When the Aam Aadmi – Common Man’s – Party first stepped in to politics, you’d have been tempted to laugh at their prospects. An anti-corruption party, with no experience of governance, taking on the established big guns of the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seemed unlikely to make headway in the quagmire-cum-minefield of Indian politics. Yet in the 2013 Delhi Legislative elections, they ended up as the second largest party behind the BJP.
Choosing to side with the Congress Party, they enjoyed less than two months in power before quitting in protest at the political system. In the 2014 general elections, they secured around only 2 per cent of the vote and thus failed to win any seats. The scale of their victory earlier this month was thus shocking. Having previously hit 28 seats out of 70, the AAP swept to power with 67 this time. If protest parties want a lesson in taking power, this is it.
The beginnings of the AAP were with the anti-corruption campaigns of Anna Hazare. A former soldier turned activist, he shot to prominence in 2011 after a hunger strike to fight for an anti-corruption legislature, the Jan Lokpal Bill. Mass protests followed, but – as is too often the case in India – they failed to achieve their aims. Out of this turmoil, Arvind Kejriwal, a former member of Hazare’s team, split off to form the AAP in 2012.
The scale of their victory is particularly notable considering the brevity of their previous stint in power. Their 49 days in power had earned them the epithet bhagora, ‘quitter’, from the BJP in the run-up to the elections, a campaign which went on to backfire spectacularly. In their short space of time in government, the AAP got stuck into tackling low-level corruption, particularly amongst the police force and local officials, and subsidised electricity and water supplies. Kejriwal’s advice to citizens to film police abuse struck a particular chord with citizens who had often felt powerless, though contributed to the rocky relationship between the party and security forces. Despite a rather inelegant departure from power – including a senior AAP member being accused of racism and sexism – the margin of success suggests that few in Delhi were too disappointed with their tenure, no matter how short it was.
On the flip side, it might just point to the dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. Although the BJP secured a not inconsiderable 32.2 per cent of the vote, this translated into just 3 seats – a loss of 28. Despite sweeping the state of Assam – formerly a Congress stronghold – in municipal elections, the Indian media is buzzing with talk of the BJP’s bruising at the hands of Kejriwal’s under-dogs.
Whilst it’s true that the Delhi elections were not a referendum on the BJP’s term in power, they are a reminder that the Modi wave which lead the BJP’s sweep to victory in the 2014 General Election is not unstoppable. Even committed BJP supporters within my family have been rather stunned, questioning just how the party got it so wrong in Delhi. The BJP’s decision to parachute in Kiran Bedi, for example, was seen as little more than an attempt to counter Kejriwal’s credentials with a celebrity. Such conspicuous attempts to use star power – Bedi is India’s first female police officer and a noted social activist – have also lead to accusations that the BJP is ignoring grassroots campaigners and local activists. These are the very groups which the AAP had worked with so successfully, cultivating its everyman image in direct opposition to the high-profile, big money campaigns of its opponents. Modi’s government, facing a non-localist, non-Congress opponent, seems to be seeing first-hand that being in power is not all plain sailing.
What does it mean for India? Despite the rhetoric from some quarters – notably the far-right nationalist Shiv Sena – that the BJP has been reduced to “dirt”, this is hardly a harbinger of the party’s imminent collapse. Instead, however, we are likely to see shifts in policy to appease voters. The change in stance towards Pakistan by the BJP – who had broken off talks last year over Pakistan’s continuing talks with Kashmiri insurgents – is potentially an attempt to create a softer narrative. 172 Indian fishermen were released following conversations between Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, though several hundred still remain imprisoned.
Yet as the Assam elections have shown, the BJP’s popularity remains strong outside the National Capital Region. With talk of moving into the southern states, particularly Tamil Nadu – where two regional parties have taken turns running down the state since 1971 – the loss at Delhi, no matter how spectacular it is, is unlikely to halt the saffron party’s progress. The AAP will, hopefully, continue the progress they made in 2013, and force the BJP and other parties to up the ante if they want to keep their seats at the next election. For now, though, they’ll have to be content with Delhi.