By: John Elliott
A diminutive former social activist and anti-corruption campaigner has today confirmed his role as the most successful political opponent of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government by devastatingly defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party in elections for Delhi’s Capital Territory assembly.
For the second time in five years, Arvind Kejriwal, 51, has led his Aam Aadmi (common man) Party to a resounding victory winning, on current vote-counting trends, around 90 percent of the 70 assembly seats.
It is happening at a time when Modi’s authoritarian Hindu nationalist government has been facing weeks of mass protests that have spread out from Delhi across India against citizenship legislation that is seen as being anti-Muslim.
This is a victory for a party that is based neither on religious intolerance nor on dynastic rule – the Gandhi family’s Congress Party has been decimated. Nor is it based on the sort of self-serving caste or linguistic foundations that dominate Indian politics.
Denigrated by many as an upstart that performs no better than long-established parties, the seven-year-old AAP has impressed voters by making significant improvements in the capital’s government schools and mohalla (primary health) clinics, and on subsidized water and electricity bills.
Efforts to deal with health-threatening air pollution and congested traffic have had little success, but the mass of voters feel that at least Kejriwal and his ministers have tried. New types of politicians have emerged, typified by Ayushi Marlena, an Oxford scholar, who helped transform government education in Delhi and has been elected today.
This does not mean that voters have deserted Modi. Opinion polls are showing that his popularity remains high, and that voters who reject him and the BJP in state polls would return to it in a general election.
The Delhi result follows BJP defeats in five other state polls since November 2018 – Jharkhand and Maharashtra most recently and Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh earlier. The Congress Party and its United Progressive Alliance have made gains, despite a lack of top leadership, though not in Delhi, until 2013, it was the dominant party alongside the BJP.
This is bad for Modi’s desired image of infallibility and it shows that his electioneering on the basis of Hindu nationalist issues does not work.
The BJP’s defeat is even more humiliating because it has flooded Delhi with election meetings attended by senior politicians led by Modi and his hardline home minister Amit Shah, and including 11 chief ministers from elsewhere in India, nearly 70 central government ministers and over 200 MPs
Kejriwal seems to share Modi’s Hindu pride but not his authoritarian nationalism. He has avoided attacking Modi, and Shah on recent measures such as ending Kashmir’s special status and introducing the citizenship legislation and threat of a national citizen’s register. To do so could have alienated the AAP voters who approve of the broad Hindu nationalist agenda.
Kejriwal has grown from being a street-level leader of protests since he founded the AAP in December 2012 after breaking away from what was known as the Hazare anti-corruption movement. A year later, the party won a surprisingly high result of 28 of the Delhi assembly 70 seats and Kejriwal formed a minority government. He did not, however, know how to govern and resigned after 49 chaotic days, having focused more on staging street-level protests than administration.
In February 2015, the AAP won an astonishing victory, winning 67 of the 70 seats, driving the BJP down to just three and the Congress Party to none. That was a major shock for Modi, coming just eight months after he had been swept to power nationally in the 2014 landslide BJP general election.
Modi blocked Kejriwal
Stung by the defeat, Modi set out to make Kejriwal’s administration non-functional by ordering Delhi’s loyalist lieutenant governor to block legislative and administrative initiatives and appointments.
That was reversed in July 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled that the national government should not interfere with, or attempt to undermine, Kejriwal’s administration. The court ruled that, while the central government was responsible through the lieutenant governor as it had always been for land, law and order and the police, the Delhi government had the power in all other areas. Since then the AAP has been able to develop its initiatives.
Kejriwal has had ambitions to turn the AAP into a national party, filling the anti-BJP gap that the Congress has vacated. He has however failed to establish the party elsewhere in either state or national elections, establishing only a minor role in Punjab. It currently has only one MP in the Lok Sabha and three in the Rajya Sabha.
The question now is whether Kejriwal focuses on running Delhi or revives his national ambitions. India lacks a viable national alternative to the BJP, with the Congress leadership failing to perform and other non-BJP chief ministers following their own interests.
It must be tempting for Kejriwal to try to go national, but that should not be at the expense of being an effective chief minister of the Capital Territory.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.