wake of a series of corruption scandals involving ever increasing amounts of money, the IAC movement denounced the rottenness in politics and demanded the creation of a Lokpal, i.e. an institutional ombudsman endowed with the power to investigate corruption cases and to prosecute the guilty party. The IAC movement expressed such a strong distrust of parties, politicians and bureaucrats that its denunciation of “misrepresentation” verged on anti-parliamentarism and was considered by some critics as dangerously “anti-politics” (Chatterjee 2011). Many observers were therefore surprised to see a new political party emerge from the movement, including Hazare himself who repeatedly expressed his opposition to the formation of the AAP. This is not the place to discuss the intricacies of the IAC-AAP relationship,8 but it is worth noting that, while the AAP inherited from the IAC a vision of politics as something dirty, it differed from it in that it believed that the only way to clean up politics is to do it from inside: you have to enter politics in order to change it (Roy 2014). According to this vision, participation is presented as a way of regenerating democracy by restoring people’s power.

14But Arvind Kejriwal was an anti-corruption activist well before he became a prominent member of “team Anna”. He created several NGOs, including Parivartan in 2000, through which he worked with the movement around the Right to Information (RTI), a long campaign waged by a coalition of civil society organizations and individuals, all convinced that transparency was crucial to fight corruption, improve accountability, and thereby strengthen democracy (Roy, Collective, and Gandhi 2018; Sharma 2014).

  • 9 There is a fourteenth meaning, namely proximity, that evokes both discussion and control.

15This brief summary of the intellectual and organizational roots of the AAP helps understand the variety of meanings associated with the notion of participation in the party. This variety is one of the main findings of my discourse analysis. I proceeded by coding each text (interview, speech or manifesto) through a careful elucidation of what each occurrence of participation means with reference to the text as a whole. This method led me to identify 14 different meanings or at least nuances of meaning of the word “participation” that can then be gathered into two fairly distinct semantic groups. The first semantic group is centered around the notion of discussion: here participation refers to communication, consultation, information, education and being heard. The second semantic group focuses on the notion of control: here participation refers to action, decision, empowerment, legislation, vigilantism, and surveillance.9

  • 10 Indeed, the words “monitor,” “keep track,” and “control” appear repeatedly in the party’s discourse

16The concept that links participation-as-discussion to participation-as-control is accountability—a concept that was central, albeit with different perspectives, in both the RTI campaign and the IAC movement. Because the party’s genesis lies in these two mobilizations, the notion of accountability is indeed inextricably associated with that of participation, seen first and foremost as a means for citizens to control public authorities.10 This view translates into the organizing principle common to three of the participatory experiments implemented by the Delhi government (jan sabhas, mohalla sabhas and school mahasabhas) as we will see later: local people, who presumably know local problems best, need to get together and discuss these problems with the authorities concerned in order to control what the latter do.

Low-tech and high-tech participatory practices

17From 2013, when it waged its first electoral campaign, to 2020, when it dealt with the Covid 19 pandemic, the AAP launched many participatory initiatives. Even though these initiatives were often short-lived, either due to inherent flaws or to the political environment, together they offer a view of what can be called the party’s participatory practices. For the sake of clarity, I group these initiatives into three forms/themes, each representing a distinct type of participation: (i) consultations; (ii) participatory budgeting; and (iii) participatory surveillance.

18I will then distinguish, within each initiative, low-tech versus high-tech elements in order to trace the evolving place and role of digitalization. By low tech and high tech, I mean that the difference between non-digital and digital, offline and online, classic and innovative participatory practices, is actually a matter of degree or proportions. These two terms make sense only in relation to each other (Grimaud, Tastevin, and Vidal 2017:13) and are used here in keeping with the definition of digitalization adopted in this special issue: “more than a technique (i.e. digitization), digitalization refers to the transformed relations between technologies, practices and ideas” (Parkar and Tawa Lama, this issue).

19Thus, low-tech practices may involve the use of computers, as was the case of the first door-to door campaigning conducted by the party in 2013. AAP volunteers then tried to engage in a discussion within each household on their own turf; in this process they collected as many phone numbers and email addresses as possible in order to build a huge database that would later be used by the party to communicate with voters—to send information about the party, to appeal to potential donors, to remind people to go and vote on the day itself, etc. Similarly, a high-tech practice such as the consultation of Delhi residents organized by the government in 2020 was mostly based on the use of digital technologies (email, messages on WhatsApp), but it also included simple phone calls. Table 1 summarizes this analysis.

Table 1. The place of low-tech and high-tech practices in participatory experiments

Type of participation


Participatory budgeting

Participatory surveillance


Low-tech practices

High-tech practices

Jan sabhas


Phones calls, SMS, emails

Mohalla sabhas/ janta ka budget


Dedicated mobile app

WhatsApp groups

Mohalla rakskak dal/

mohalla marshals


Consultation on the sealing of Delhi’s borders

SMS, emails, phone calls

School management committees mahasabhas



Dedicated mobile app

WhatsApp groups

Video-based surveillance

CCTV cameras


20Consultations of “the people” (variously defined as voters, residents or AAP supporters) aim at eliciting the public’s position on a specific question. The AAP launched its first consultation in December 2013 when election results revealed, to everybody’s surprise, that the party came second, in terms of seats, behind the BJP but in front of the Congress. Since no party could form a government on its own, the question was: would the AAP form a coalition government with the Congress? That was a difficult question for the new party as it had spent the whole campaign denouncing the Congress’s (and the BJP’s) corruption and presenting itself as the party of change. Should it now refuse to form the government in order to keep away from an ally it regarded as corrupt? Or should it take this opportunity to actually introduce some change in Delhi’s governance? This question was posed to AAP supporters through two parallel channels.

