Even in the hectic and constantly changing political life of India, there are some watershed moments. The elections of May 2013 clearly generated such a moment, when the “Modi wave” and first past the post electoral system enabled the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). despite getting only 31% of the total votes, to win a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian Parliament), transforming the national scene. The elections just concluded for the assembly in the city of Delhi, which is not even a full-fledged state, may seem unimportant by contrast, but they too have transformative potential.
Since the national election victory, the BJP—led by Narendra Modi and his henchman Amit Shah (now President of that party)—has seemed unstoppable, winning several state assembly elections and aggressively establishing dominance over its allies, as Modi and Shah have established dominance within the party. The honeymoon period has been extended because the media too generally fell in line, lauding every pronouncement of the Prime Minister and celebrating every declaration of supposedly “new” policies as heralding dramatic transformation.
There were some rumblings of discontent. Some tried to point out that there was a lot of talk without too much content. Thus, policies announced in a blaze of publicity (such as the Swacch Bharat or “Clean India Mission,” or the “Make in India” campaign) were just rehashed versions of policies of the previous government, with slicker media-savvy presentation but less public money. Some noted that the Prime Minister seemed to be more focused on self-promotion and grandiose foreign policy gestures, trying to highlight his supposed “personal chemistry” with various foreign leaders, ranging from U.S. President Barack Obama to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Still others observed that many of the promised policy changes of the Modi government had yet to occur, and that too many blatantly pro-big business measures were taken opaquely—including changing clearance rules to allow more environmentally undesirable investment and passing an ordinance that would reduce effective compensation to those who lost their land because of new projects. Instead of the promised “development and good governance,” the so-called “fringe elements” of the ruling coalition that create communal disharmony and attacks on non-Hindu religious communities were given free reign, with discreet silence on the part of the top leadership. Within the BJP, many senior leaders felt marginalized, alienated from and even humiliated by the new axes of national power.
But all these arguments were muted and nervous as the Modi-Shah juggernaut rolled over all dissent. Some were silenced by voter support in various state elections and opinion polls that continue to indicate Modi’s apparent popularity. Social movements and NGOs that sought to represent poor and voiceless groups were threatened and then squeezed of funds as government approval to receive foreign funding was withheld. Throughout this period, the pro-Modi media blitz has continued to the point of saturation.
This in the context in which the new kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP or “Party of the Common Man”) has made electoral history by winning an unbelievable 95% (67 out of 70) of the seats in the Delhi Assembly in the elections held on 7 February. This party emerged only two years ago, out of an anti-corruption movement that captured the imagination of many Indians. Its leader Arvind Kejriwal (popularly described as “the Mufflerman” because of his predilection for wearing that accessory) broke with the apolitical and sanctimonious nature of that movement to venture into politics.
The first electoral foray in the Delhi elections of December 2013 was already a startling success, as the fledgling party captured 28 seats in a hung Assembly, but symbolically emerged as the real victor because Kejriwal defeated the incumbent Congress Chief Minister in her own constituency. The AAP formed a minority government with outside Congress support, but Kejriwal resigned after only 49 tumultuous days because of lack of support for a bill to create an anti-corruption ombudsman and watchdog.
This exit proved to be unpopular. Thereafter, the party again overstretched itself by fielding 400 candidates in the general elections in May 2014. Its candidates lost badly in most places, winning only 3 seats in Punjab and none in Delhi, which witnessed a clean sweep by the BJP. Surprisingly, BJP leaders did not seize the opportunity to have fresh elections in Delhi then, when they would probably have won. Instead, they tried various means to install their party in a Delhi government, until they were finally forced to hold elections by a court order.
Since the May debacle, the AAP seemed to have learned several lessons. The party focused on grassroots work among the people, holding “Delhi Dialogues” across the city, especially in slums and poor neighbourhoods, to generate the action points in its manifesto. Kejriwal repeatedly apologized for his mistake in resigning so quickly and humbly promised to be more responsible and deliver a clean administration for five years. AAP workers and volunteers worked across the city to address local problems and connect with people.
By contrast, Amit Shah seemed to have lost his electoral Midas touch, as the BJP seemed to do everything wrong. They first offered no Chief Ministerial candidate, projecting “rule by Modi” as the plus point of the BJP and plastering the city with his posters. After a public rally addressed by the Prime Minister attracted poor response, they panicked and parachuted in a Chief Ministerial candidate from outside—the former policewoman Kiran Bedi, who had also participated in the anti-corruption movement. This completely alienated local BJP workers, and her self-obsession and propensity to shoot off her mouth during the campaign also frequently embarrassed the party.
Meanwhile, Mr Modi’s own vainglorious ways did not help either, as images were broadcast of the $15,000 suit with his own name woven into the stripes that he wore to entertain Mr Obama. The man who had won the election by stressing his modest background as a tea seller was increasingly seen as a distant dictator obsessed with his own charisma. As the BJP’s campaign got shriller and more negative, the personal comparisons between the Goliath with the 56 inch chest and the “common man” David grew more unfavourable to Modi. And this time the enormous amounts of money splashed on massive advertising probably even worked against the BJP.
In the event, Delhi’s voters have handed a historically unprecedented victory to the AAP (even Kejirwal described it as “scary”) with more than half of the votes going to that party, completely wiping out the Congress Party in the city for the first time since Independence and handing a paltry three seats to the BJP. Whatever happens next, this is surely going to change many things in Indian politics. This election result has given new hope to anti-BJP forces across the country, showing that the party is not an unbeatable force. Even within the party and the government, the supreme authority of the top two is now open to question, and they may be forced to reconsider and at least behave less arrogantly. More importantly this experience has shown that elections in India can still be won with less money and a different way of doing politics. So this is a landmark election has ended in a landslide, and could eventually be a kind of landmine in the Indian political scene.
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