Modi’s Loss, a Warning to All

A supporter of the Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, holds up a broom, the party symbol, at an election rally on Feb. 3. Credit Altaf Qadri/Associated Press
A supporter of the Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, holds up a broom, the party symbol, at an election rally on Feb. 3. Credit Altaf Qadri/Associated Press

The Modi government’s nine-month honeymoon with Indian voters ended on Tuesday. The Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), which had been on a roll since dominating the general election last May, secured only 3 of 70 seats in the election for the state assembly in Delhi. Its sole consolation was to see its traditional rival, the Congress Party, completely wiped out. The two-year-old-plus Aam Aadmi Party (A.A.P.), or Common Man Party, trounced them both, winning 67 seats.

No one expected the scale of the A.A.P.’s victory, least of all its members, among whose number I am proud to count myself. It was a stunning reversal for an upstart party whose leader exactly one year ago dismayed the public by walking out of the previous Delhi government after just 49 days in office.

This was a victory of both substance and style. As one political commentator put it during the live TV coverage of the election results, if the B.J.P. keeps falling back on its core agenda (Hindu nationalism cloaked in runaway pro-business dogma), it will be left only with its core support base (Hindu right-wingers and India Inc.). The A.A.P., in contrast, has come to stand for straight talk and transparency put in the service of the common people’s interests.

An outgrowth of the anticorruption movement, the A.A.P. made an impressive electoral debut in the Delhi election of December 2013. Then it suffered three major setbacks. Soon after taking office, it failed to secure other parties’ backing for a signature anticorruption bill. As a result, the A.A.P.’s leader, the ex-bureaucrat-turned-social activist Arvind Kejriwal, resigned as Delhi’s chief minister. Partly as a result of that, the party had a poor showing in the general election in May.

But Mr. Kejriwal apologized to voters — a rarity in Indian politics — and the party embarked on a period of soul-searching. It went back to basics, reaching out to constituents through a grassroots campaign that concentrated on their daily concerns, like corruption and access to electricity and water, education and healthcare. In order to better focus on the Delhi election, the A.A.P. eschewed national politics in the second half of 2014, refusing to run in most state elections, and it limited its criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership. Its large cast of volunteers made aggressive use of social media — Twitter, Facebook, Google Hangouts — to communicate with supporters and raise funds.

The B.J.P. did much the reverse. Banking on Mr. Modi’s continued popularity, it ran campaigns that centered on him, even in state races: At first it failed to present a candidate for the post of chief minister in Delhi, instead plastering the capital with posters of the prime minister and taking out many newspaper ads with his picture.

When the A.A.P. appeared to gather momentum, the B.J.P.’s central leadership jumped in with both feet. It dispatched cabinet ministers to campaign throughout Delhi, down to canvassing on street corners. Another late attempt to shift gears backfired: Fielding a former Delhi police official and one-time Kejriwal ally as the B.J.P.’s candidate for chief minister only exacerbated bickering within the party’s local leadership.

The Delhi election was a local contest, and the A.A.P.’s bottom-up, door-to-door campaigning style was naturally better suited to this particular race than the big-money and big-rally methods of the B.J.P. juggernaut. Nonetheless the A.A.P.’s startling victory is a turning point because it marks the advent of a new kind of politics in India.

Nowhere are voters more media- and tech-savvy than in Delhi. As the prime minister himself stated during the campaign, the mood of the capital is also the mood of the nation. With a camera phone in every pocket and ready access to social media, voters today are better informed, and faster, about the hypocrisies of their politicians. Thoroughly disenchanted by the Congress Party and, it seems, already disappointed by the B.J.P., voters in Delhi have turned to the A.A.P. to rectify the deficit in local governance.

Delhi is a cynical town, as capitals tend to be, yet in the past few days it has been transformed into a city of hope. The euphoria will soon fade, however — it always does — and the A.A.P. has no time to waste before it starts making good on its promises. Indian voters are much less forgiving than before. This week the B.J.P. learned that lesson the hard way, and the A.A.P. learned it the nice way. Both are now on notice.

Krishan Partap Singh is a novelist and a member of the Aam Aadmi Party.

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