  • 11 Interview with a party cadre, Delhi, February 2014.

21The low-tech channel was jan sabhas (people’s assemblies)—a series of local meetings in which people (200 to 1,000 persons, according to press reports) came together, listened to a summary of the two options in front of the party, and voted on a show of hands in favor of one or the other. “The observers spoke: there was no speech, no argument, no discussion; we just recalled the sequence and asked them what we should do”, explained a party cadre.11 The party claims to have organized, in one week, 280 jan sabhas in the 28 constituencies where its candidates had been elected. Votes were counted by an “independent observer.”

22The high-tech channel for this consultation consisted in the possibility for volunteers and, beyond them, for all voters to express their preference by an SMS or a phone call to the party or via the party’s website.

  • 12 257 jan sabhas voted in favor of forming a government, 27 voted against. In addition, 266,000 Delhi (...)

23According to the party, at the end of this process 74% of all votes were in favor of forming a government.12 It is impossible to verify or qualify this figure, but what is perhaps more important is the process itself, which came as a surprise and got Delhiites talking about the party and its dilemma. This consultation, like most referenda (Rousseau 2014), was useful just as much for its pedagogical role as for its capacity to lead to a decision. It was presented as a way to take a decision; most importantly, it allowed the party to justify the final choice—forming a government with the Congress—despite the evident contradiction with what was said during the campaign.

24Seven years later, the AAP government announced another consultation—again on a question on which it badly needed to justify its decision. This happened in June 2020 when the first lockdown subsequent to the Covid 19 pandemic was slowly being relaxed; while the central government announced that people would again be able to travel interstate, the Delhi government wanted to keep the borders closed in order to limit the number of admissions to Delhi’s public hospitals—but this option raised of course serious constitutional as well as moral issues. Through a “press conference” broadcast on YouTube:

Kejriwal urged people to send in their suggestions on the sealing of borders by 5 pm on Friday. He said these may be sent by WhatsApp on 8800007722 or may be emailed to He also said the suggestions can also be recorded on 1031. For the time being, he said, the borders are being sealed for a week … On the basis of suggestions and views of experts, he said, a long-term decision on sealing the borders would be taken next week.13

25In this event, only the high-tech channel was used. This was, of course, justified by the pandemic situation that made any meeting in person dangerous. However, two aspects show that this consultation was merely symbolic. Firstly, the question put to the public was open-ended: people were not actually invited to vote for or against the sealing of borders but to offer “suggestions”—which made it easier for the government to interpret the suggestions any way it chose to.14 Secondly, the chief minister’s speech, in which he claimed that he shared his dilemma with Delhi citizens, largely consisted in praising the exceptional quality of health-care services in Delhi, provided free of charge to city dwellers thanks to the budget allocated to this sector by his government over the past five years, and in expressing his fear that people from neighboring states would rush to use them since they have no equivalent in their own state.15 What was presented as an invitation to take part in the government’s decision was therefore an exercise in political communication addressed to “consumer-citizens” (Srivastava 2014), which in effect provided an apparently democratic justification for Delhi government’s decision to delay the opening of the city-state for one full week after the central government’s announcement that interstate borders had reopened.

Participatory budgeting

26This second type of experiment includes the pilot version of the janta ka budget (people’s budget) implemented in 2015, which is also the model for mohalla sabhas (neighborhood assemblies) organized from 2014 to 2016, and for the School Management Committee (SMC) mahasabhas (mega assemblies) organized from 2016 onward.

27This type of participation basically consists in the following: local people (that is, local voters, residents or parents) are invited to take part in a public meeting, moderated by the local elected representative, with functionaries from municipal and state departments in charge of local issues (water, sanitation, horticulture, schools, etc.). This face-to-face interaction has two specific purposes: (i) it offers an opportunity for citizens to express their needs and demands; and (ii) it allows them to see and control what is being done in the neighborhood by the relevant departments.

  • 16 See Tawa Lama-Rewal (2018).
  • 17 Manish Sisodia has been a close associate of Arvind Kejriwal since the early 2000s and became Delhi (...)

28This type of participatory experiment is the most valuable one because it combines discussion and control around the central goal of institutional accountability. However, only one of these experiments—the SMC mahasabhas—proved to be sustainable. Mohalla sabhas, whose methodology is inspired by public hearings (or jan sunwais)16 and was developed by Kejriwal and Sisodia17 from 2009 onward, were organized in a few constituencies in 2014. They ran out of steam when the first AAP government resigned after only seven weeks in office: without the power to summon state and municipal officials, the so-called mohalla sabhas then organized by AAP’s members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) were often just local meetings.

