Upstart Indian party slows Modi juggernaut

When it happened, it was not a wave as the exit polls were predicting but a tsunami. With 54.3 vote share, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) resoundingly won the Delhi state elections, garnering 67 of 70 seats. The BJP was reduced to a mere three seats, although its vote share dipped by only 1 percent.

This is a remarkable win for a party that was comprehensively rejected in the May 2014 parliamentary elections and that had forfeited much of its credibility after it failed to govern Delhi, deciding instead to shun responsibility after a mere 49 days in office.

That Delhi voters are ready to give the AAP another chance in February 2015 is testament to the hard work that the AAP’s members have done in the last few months to reinstate confidence in their party’s ability to deliver on its key commitments. The AAP had emerged out of the peculiar circumstances of the anti-corruption movement in Delhi, so the capital city was always the test case of the workability of the idea of a nonestablishment party.

Two successive victories clearly imply that the AAP is an idea whose time has indeed come. Of course, how the AAP governs over the next five years will determine if the idea is sustainable. The party’s agenda remains largely underdeveloped and full of contradictions. But they seem to have crossed the first hurdle of a democracy: gaining the confidence of the electorate.

One of the main reasons behind the AAP landslide seems to be the complete collapse of the Congress party in Delhi as in much of the rest of India. This too is remarkable for a party that was in power in Delhi for 15 long years and now finds even its big names struggling to win in their constituencies.

Congress, which had bagged eight seats with a vote share of 24.55 percent, managed to get only 9.7 percent of the total vote share.

The Indian electorate in 2015 is looking for fresh ideas and is willing to take risks. A perpetually risk-averse Congress with a tired dynasty at the helm is hardly an appealing option.

But it is the BJP that will inevitably find itself on the backfoot after its staggering losses in Delhi. After staking so much on a state election, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself asking people to vote for him, the party will have to determine what went so wrong in just eight months that the nation’s capital refused to listen to Modi, and instead cast their lot with an “anarchist.”

It was not the AAP but the BJP that made this a contest between Modi and Arvind Kejriwal. Recognizing his mistake from the Lok Sabha elections, Kejriwal from the very beginning refrained from taking on Modi directly. Instead, he prodded the BJP to name its chief ministerial candidate. When the BJP did eventually name Kiran Bedi, it was too late in the game and there was widespread dissent within the party.

Moreover, the BJP ran a thoroughly negative campaign with the party’s entire top leadership focused on spitting venom on Kejriwal.

For Modi, these election results should lead to some reassessment of his party and his government’s priorities. In India, there is a perpetual election cycle with some state or the other going to elections every few months. In the last eight months, Modi has campaigned incessantly. The BJP has every right to use their most powerful asset in elections, and Modi, as the nation’s prime minister, can use these elections to reach out to the masses.

But staking his government’s credibility on every state election is neither desirable nor necessary.

The people of India gave Modi a decisive mandate to govern effectively. If the AAP’s war cry of anti-corruption can still manage to cut ice with ordinary voters in the nation’s capital, it clearly means that Modi’s governance paradigm leaves much to be desired. Modi’s inability or unwillingness to rein in the rabid elements of the Sangh Parivar also cost the BJP. His governing agenda seems to be losing traction among inane controversies such as “Love Jihad,” “Ghar Wapsi” and repeated incendiary statements by some members of his own party.

For a political leader who loves to be in control, this disarray has been widely interpreted as one by design.

Modi will also have to recognize that he is the establishment now. Unlike the Lok Sabha elections where he railed at the establishment and projected himself as the outsider, it was Kejriwal, in theDelhi elections, who was the anti-establishment voice.

All the arguments that Modi successfully deployed against the Congress-led political order, Kejriwal has used against the Modi-led establishment at the center. And nothing symbolizes the arrogance of political power more than the suit with his name emblazoned all over it. Modi who is fond of reminding voters of his humble origins clearly failed to anticipate the challenge from a muffler-draped Kejriwal.

There are few indications yet that Indians are dissatisfied with the Modi government. In fact, Modi remains India’s most popular leader. But it is time for the BJP to recognize that all’s not well and that the AAP victory will change Indian politics considerably, much of it to the BJP’s detriment, unless it learns its lessons and starts delivering on its commitments. The Indian voter is impatient and is hardly in a mood to wait for long.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London. His current focus is Asian security issues.

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