Until recently, elections in Delhi were not a big deal. In fact, the act that governs the National Capital Territory of Delhi grants very limited autonomy to the city administration. Some derisively call elections for the Delhi government to be a glorified municipality contest. That derision may be misjudged. The Delhi election is a key event in India’s electoral calendar.
Delhi has ballooned into a bulging megalopolis of millions of immigrants. Its native population is insignificant, and it has no distinctive cultural base. Voters in Delhi form a microcosm of the entire country.
India: Autopsy and Resurrection of a Republic
Furthermore, India’s national media is based in Delhi. Foreign correspondents swan around in posh clubs and fancy five-star hotels. Delhi is redolent with memories. After all, it was home to regal Mughal splendor and the seat of imperial British power. Therefore, Delhi elections are a big deal.
On February 11, Arvind Kejriwal, of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), won 62 out of the 70 seats for the Delhi Legislative Assembly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got a mere 8 seats. The all-powerful Home Minister Amit Shah personally campaigned in the streets of Delhi with more than 200 members of Parliament in tow, to little effect. Modi’s trademark oratory did not work either. The BJP was humbled by what is essentially now a one-man party.
How Did David Beat Goliath?
In recent years, the BJP has become an electoral juggernaut. Last year, it won all the parliamentary seats in the national election. This year, the Dilliwalas who voted resoundingly for Modi have now switched loyalties to Kejriwal. Why?
If we were to believe the simplistic narrative of The New York Times, development politics trumped divisive campaigning. Kejriwal has delivered better services and, therefore, voters rewarded the AAP. This certainly has an element of truth. In the last five years, the Kejriwal government improved state-run schools, delivered primary health care at the community level and provided an electricity subsidy to low-income households.
Yet the wise experts who write for the venerable New York publication forget an inconvenient truth. There is little to separate the economic policies of the AAP and the BJP. Both practice socialism. The BJP’s Sanatan socialism has provided medical insurance, a limited basic income and reservations to the poor. It has also ended the billionaire raj that many were concerned about. So, why choose the AAP over the BJP?
Some credit a bad budget a few days ago that took away tax exemptions from the middle class. Delhi is a city crawling with armies of government employees who wanted to punish the BJP. Combine them with the poor and the anti-BJP Muslims, and you have a winning voting bloc. Apparently, the BJP’s recent policies on Kashmir, citizenship and the Ram temple have all backfired.
The truth might be a bit more subtle. Kejriwal is a canny operator. He has sensed the changing zeitgeist. Indians support the BJP’s Kashmir policy. So does Kejriwal. The citizenship legislation does not bother most Indians, and the Ram temple is a fait accompli. Neither issue gets much attention from Kejriwal. A uniform civil code might finally be on its way, ending special laws of marriage, inheritance, charities, etc., for minorities. The BJP has taken away the right of Muslim men to instantly divorce their wives by uttering the talaq thrice. The AAP is not much fussed about it.
Instead, the AAP has focused on delivering services, and its model is very different to the BJP. Kejriwal has gone hammer and tongs on the bureaucracy. As a former taxman, he understands that people on the street abhor India’s corrupt, inefficient and arrogant bureaucrats. In contrast, Modi rules through his blue-eyed boys, a practice that even loyal members of his own party viscerally detest.
The AAP means the “common man’s party” in Hindi and is responding to his concerns. Government schools are a key example. For decades, they have functioned poorly. Even those who live in slums prefer sending their children to private schools by spending an arm and a leg. The AAP has finally made government schools work. Unsurprisingly, its education crusader, Atishi Marlena, has won by a whopping 11,000 votes.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
The international media have failed to notice one key development. The Congress party did not win a single seat in Delhi, a city that was its fiefdom until as recently as 2013. Since the 1970s, the Congress has been a family business dominated by the Nehru family. The grand old party of Indian politics won a measly 4% of the total votes. This family firm has clearly run out of steam.
In Maharashtra, the Congress has got into bed with Shiv Sena, a party to the right of the BJP. Furthermore, its economics are to the right of most other parties. Its star leaders might still be slick, but remain shady. More importantly, they have no clear strategy and have lost all energy. The Delhi election shows that the AAP has eaten the Congress’s lunch in India’s national capital.
It is not just the Congress that has crumbled. The communist parties that ruled Kerala and West Bengal for decades are now withering away. Both the BJP and the AAP have adopted socialism even as the left embraced economic liberalization. With ambitious upstarts stealing their clothes, the left can only peddle a cultural agenda for which there are few takers. Marx does not sell easily in the land of Hanuman.
The AAP is now the de facto national opposition party. Occupying center stage in Delhi, Kejriwal is assured of a national limelight for another five years. His Delhi model is now a counter to Modi’s Gujarat model. As stated earlier, Modi and Shah rely on bureaucrats to carry out his will. Kejriwal and Marlena focus on reducing bureaucratic interference in the lives of the people. Delhi voters clearly approve.
In this election, the BJP’s mighty machinery moved into full gear against the AAP. Its victory has sent a signal to all regional parties as to how to fight the BJP. Many might adopt the Delhi model with its focus on populist grassroots democracy. Better provision of education, health, water and electricity, along with lesser police interference in people’s lives, might be a winning strategy in future elections.
As of now, Modi is still popular and would win a national election. However, the BJP is mismanaging the economy. India’s banks are bust, credit markets are frozen, jobs are scarce, unemployment is high and demand is in the doldrums. Like Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s imperious daughter, Modi has concentrated power in his hands, weakening the BJP’s bench strength. At some point, voters will look for an alternative. If Kejriwal can stop being a one-man band, then the AAP could one day replace the BJP.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.