29The janta ka budget was launched with great fanfare just after the February 2015 elections, in which the AAP won a huge majority and formed a government for the second time. Full-fledged mohalla sabhas then became the modus operandi of this participatory budgeting process. But the 2015 janta ka budget was only a pilot scheme implemented in 11 out of 70 assembly constituencies. Preparations for the full version, which was meant to be implemented in the 2,972 mohallas spatially delimited by the new government, supposed the adoption of the Swaraj Bill, a piece of legislation that included financial provisions. But Delhi’s lieutenant governor, acting on behalf of the central government, never allowed the Swaraj Bill to become law; thus, the number of mohalla sabhas dwindled from August 2016 onward.

  • 18 A SMC includes 16 members: the school principal, a teacher, 12 elected parents, a social worker and (...)
  • 19 In the AAP’s structure, the MLA representative is a volunteer appointed by the MLA (Member of the L (...)

30At that time, the team in charge of the janta ka budget, led by Manish Sisodia and Aatishi Marlena, decided to refocus their efforts on the education sector. Improving the quality of public schools had been one of the AAP’s promises from the very beginning and the right to education, passed in 2009 but largely defunct in most of India, offered scope for the development of participation through School Management Committees18 that were supposed to be set up in each school to manage school affairs alongside the school principal and staff. Empowering SMCs has arguably been the main success of the AAP government in terms of participatory governance. This happened (i) by systematically setting up SMCs and training their members through collaborations with NGOs; (ii) through the party’s support of SMCs via “MLA representatives;”19 and (iii) through the organization of some 50 SMC mahasabhas, which appear to be a lot like canonical mohalla sabhas except that the territory concerned is that of the assembly constituency; the issues at stake are those of government schools in the constituency; and the gathering is mostly made up of parent representatives.

  • 20 Interview, Delhi, January 3, 2018.

31Both mohalla sabhas and SMC mahasabhas associate discussion and control, and combine low-tech and high-tech practices. On the one hand, discussion is enabled by the low-tech method of holding assemblies: “The whole system comes on a single platform, we can talk to each other, it’s a very good moment,” said a teacher about SMC mahasabhas.20

32On the other hand, control is ensured through both low-tech and high-tech practices. The low-tech aspect consists in (i) assembly participants being informed by local/school authorities about the status of work discussed during the previous assembly; and (ii) on-site inspection of school premises by parent representatives.

33However, the reporting part hardly ever saw the day in the case of mohalla sabhas/janta ka budget because these two experiments were abandoned before any kind of continuity could be established. Thus, in most neighborhoods where mohalla sabhas actually took place, they occurred only once; which means that local people could express their priorities and be told what work would be done in their area; but they were not given a chance to check at a next meeting whether the work decided on had actually been carried out. This was not the case with SMC mahasabhas, which put real pressure on the bureaucrats concerned, as a party cadre explained:

  • 21 Interview, Delhi, November 5, 2017.

… the thing about government officers is that they have no public accountability. At least elected representatives have some public accountability—good, bad, ugly, corrupt, non-performing, but at least they have to face the people, that itself makes them pressured to do something, but in bureaucrats there is nothing like that. So the fact that one is making these officials face the public directly, that in itself gives lots of pressure. When the first SMC sabha had to happen in August, they were so scared. They thought they were going to be lynched and we had to reassure them, there is nothing like that…21

  • 22 However, in some areas the Rogi Kalyan Samiti—an institution supposed to introduce some participato (...)

34On-site inspections are carried out mostly in state schools.22 These inspections are carried out by SMC parent members organized into thematic subcommittees, who scrutinize the school premises, teachers’ attendance records or the school’s financial accounts.

  • 23 The NGOs Janaagraha and Saajha were involved in developing the apps for mohalla sabhas and for SMC (...)

35The high-tech component of the SMC program also consists of two parts: dedicated mobile applications; and WhatsApp. The AAP government commissioned NGOs to build a specific mobile app for SMC members, just as it had previously done for mohalla sabhas23 coordinators. In the former case, the app was meant to allow coordinators to immediately identify the department, and even the person to be addressed concerning each of the local issues likely to be discussed during the mohalla. The app would provide not only a clear path through the administrative maze of Delhi’s governance, but also precise information about the timescale within which each department is supposed to take action.

  • 24 Interview, NGO activist, Delhi, October 26, 2016.

… we gave them an app, so they can just go to that particular location, for instance there is a pothole on the road, he can just go, click a picture of that and the location would get geo-located and the app would connect them to the official in charge, and a particular time was given, you know what service level benchmarks are, so we had taken service level benchmarks from every agency, that listen, if you have a particular asset and something is wrong with the asset, how many days would it take to get it fixed, you know? So if after raising the complaint, three days have passed, whatever the service level benchmark was, automatically it gets connected to the higher official, so that’s how it was meant to be…24

36The app thus provided access to the relevant departments, but also ways to monitor their responsiveness. It was developed in 2016 and several dozen mohalla sabha coordinators were trained to use it, but everything came to a halt when, as mentioned before, the lieutenant governor prevented the Swaraj Bill from being fully adopted.

37Another specific app was developed for SMC members and this time it could be used because education is a state-related subject. This app has two main uses: it connects SMC members to the authorities in charge of the various problems faced by schools; and it offers status reports on issues where work is in progress. So here again, the app provides not only access to public authorities but also, crucially, information about how work is progressing, which allows discussions, during SMC mahasabhas, to be extremely precise and to the point.

