Arvind Kejriwal Leads Aam Aadmi Party to Sweeping Victory in Delhi Assembly Elections.


N. Sathiya Moorthy

It’s change, yet, it’s change with continuity. The sweeping victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi assembly polls is reminiscent of a near-similar parliamentary poll experience for the nation as a whole. Replace parties and personalities between then and now – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi with AAP and Arvind Kejriwal – the voter has shown that the ‘negative image’ and publicity against neither works when he is determined to have his way, and show the politicos their way and place in his scheme of things.

The parliamentary polls were a reflection on the voter’s apathy towards what he has already had at the national-level for years and decades together. To the voter, Modi represented change, and a change for the better and betterment of the nation. It’s thus a voter’s message to Prime Minister Modi and his BJP-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that he does not have the patience to wait eternally for that change. It is also a message to the latter that they do not have the leisure to effect the ‘promised change’ until they are ready for the next round of polls.

Between the parliamentary polls last May and the Delhi assembly polls now, the BJP did win several state assemblies – all of them attributed to the ‘Modi wave’. But when they have lost the Delhi crucible, they wanted Kiran Bedi, as the party’s late-invention for chief minister’s post, to own up the responsibility/liability. Clearly, not just Modi, even BJP’s chief ministerial aspirants in Delhi had smelt what awaited them, and did not want to stick their necks out.

If not, some of them might have lost even what they may have already had in the party or in the government at the Centre. A victorious political party is like the present-day Indian cricket team. If you have lost out your place in the team to injuries, then you may never ever be able to claim it back. Does anyone today remember a BJP stalwart called Lal Krishna Advani? Or, a host of others like Murli Manohar Joshi? It’s equally so in other political parties, too, particularly when it’s on a victorious streak.

Stalling BJP’s progress

For now, the divided and decimated opposition from the parliamentary polls can take heart. They may still not have the numbers, particularly in the all-important Lok Sabha, but they have learnt that the voter is ready to end his honeymoon with Modi, if they behaved and behaved properly. In the name of the common man, they can now be expected to stall the proceedings in both Houses in the budget session, talking (or, shouting) secularism, nuclear diplomacy with the US, or whatever.

But over the medium term, it’s the re-discovery of the ‘third alternative’, call it by whatever name. There can be no denying Modi’s contribution(s) to the BJP’s victory in the parliamentary polls. Yet, the fact that a combined opposition, otherwise discredited, might still have stalled the BJP’s progress substantially in high seat-count states in the ‘Hindi belt’ in particular should not have been over-looked.

It’s this calculus that encouraged the ruling Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) rival to try and bury the hatchet and come together to take on the BJP in Bihar. The Delhi polls could make the BJP leadership rethink about their half-baked strategy to back rebel JD (U) Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi. In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the coming together of the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) and the rival Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) may not happen that easily.

In Bihar, where assembly polls are due later this year, the BJP may have to re-look its strategy, acknowledging that the Modi-Amit Shah duo may not have the magic wand all the time. In West Bengal and southern Tamil Nadu, where assembly polls are due in 2016 (along with Kerala), the ruling Trinamool Congress and the AIADMK, respectively, could begin flexing their muscles more than already – independent of other expectations and anticipation.

‘Reforms with a human face’

The results of successive parliamentary polls – and at times, assembly elections in states – over the past decades have a common streak. Between them, the two ‘national parties’ (?), namely the Congress and the BJP have replaced each other, as the single-largest party – while the other was pushed to the third or the last place. Loosely put, in states where regional parties were/are dominant, they won a substantial number of seats, throwing up a ‘third front’ alternative. The AAP and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi belong there.

The Delhi poll results are a cosmopolitan city’s commentary on the new government at the Centre, the prime minister and their policies. The realisation of the kind after the ruling Congress had lost the post-reforms parliamentary polls of 1996, followed by the ‘stability-card’ BJP-supportive elections of 1998 and 1999 that the author of the economic reforms, Manmohan Singh had to begin talking about ‘reforms with a human face’. It may be no different this time, either.

The nuclear liability law-changes effected when US President Barack Obama was here only days before the Delhi polls, may not concern the capital’s voters directly, yet the political opposition would have its day, say and time on the same. It’s ‘land reforms’ and ‘labour law reforms’ of the kind that the metropolitan residents with their roots in their villages may have understood otherwise in an earlier era that had contributed in a way to the AAP’s sweep – or, the BJP’s loss.

Middle-class opinion-makers

In a state/city where the ‘middle class’ government servants dominate neighbourhood opinion-making more than high-decibel TV talk-shows and social media harangue of the electoral adversary, Obama does not seem to have impressed anyone much. By extension, Prime Minister Modi’s odyssey with the international community does not seem to have any takers outside of the ‘Sangh parivar’.

That the old joke about former prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh ‘visiting India’ had begun doing the rounds in Modi’s case – this time in his own favourite social media — should have alerted someone somewhere. It did not. All this, when there was enough nearer home for a new prime minister to do, and do so beyond words, too did not impress the Delhi voter, it now would seem.

It’s not unlikely that the ‘government-dependent voters’ of Delhi might not have taken kindly to the high-profile sacking or replacement of senior officials, cutting across various ministries and departments – and for a multitude of reasons that could apply to anyone of them, another day. It’s the kind of concern that FDI sectors like insurance and PSU disinvestment could trigger across the country, where it has not done so already.

In the case of the ruling Congress of the past, the realistic compulsions of electoral democracy forced the party to push economic reforms to the background and take up the cause of the ‘aam aadmi’ with renewed vigour. In the mid-nineties, the reforms agenda projected the Congress as being friendlier to big business than the nation’s downtrodden, who were seen as its traditional support base. Nearly two decades later, the voter was made to feel that the party was for big-time corrupt politicos, instead – and paid the price for not doing enough to counter the campaign.

The voters of Delhi, and by extension, those across the country, voted for Modi and the BJP for a different purpose than his government and leadership have since projected, while in office. Yet, when the Modi stars are shining bright, the Delhi reversal would make the overseas friends of India and his admirers to go slow on their predictions and predicaments for the future of bilateral and multilateral relations. It has happened in the past, it can still happen, now.

Changing with change

The problem with older parties is that they are unable to change in the face of change, which competition often represents. That was the problem with the Congress, but in the absence of a viable combination, a saleable issue and/or a larger-than-life leader’s image, it did not have to change its ways of thinking and working, both as a party and government, until A.B. Vajpayee earlier and Modi now, represented the change.

In the case of leaders like Vajpayee and Modi, their methods of communication, going to the voter over the head of the party, like Indira Gandhi before them, and tools of communication too made the difference. In Modi’s time, which has stabilised with no anticipated expectation of the ‘corrupt’ Congress returning to power, AAP and Arvind Kejriwal represent that change and difference.

True, the parliamentary polls are not due anywhere in the near-future. It remains to be seen if the voter at the national-level would stabilise his thought processes or would still be hungering for change. The existing leaderships of the Congress and the various regional parties with larger base cannot become more credible than what they are now. Modi can become less credible, if at all – as the undefined aspirations of the Indian voter in 2014 represented different expectations and different anticipations from the voters, which no leader or government can easily identify and meet.

Yet, to those voters, they would still need ‘action’ from a leader and government from whom they had expected nothing more, nothing less. When that does not happen, they feel cheated, and mostly for no fault of the leader of the party in power. It’s what happened to Indira Gandhi in the seventies, the Janata Parivar not very long after, followed by Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee in their times.

(N. Sathiya Moorthy is a Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)