The Pulse

Delhi Chooses the ‘Common Man’

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The Pulse

Delhi Chooses the ‘Common Man’

The ‘Common Man’s’ Party returns in New Delhi, jolting the BJP in the process.

Delhi Chooses the ‘Common Man’
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Delhi has made its choice. It has chosen Arvind Kejriwal. On February 14, Valentine’s Day, the leader of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will take oath as the chief minister of the city state.

In Tuesday’s unprecedented verdict, the AAP secured a whopping 67 out of Delhi’s 70 seats. Kejriwal has emerged as the most popular leader ever produced by the national capital. His unconventional politics have recaptured the imagination of the people, dealing a debilitating blow to India’s established political parties.

The AAP secured over 54 percent of the popular vote, 10 percentage points more than it did in 2013, when it failed to secure a simple majority in the assembly.

For an upstart party, this kind of feat is historic. The victory comes eight months after the AAP lost all the seven parliamentary seats in Delhi in India’s general election last May, raising questions about the nascent party’s ability to survive. That the party, which consists mostly of young people, managed to reverse the trend so quickly speaks volumes not only to Kejriwal’s charisma, but also raises questions regarding the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered a severe jolt just months after romping home with seven seats in Delhi.

The message is unmistakable. It is a victory for the AAP and Kejriwal and a clear defeat for Modi and the BJP. The party won just three seats in Tuesday’s poll, losing 90 percentage of its legislators in the city assembly.

In Delhi’s 2013 assembly elections, the AAP won 29 seats, the BJP won 32, and the Congress Party managed to secure just eight. The AAP formed the government with the backing of the Congress Party, but the experiment failed when Kejriwal resigned as chief minister just 49 days after the election, protesting his coalition partner’s refusal to support a crucial anti-corruption bill.

Since May, Modi has been ruling Delhi by proxy. Tuesday’s poll can be seen an anti-incumbency vote against the BJP.

“This is very much a victory for Arvind Kejriwal, it is equally important to understand that it is also a defeat for Narendra Modi. It was Modi who was the face of the BJP and the party wanted a victory in his name,” veteran journalist Harish Khare says.

But what made the AAP the political darling of overwhelming masses of people so suddenly?

“The party talks to the common people, it engages you in conversation, it wants to listen to your problems and solve it,” says Balram Yadav, a security guard in Delhi who earns around $150 a month.

Dr. Anwar Sadat of the Indian Society of International Law, a Delhi-based think tank, finds “an easy affinity with the AAP because their leaders are accessible unlike the politicians from established  parties, who maintain a distinct distance from the common people.”

For Khare, the explanation for the rapid rise of AAP lies in the “degree of idealism that they bring in politics.”

What implications do the Delhi elections have on national politics in India?

Political analysts believe that verdict in Delhi could stop Modi’s political juggernaut. Since forming government in Delhi last year, the Modi-led BJP has won every regional election. The BJP formed governments in Haryana, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra, and even performed well in the Jammu and Kashmir elections, a historic feat for the right-wing Hindu nationalist party.

Regional parties, squeezed by the BJP’s victories, could be emboldened by the Delhi vote to counter the ruling party at India’s political center. Provincial elections in Bihar, a politically crucial eastern Indian state, could be a vital testing ground. There, BJP is investing lots of political capital and prestige to wrest the state from its archrival, the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U). The JD(U) and other regional parties have been sewing up an alliance to counter the BJP. The results in Delhi will boost the morale of these groups.

The implications of the Delhi campaign will also be felt in West Bengal, where the BJP is committed to concerted outreach efforts. With Modi’s popularity and appeal under duress, how far the ruling party will manage to establish itself in the India’s biggest eastern state, which not long ago was a bastion of left-wing parties, is an open question.

The AAP’s victory also symbolizes a shift of the middle class and youth away from the BJP. Modi was a darling of these groups in May’s elections. With these constituencies leaving the ruling party, it’s clear that disenchantment with Modi’s politics is growing.

His hobnobbing with corporate India and expensive, embroidered suits during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to India did not sit well with the masses. People obviously didn’t appreciate this opulence from a man who once touted himself as the son of a tea seller.

“Modi has become arrogant and the way he has been conducting himself and the way he has been promoting himself both in India and abroad does not show him to be  a humble man,” says Rajat Singh, a software professional who rooted for Modi in the last general elections.

It would not be far fetched to say that voters in Delhi also sent a message to the BJP on Tuesday: its politics of divisiveness are intolerable. With religious violence rising over the last six months, and a growing cacophony of radical Hindu groups in society, Modi’s silence and inability to stop such trends has also not sat well with young voters.

“I am not a fan of the AAP but the result of these Delhi elections is very heartening because Modi has been defeated. With each passing day, the secular space in India has been shrinking and I hope this loss sends a loud and clear message to the radical Hindu groups that people will not tolerate any tampering with the secular principles of the country,” says Anjana Chotani, a Delhi-based artist.

But what’s in store for the Congress Party?

If the BJP has been reduced to a minor player in Delhi after the elections, the grand old party of India has been completely decimated. The party had been power in Delhi for 15 years until the end of 2013, but this recent defeat raises questions regarding the future of the country’s true pan-Indian centrist party. The century-old party has been suffering defeat after defeat since last May, when it lost power in the general elections after ruling the country for ten years. The AAP has eaten away at its core constituencies: the minorities and the marginalized sections of Indian society. The AAP poses a grave threat to the Congress’ existence as a centrist party if the Delhi experiment is replicated in other states.

Khare, who examined Modi’s rise in his recent book, “How Modi Won It,” says the AAP won’t have a major impact beyond Delhi. “To write the Congress party off so easily would be too premature,” Khare says, adding that “there would always be a space for a pan-India centrist party in the country”.

India has marked a tryst with a new kind of politics with the rise of the AAP. The party has emerged as a new democratic alternative in Indian politics. Kejriwal is the face of this novel experiment. He has rekindled a new hope in politics. That’s why he’s Delhi’s darling this Valentine’s Day.