  • 25 1536069790372_Education Booklet 2018.pdf
  • 26 Saajha designed the app but also trained SMC members and co-organized SMC mahasabhas.

38A booklet released by the Delhi government in 2018 praises the “Delhi Education Revolution,”25 with a vocabulary that suggests that the AAP’s initial transformative ambition is today largely concentrated on the education sector. This document gives pride of place to the SMC app in its chapter on “Empowering SMCs;” yet a report co-produced by Saajha, the NGO that played a crucial role in this empowerment,26 admits that the app was not actually used much:

  • 27 Delhi Directorate of Education.
  • 28 District coordinators/Vidhan Sabha coordinators—these are party positions.

SMC App was launched for all SMC members to report their grievances, which were monitored by DDEs.27 The App, however, was not a success as only five percent of SMC members reported using it. This was mostly due to their low digital literacy level and existence of an established and working structure (WhatsApp groups with DCs/VSCs28) that performed similar function. (Boston Consulting Group 2020:100)

39Indeed, WhatsApp groups have been the most used and probably the most empowering among the high-tech tools used by the AAP in its participatory experiments. With regard to SMCs, WhatsApp was crucial in three ways. Firstly, it connected SMC members to one another, allowing them to share information on ongoing issues and work. Secondly, it was used by the government to circulate official documents that explicitly spelt out the rights of SMCs; thus, a 2016 circular that specified the power and conditions of SMC members when it came to physical inspections in the schools proved crucial to overcome the initial resistance of school principals. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, these groups provided a direct connection to the education minister—who is also the deputy chief minister—and his team.

Direct communication with SMC members was essential to make them realize that their voice mattered and was heard. Any grievance posted on WhatsApp would reach state leadership in an hour. This was further reinforced very strongly by political messaging as well. (Boston Consulting Group 2020:103)

40Several works have documented how political parties—starting with the BJP and the AAP—have used WhatsApp even more than Facebook or Twitter as a major political propaganda tool, because WhatsApp makes it possible not only to instantly deliver political messages to a very large number of people, but also to customize this message, targeting various groups with maximum impact (Leichty et al. 2016; Philipose 2015; Singh 2019)—indeed, the 2019 national political contest was called “India’s WhatsApp election” by the Financial Times.29 Thus, WhatsApp is often used as the online equivalent of an electoral meeting—with the added advantage that the recipient has the impression that the party, or the leader, is specifically addressing him/her. SMC WhatsApp groups represent a distinctly different use of WhatsApp: their members are not supporters but SMC members (either parents or social workers), party volunteers and cadres; the messages are information-packed and action-oriented; in short, these groups are the online equivalent of an association meeting.

Participatory surveillance

41This third type of participatory experiment revolves around the theme of local security and consists in surveillance practices. David Lyon (2018) has underlined the inherent ambivalence of surveillance, which is at the same time about caring and about controlling. Indeed, AAP’s experiments in participatory surveillance are invariably justified by the idea that the neighborhood is best taken care of by those who reside in it and who will therefore be most apt to control possible nuisances (prostitution; crimes against women…). Participatory surveillance has taken two main forms in Delhi: vigilante groups (low tech) and CCTV cameras (high tech).

42The need for local vigilante groups was asserted in the party’s very first election manifesto in 2013, in the section devoted to “Women’s security”:

Citizens’ Security Forces would be formed with a branch in each ward, who would provide security to anyone in distress, but with special focus on security of women, children and senior citizens. (Aam Aadmi Party Delhi Election Manifesto 2013. Highlights)

43This promise found a fleeting incarnation in the form of the mohalla rakshak dal (MRD, Neighborhood Protectors Front) which was meant to be a group of local citizens paid by the Delhi government to undertake night patrolling of the neighborhood. The MRD was described as follows by AAP members:

  • 30 Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) are the most common type of neighborhood associations in Delhi
  • 31 The lieutenant-governor.
  • 32 Focus group discussion with AAP MLA representatives, Delhi, December 26, 2018.

The idea basically was to divide the constituency in smaller units … the mohallas, and the plan was also to have about ten people out of these (local) communities who will be paid on the payroll of the Delhi government to become security guard, chowkidar, to kind of, take care … just like RWAs30 … but it did not happen, no? LG31 sort of … did not let the initiative, so they prepared the file but … it was stalled.32

44Indeed, the mohalla rakshak dal seems to have remained at the project stage33 even though I found a press report (largely based on the AAP’s website) about a pilot version launched in November 2015 in Karawal Nagar, the constituency of the then AAP MLA and minister Kapil Mishra,34 who described the participatory nature of the MRD as follows: “Because each volunteer is from the locality they patrol at night, it is easier for them to navigate the area and identify people not belonging to the neighborhood.”35

  • 36 I accessed this page on February 3, 2021 but it seems to have been withdrawn from the internet.

45What is striking—considering that vigilantism is a word that is usually negatively loaded, including in today’s India, where it often qualifies the violence waged by groups such as the Bajrang Dal—is that the MRD is presented by its very promoters as a form of vigilantism. Thus, a page on the party website, called “AAP Tracking Promises and Outcomes,”36 described the Mohalla Raksha (sic) Dal as “the State government’s vigilante group at the municipal ward level … that … will act as the eyes and ears of enforcement agencies.”

