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India's 'common man' victory

Shamil Shams
February 10, 2015

Indian PM Narendra Modi's magic didn't work in Delhi, as Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) swept the capital, bagging most seats in the state elections. Can the "common man" Kejriwal inspire the rest of India?

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate Arvind Kejriwal (C) is seen after filing his nomination papers for the upcoming Assembly elections in New Delhi, India, Jan. 21, 2015 (Photo: Xinhua/Partha Sarkar)
Image: picture alliance/landov

Less than a year after winning a landslide victory in the general elections, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by its charismatic Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi, has suffered a heavy defeat in the state of Delhi, according to initial results.

The relatively new political party, the AAP (the Common Man Party), is leading in 66 of 70 constituencies in the capital, while the BJP is expected to win only three to four seats. The former ruling party, the Indian National Congress, has been wiped out of the state.

The polls were viewed by many analysts as a popularity test for Prime Minister Modi, who had campaigned aggressively in Delhi for the BJP candidate, Kiran Bedi, India's first female police officer. But Bedi said the BJP's defeat shouldn't be considered a referendum against Modi.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the launch of the Jan Dhan Yojana, or the Scheme for People's Wealth, in New Delhi August 28, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)
PM Modi has assured full support to the incoming state governmentImage: Reuters

Prime Minister Modi conceded defeat on Tuesday, February 10, and congratulated the AAP leader, Arvind Kejriwal, on his party's unprecedented success. The PM also assured him of his government's full support.

Opinion polls had predicted the AAP to win the state elections, but nobody had expected the party to sweep the polls.

"It's a huge triumph that has major reverberations for national politics. This is because it is the first major blow to Modi - a leader seen as invincible ever since he and his party were swept into power by a huge margin in last year's election," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.

End of the 'Modi wave'?

So who is this "common man" Kejriwal who has put an end to the "Modi wave," at least for the time being?

"To be very frank, there was no 'Modi wave' in the first place, and there was no other party which could have filled the vacuum created by the Congress," Sharad Sharma, a Delhi-based social activist and cartoonist, told DW, adding that people were really frustrated with the corruption in the state. "Kejriwal's victory will certainly give 'Modi and Company' a good shock," Sharma told DW.

The activist said the AAP's success was also a result of the BJP's eight-month "misrule," which "unmasked the anti-poor, anti-environment and anti-secular face of the BJP."

The 'third way' option

Kejriwal, a former tax officer, became prominent during the South Asian country's anti-graft campaign in 2012. He launched the AAP in 2013 as an alternative to India's two major political forces – the BJP and Congress - and secured 28 of 70 assembly seats in Delhi in the subsequent state elections.

The 46-year-old politician formed a minority government with support from the Congress party, but his short stint as Delhi's Chief Minister was marred by conflicts with power companies, disagreements with the central government and street protests. Kejriwal's administration quit only after 49 days, and Delhi has been under President's rule since then.

"To this point, Kejriwal can best be seen as a street politician - one who has proven quite adept at mobilizing large numbers of people around issues that strike a chord among the masses. Also, he has been able to successfully position himself as a 'third way' option - a leader who does not represent one of the two major parties that have dominated national politics since India's inception," said Kugelman.

But the expert is of the view that the AAP leader has yet to prove that he is capable of getting down to the serious business of governing once in power. "Many people saw Kejriwal's decision to resign as an indication of political immaturity and a sign that he simply wasn't ready to govern. Others, however, saw the decision as an example of Kejriwal simply standing by his principles. This was all on the minds of Delhi voters on February 7 - as was the fact that the issues Kejriwal has long advocated for remain extremely salient in Delhi. This helps explain how he was able to win this election," underlined Kugelman.

Another chance for Kejriwal

It all began with the 74-year-old veteran social activist Anna Hazare's decision to go on a hunger strike against graft a few years ago. Kejriwal was one of the leading figures of Hazare's anti-movement, which rattled the then Manmohan Singh-led center-left coalition government.

Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) chief and its chief ministerial candidate for Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal (C) waves to his supporters in New Delhi February 10, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)
Kejriwal's supporters are the working class people who make up 60 percent of Delhi's populationImage: Reuters/A. Abidi

The focus of Hazare's campaign was to force the Indian parliament to approve the Jan Lokpal (Citizen's Ombudsman) bill, which proposed to set up the institution of an independent ombudsman with the power to prosecute politicians and civil servants in graft cases.

By that time, the Congress party had been hit by a string of corruption scandals and was going through its roughest political patch in years since returning to power in 2009. The voters' dissatisfaction with Congress was reflected in the 2013 Delhi polls, as Former Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit's 15-year-rule came to an end, with Congress only managing to win eight seats in the capital. Kejriwal arrived on India's political scene with a bang.

"The first time Kejriwal rallied voters he was riding high on the momentum of anti-corruption marches he was leading, and which had taken India (or at least its urban areas) by storm. He successfully convinced voters in Delhi that he represented the person that could begin to move the country away from all this," Kugelman pointed out, adding that the latest victory was an indication that voter dissatisfaction about basic issues - water, energy, corruption, law and order - remained deep despite Modi's promises to make everything better.

Activist Sharma believes that Kejriwal and the AAP have now no other choice but to rule the state wisely and prove their worth. "This time the AAP fought the election on 'paanch saal Kejriwal' (five years for Kejriwal) slogan, and the party has to stick to it."

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