46This project was revived in 2020 by the Delhi government, under the name mohalla marshals. A new pilot experiment was announced by the Minister for Women and Child Development.37 The deployment of “groups of civil defense volunteers… primarily tasked with keeping an eye on public spaces and raising an alarm in case of law and order situations, especially concerning the safety and security of women,”38 was to be launched in four constituencies in April 2020 after a successful experiment conducted under the supervision of the Delhi Commission for Women in Burari, an assembly constituency in the north of the city. This project seems to have once again been stopped in its tracks, this time by the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.

47The operational form of participatory surveillance is high-tech based, namely video-based surveillance using CCTV cameras—a topic that became a prominent theme of the AAP government’s communication from 2019 onward. This new policy started with government schools: “Delhi started installing CCTV cameras in every classroom across 728 government schools in 2019” (Boston Consulting Group 2020:80).

48More recently, the party communicated extensively on the fact that CCTV cameras are being installed all over Delhi, fulfilling one of the promises made in its 2015 manifesto: “CCTVs in Public Spaces and Buses.” Indeed, in August 2021, Kejriwal

cited a Forbes India report on the most surveilled cities of the world, which put Delhi on the top with 1,826.6 CCTV cameras per square mile, followed by London with 1,138. Chennai secured third place with 609.9 CCTV cameras while Mumbai came in 18th with 157.4 CCTV cameras per square mile, the report said.

In a tweet, he said, “I feel proud to say that Delhi beat cities like Shanghai, New York and London with most CCTV cameras per square mile across the world.” (​cities/​delhi-news/​delhi-has-most-cctv-cameras-surpasses-new-york-london-101630000523726.html 27/08/2021)

49Like the mohalla rakshak dal and mohalla marshals, the need for CCTV cameras is justified primarily with reference to women’s safety. This “narrative of greater surveillance and visibility equating to greater safety” (Rathi and Tandon 2019:2) is actually older than the AAP government. Rathi and Tandon describe how the push for CCTV installation in Delhi started with the Commonwealth Games in 2010, and increased in the aftermath of the large protests following the horrific rape of a young woman in 2012. Thus

between 2010 and 2018, about 5,000 cameras were installed by the Delhi police… but the police can also access another 175,000 cameras set up by private individuals or groups (individual residents, businesses, RWAs) (Rathi and Tandon 2019:10—11)

50However, the safety argument clearly masks another objective closely linked to CCTV cameras, namely discipline. Feminist scholarship has uncovered how surveillance in general, and vigilantism in particular, often aims at disciplining women in the guise of protecting them (Krishnan 2018; Roy 2016). But discipline is also an important aim of the CCTV cameras installed in schools, as a party cadre explained:

  • 39 Interview, SMC Vidhan Sabha coordinator, January 2, 2020.

There are lapses on the part of the teachers, lapses on the part of some of children also. They used to jump across the building! … To avoid these things … we have to put up this (cameras). Teachers used to sit in the class. Sometimes when we visited them, instead of teaching … they used to play with their mobile and all… I found many teachers sitting in the staff room instead of taking the class. This could have been avoided at least. So, this is the purpose. And the children are very vigilant about when CT [cameras] will be put up… They used to jump, they used to disturb their friends, now it almost stopped. The damage has stopped.39

51The participatory element of such widespread deployment of CCTV cameras lies in the role given to “the people”—i.e. depending on the cases, AAP volunteers, RWAs or parents, as was explained to me by an AAP cadre in charge of installing CCTV cameras in Trilokpuri:

  • 40 Assembly constituency.
  • 41 Interview, Delhi, January 2, 2020.

There will be 2,000 CCTVs in each vidhan sabha,40 placed in each block, entry and exit points, parkings, places where there is crime … Volunteers tell us where cameras are needed because of crime … When you want a camera in your street, you must ask the MLA … Footage is accessible to RWA presidents, we give them an app so that they can check footage; or to volunteers when there are no RWAs. Footage is accessible for thirty days only; it’s also accessible to the MLA and the police.41

52As far as schools are concerned, the plan is to offer parents limited access to the footage (again through a dedicated mobile app, 15 minutes at a time, three times a day, while school principals have unlimited access for 30 days), a choice that is again justified by the AAP’s concern with accountability:

“The school is a sanctuary,” Akshay Marathe, an AAP spokesperson who worked on education policy with the Delhi government, told me. Providing parents access to the footage, he said, served two purposes. For one, it is a practical, cheap and fast way to provide effective surveillance, rather than setting up endless monitoring rooms and paying people to constantly watch the live footage. It also provides a mechanism of accountability, allowing parents to ensure that the schools are running well and teachers are present. Instead of enabling the government to monitor its citizens, the cameras are supposed to allow citizens a window into the workings of a government institution; instead of state control, they are supposed to facilitate transparency. (​education/​row-cctv-cameras-delhi-schools, 31/01/2020)

53The case of CCTV cameras reveals how the AAP built a network—made up of party volunteers, cadres and elected representatives, but also the police, the Education Department, school principals, RWAs and parents—in order to establish a surveillance process analyzed in a different context by Albrechtslund and Lauritsen (2013).

What the high-tech turn does to participation (and what it says about it)

54Having described the low-tech and high-tech elements of various participatory experiments initiated by the AAP in Delhi, I now reflect on the implications and the plausible causes of the fact that high-tech elements increasingly dominate, especially since 2019.

55A first observation is that high-tech clearly empowers participants—WhatsApp groups being the most blatant example of this fact. As we have seen, WhatsApp groups have proven crucial in SMCs’ capacity to put pressure on public authorities and to achieve grievance redress because they facilitate two major tasks. Firstly, sharing information quickly and with a large number of people in three directions: bottom up (when SMC members report to district/Vidhan Sabha coordinators); top down (when coordinators circulate official key documents such as government circulars); and horizontally (when members of an SMC communicate with one another about the status of a given issue). Secondly, WhatsApp groups facilitate the way of alerting the authorities because mobile phones make it very easy to produce and share audio or video records or photographs; they are often used to collect evidence of wrongdoings (usually by bureaucrats), evidence which can then be used to put pressure on them, as an MLA representative explained:

  • 42 Interview, Delhi, November 8, 2017.

They (bureaucrats) never listened to us because we were amateurs, you know? When we came in, we didn’t understand the structure. So, the first two years we learned how to speak to them. We learned how to get the work done by them. Because they also slowly realized that we don’t really have any authority over them … but now they don’t want to get into that mess to be very honest. So work happens. Because, they know at the end of the day, we can very much call them and then get the work done. So, it is only going to elongate the time of the whole process. And then, we also can put them in a spot where we could, like, take videos of them. So social media technology obviously helped us to sort of implicate them if they try and do something.42

56This idea was actually promoted by Kejriwal himself on multiple occasions, for instance in his first speech after becoming chief minister in 2015:

If someone asks you for a bribe, don’t refuse. Slip your hand into your pocket and switch on your mobile phone recorder, tape everything. If someone asks you for money, record their voice. Give it to me. We will take the strictest action (​watch?v=NAViJaoXpag 14/02/2015)

  • 43 This is actually not surprising: many studies of online political participation find that those peo (...)

57Yet technologically empowered participation is in fact largely limited to: (i) those who are digitally literate; and (ii) those who have party status, whether it be MLA representative, SMC member, or just AAP volunteer. In other words, contrary to low-tech practices such as assemblies, to which all residents are invited (even though only a small number of them will come and an even smaller number will speak), WhatsApp-based participation favors “professional participants.”43 High-tech participation is thus of a narrower scope in terms of the number and profile of actual participants.

  • 44 See A. Fung, “Wide Aperture, Low Deference Democracy: Our Interregnum”, paper presented at the work (...)

58Moreover, high-tech participation is not so much concerned with discussion as with control, by enabling an efficient monitoring of bureaucrats. Indeed, the gradual replacement of in-person meetings by WhatsApp groups drastically reduces opportunities for discussion; the general inability of social networks to generate deliberation has been noted elsewhere.44 In this process, participation loses much of its potential for political education—a potential best exemplified by the SMC mahasabhas, whose preparation includes holding a “mock sabha,” for parents only, in order to build their capacity to speak up and find the strength to confront “big people,” as explained by an AAP cadre:

  • 45 Interview, Delhi, November 5, 2017.

we organize this training (to show parents) … how to raise the questions, how to present your case … mock sabha also helps them articulate their concerns, because there also might be issues of not being able to articulate, in the mock sabhas we get a practice of that articulation…45

  • 46 On the emotional dynamics that characterizes jan sunwais (public hearings)—a mode of mobilization t (...)

59The political importance of mohalla sabhas and SMC mahasabhas therefore goes arguably well beyond grievance redress; they offer a rare opportunity for the poor and the marginalized to have a concrete experience of what citizenship might mean. This was best expressed by a Saajha activist who described what could be called the civic energy produced by these assemblies:46

  • 47 Public Works Department.
  • 48 Interview, Delhi, November 8, 2017.

… SMCs don’t just serve as the grievance redressal platform; they are also somehow a means to give people a sense that the state is listening to them and that is something that does not happen in India too often. Indians don’t engage too much with the state, their engagement with the state largely happens only during the election. That is the only time they feel that the state exists and state exists for them. Otherwise, Indians usually see the state as a somewhat repressive, autocratic power, which they don’t have anything to do with. But here it is a platform where they see all the officials who are responsible for whatever their school is supposed to be running, and here is the platform where they have the power to shout at officials and tell them that you have not done your work, because when they go to a government office to get the work done, they are at a position of inferiority and they are never listened to… but here the official is coming to them, and here is the platform which is exclusively for them. Which is why so many parents have the guts to, you know, when the PWD47 officials were giving the response, they stood up and said that he is lying, that is something they can’t do in a government office, they will be thrown out of the office, but here is their platform, here is a platform which is co-created by them and they have enough power to say that.48

60Teachers also receive training as part of mahasabha preparations, as a school principal explained:

We received circulars, and we stayed in the mahasabha, this was like a training, we talked about all problems. The mahasabha is more an exchange than a training. There was a training by the Zonal Education Directorate, the hub manager for Saajha, and the District SMC coordinator, on how to use effectively the mahasabha.

  • 49 Interview, Delhi, January 3, 2018.

The usefulness of the training is that we all have prejudices, on parents, on the school, it helps break these prejudices; some had the idea that parents only come to the school to complain, parents would think that the principal is never ready to meet them. What was surprising in the mahasabha was that the minister was there, it was never this opened, we asked questions in public, directly…49

61The fact that in-person meetings gradually came to an end in AAP’s participatory experiments is of course partly due to the restrictions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic that affected India from March 2020 onward; yet it could be observed long before that. How, then, do we explain the high-tech turn taken by the AAP government? A first reason, beyond the institutional constraints imposed by the lieutenant governor from 2016 onward, might be the fact that low-tech practices such as mohalla sabhas and SMC mahasabhas are highly resource-intensive: they require a lot of groundwork as well as a substantial follow up, mobilizing a whole team for several weeks.

62Another reason is the party’s persistent techno-fetishism. In its 2014 election manifesto, information technologies were linked to two major political virtues in the eyes of the AAP: transparency and efficiency. In the 2020 manifesto, which insists on the “promises fulfilled” with regard to WIFI and CCTV cameras, these technologies carry a definite image of modernity.

63A third hypothesis is that there is also a vertical, opaque, decidedly non-participatory element in the functioning of the AAP—an element that first surfaced in the leadership crisis that shook the party in 2015 (Tripathy 2017; Wyatt 2015), leading to the departure of prominent leaders and the disappointment of many volunteers. The high-tech turn arguably signifies that this vertical dynamic is gaining ground, as control—including control over the party—progressively displaces discussion.

64Thus, in 2017, after the party’s poor results in Delhi’s municipal elections, a “feedback team” was created: led by a professor from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and made up of about 25 student interns, this team was in charge of reporting to the chief minister on the state of affairs at local level, on the basis of (i) an inquiry into the three main issues mentioned by local people as plaguing their neighborhood, and (ii) a perception survey about MLAs and the chief minister. The feedback team is the very opposite of mohalla sabhas: it involves a completely top-down process implemented by people who are socially (because highly educated), politically (as they’re not volunteers) and physically distant from the neighborhood, collecting information that is not shared with the locals but presented in a report to the Chief Minister’s Office. Moreover, there is no inner party transparency regarding the feedback team and several of my post-2017 interviewees had never heard of it. But this initiative is consistent with the idea, expressed by a senior party cadre as early as 2015, that it is necessary “to keep the party under control,” and therefore to “monitor MLAs’ works:”

  • 50 Interview, Delhi, December 27, 2015.

… this is the AAP school of thought, you try and meet people, there is a constant monitoring mechanism, you must have never heard this in India, a mechanism by which our MLAs are monitored, by party people… very simple: you’re an MLA of Najfgarh, I’m a volunteer of Janakpuri, then the volunteer of Najafgarh can check the MLA of Janakpuri and vice versa, what is the big deal; whether the MLA is sitting, what is his frequency, because if I ask him, every time the people around him will offer a positive answer… some may resent it, we don’t care…50


65The digitalization of political participation is often seen as generating both atomization and disintermediation (Monnoyer-Smith and Wojcik 2014). The case study presented in this paper suggests that things might be more complex than that. A review of the way the AAP’s participatory discourse and practices have evolved over the past ten years shows that digital practices have come to occupy an increasingly important place—what I called a high-tech turn. These changes are common to most Indian political parties (Singh 2019). The impact of this increasing digitalization is essentially ambiguous. On the one hand, the role of WhatsApp groups in the SMC program is clearly central to making this program a case of (technologically) “empowered participatory governance”(Fung 2006) of the education sector. Yet if the use of WhatsApp empowers participation, it also transforms it in two fundamental ways: (i) it makes participation less inclusive—since, as we saw, the use of WhatsApp requires resources and skills that are very unequally distributed—thus ultimately favoring “professional participants;” and (ii) it makes participation more oriented toward control and less towards discussion.

66Moreover, the definition and scope of control have evolved with increasing reliance on high-tech practices. The AAP seems to have moved away from the objective of monitoring—i.e. keeping track of specific activities by specific actors at specific moments—to one of surveillance—i.e. constantly watching what everybody does in the public space of the streets, but also in the semi-private space of schools. The AAP’s latest election manifesto, used in the 2022 Punjab elections, perfectly illustrates these changes: the word “swaraj” has completely disappeared; and the word “participation” appears only once in the 31-page text— when the party promises “People’s Police Complaint committees in every district for participatory policing” (p. 28).

67Low-tech practices such as public meetings have become rare occurrences, and the consequent disappearance of participation-as-discussion and development of participation-as-control leave few opportunities for expressing any contesting perspectives. The high-tech turn thus confirms that the party/government today is not so much concerned with democracy as with governance.

  • 51 On the role of the changing narrative elaborated by the AAP in its institutionalization, see Siddar (...)

68These changes, of course, come as no surprise: as the AAP evolved from a movement to a party and traded its revolutionary stance for a competence-based one,51 the role and nature of participation in its politics also changed. While the party proclaimed its intention to govern “with the people” in 2014, it now talks about “pro-people” governance. In this process, participation has been reduced from a role of mobilization to one of communication.

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1 I would like to thank Khaliq Parkar, as well as the three anonymous reviewers, for their many comments and questions which helped me to improve this paper.

2 In 2013, the AAP became head of a coalition government with the Congress Party (see infra) that lasted only seven weeks. In 2015 and 2020 however, the party won a large majority of seats on its own account.

3 For a discussion of the role of both “old” and new media in the rise of the AAP, see Udupa (2014).

4 Very early on, the party formed a “social media cell” made up of about 250 volunteers, many of them with a degree in information and communication technology.

5 Swaraj is the title of the book-manifesto published by Arvind Kejriwal in 2012 (Kejriwal 2012).

6 For an analysis of the role of programmatic politics of welfare in AAP’s electoral success in Delhi, see Barthwal and Ali (2021).

7 See for instance, Centre Versus Delhi Government: An Undemocratic Vendetta (

8 On this question, see Chowdhury (2019).

9 There is a fourteenth meaning, namely proximity, that evokes both discussion and control.

10 Indeed, the words “monitor,” “keep track,” and “control” appear repeatedly in the party’s discourse.

11 Interview with a party cadre, Delhi, February 2014.

12 257 jan sabhas voted in favor of forming a government, 27 voted against. In addition, 266,000 Delhi voters expressed their choice by SMS (159,000), telephone (85 716) and on the party’s website (20,969); in total, 197,000 were in favor of the party forming a government. Source:


14 The government claimed that it had received “7.5 lakhs of suggestions from people” (, but did not say anything about the actual content of these suggestions, nor about the method used to take them into account in the final decision: the de-sealing of borders, one week after Kejriwal’s speech.


16 See Tawa Lama-Rewal (2018).

17 Manish Sisodia has been a close associate of Arvind Kejriwal since the early 2000s and became Delhi’s deputy chief minister in 2015.

18 A SMC includes 16 members: the school principal, a teacher, 12 elected parents, a social worker and the MLA—replaced, in the Delhi version, by an “MLA representative.”

19 In the AAP’s structure, the MLA representative is a volunteer appointed by the MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) to represent him/her (in SMCs, in front of various administrations…) On this political role formalized by the AAP, see Tawa Lama-Rewal (2019).

20 Interview, Delhi, January 3, 2018.

21 Interview, Delhi, November 5, 2017.

22 However, in some areas the Rogi Kalyan Samiti—an institution supposed to introduce some participatory control over the functioning of public hospitals—was also invested by AAP MLAs and volunteers; in these cases, citizen members of the Samiti would regularly inspect, for instance, the hospital pharmacy.

23 The NGOs Janaagraha and Saajha were involved in developing the apps for mohalla sabhas and for SMC mahasabhas respectively.

24 Interview, NGO activist, Delhi, October 26, 2016.

25 1536069790372_Education Booklet 2018.pdf

26 Saajha designed the app but also trained SMC members and co-organized SMC mahasabhas.

27 Delhi Directorate of Education.

28 District coordinators/Vidhan Sabha coordinators—these are party positions.

29 “India: The WhatsApp Election,” May 5, 2019

30 Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) are the most common type of neighborhood associations in Delhi.

31 The lieutenant-governor.

32 Focus group discussion with AAP MLA representatives, Delhi, December 26, 2018.

33 Several of my AAP interviewees mentioned the MRD, but nobody could ever give me the name of a single person having taken part in it.

34 Kapil Mishra joined the BJP in 2019 and played an important role in the riots that shook the north of Delhi in February 2020.


36 I accessed this page on February 3, 2021 but it seems to have been withdrawn from the internet.


38 “Delhi currently has 5,000 civil defense volunteers. These volunteers do not receive salaries, but are entitled to an emolument of Rs 720 per day only when they are engaged in certain projects, schemes or initiatives.”

39 Interview, SMC Vidhan Sabha coordinator, January 2, 2020.

40 Assembly constituency.

41 Interview, Delhi, January 2, 2020.

42 Interview, Delhi, November 8, 2017.

43 This is actually not surprising: many studies of online political participation find that those people who are most politically active online were already involved in offline activism (Contamin, Kies, Paye, and Pilet 2020:11).

44 See A. Fung, “Wide Aperture, Low Deference Democracy: Our Interregnum”, paper presented at the workshop “New Political Imaginaries and Models in the 21st Century: A Global and Transnational Analysis,” Nuffield College, Oxford, February 11–12, 2020, p.14.

45 Interview, Delhi, November 5, 2017.

46 On the emotional dynamics that characterizes jan sunwais (public hearings)—a mode of mobilization that greatly inspired mohalla sabhas and SMC mahasabhas, see Tawa Lama-Rewal (2020).

47 Public Works Department.

48 Interview, Delhi, November 8, 2017.

49 Interview, Delhi, January 3, 2018.

50 Interview, Delhi, December 27, 2015.

51 On the role of the changing narrative elaborated by the AAP in its institutionalization, see Siddarth, Shankar, and Pal (2021).

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Electronic reference

Stéphanie Tawa Lama, AAP, Apps and WhatsAppSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 30 | 2023, Online since 03 August 2023, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Stéphanie Tawa Lama

CNRS-Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi

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