The most Right-wing Prime Minister in India’s history, Narendra Modi, has suffered a humiliating personal defeat in the capital, Delhi, only eight months after a monster electoral victory in the parliamentary elections and just when it seemed India would submit to his hegemonic influence. Many of those who did not vote for him can put away their anti-depressants, at least for now.
Modi’s party, the BJP (Indian People’s Party), won only three of the 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly while AAP (Aam Aadmi Party, Common Man’s Party) won the other 67. The BJP spent an estimated $80 million for the elections and marshalled its members of Parliament, Central ministers and chief ministers of the quarter of Indian states it rules and thousands of cadres of the RSS, the Hindu storm trooper organisation, to defeat a two-year-old party that had neither the money nor the saturation media coverage of its rival. Modi portrayed the Delhi elections as an indicator of the country’s mood and as a referendum on his popularity. Days before the elections, when defeat was apparent but not the scale, his party leaders began denying both. AAP won 53% of the popular vote (the BJP had won the parliamentary elections with less than a third of all votes), with the majority coming from women, the young, the minorities, the urban poor and the middle castes and classes. The three seats the BJP won were from the most prosperous parts of Delhi where upper caste Hindus are a majority.
Arvind Kejriwal holding the party's symbol, a broom
AAP’s victory is political dynamite that blasts Modi’s aura of invincibility manufactured by the corporate media and the fatalism of ‘Widerstand ist zwecklos’ (resistance is futile). Born out of an anti-corruption movement, it achieved its victory with the promise of a clean government and harsh measures against corruption. The voters remembered its first minority government of 49 days when policemen stopped asking for bribes and work was done in government offices without money changing hands. Corruption is more than a moral issue for the people; it is a significant loss to their earnings. AAP took up the issues of harassment of women, services for the urban poor such as providing them with subsidised water and electricity and legalising the squatter colonies together with incentives for businesses and free wi-fi services that attracted the votes of the middle class. It managed to balance the aspirations of the urban poor without alienating the middle classes.
AAP’s victory was also the result of a year’s silent work by thousands of activists among the communities and the immense moral authority of its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax inspector who has taken on the establishment at every step of his political life. The party organised grassroots encounters with Delhi’s diverse communities and developed its election promises together with them. It worked with the people on a daily basis till it became the trusted party they could turn to. The people saw in Kejriwal someone who would dare to cleanse the system and not negotiate with the powerful mafias that strangulate India’s capital, just as in every other city. They also sent out the message to the BJP that their vote for Modi in the national elections did not mean he could rule India according to his whims and fantasies. Just before the Delhi elections, President Obama was in the Indian capital where the Prime Minister greeted him in a $200,000 suit with his name imprinted on the pinstripes. Here was a man who had marketed his humble origin as a tea-seller and was now dressing and behaving like a megalomaniac medieval Hindu emperor. Almost nothing has happened on the ground for ordinary Indians to think that better days have arrived, as Modi promised them during his campaign. Instead, laws have been changed for the next wave of land grab on behalf of big capital while the Prime Minister remains aloof at home and is visible on television only during his endless journeys to foreign capitals.
Most Indian analysts agree that the February Delhi elections were a political earthquake, but nobody knows for sure which directions the aftershocks will travel or their intensity. With 17 million residents, the capital is India’s most-populated urban centre but it still accounts for only 1.5% of the country’s population. AAP itself has said it does not have the resources or manpower to spread throughout the country straight away. It wants to participate in popular movements in other states while hoping to provide an example of good governance in Delhi over the next few years. But its influence seems to have already reached the neighbouring state of Haryana where a farmers’ movement against forcible land acquisition is beginning to take shape. AAP remains culturally a North Indian party and will find it harder to spread beyond the cultural barriers towards the south or the east other than in cosmopolitan urban pockets like Bangalore. Its more immediate influence has rather been to act as a catalyst for the non-BJP political parties and people’s movements to recover their courage.
Manoj Kureel, NitiCentral
AAP’s most lasting influence could be the one that is hardest to measure. Traditional Left-wing parties in India have been (reduced) cut-and-paste Russian and Chinese models while the mainstream parties copied the Anglo-Saxon version and, in the BJP’s case, the pre-World War ІІ German and Italian formations. Kejriwal has fashioned an original and very mixed Indian model that draws on Gandhian, Socialist, religious and nationalist traditions to create an ideology and a party that questions big capital and redefines the state’s role in working for the poor majority without questioning capitalism. In many ways, it appears to be an Oriental cousin of the Syriza/Podemos family. This is the ideological contour in which India’s radical forces will find themselves wherever AAP gains strength and perhaps even where it does not. The big unknown is that if and when Modi finally manages to bring the state, the intelligence agencies, the judicial system and the media under his absolute control in the next few years, will he decide to uproot AAP using state violence and RSS muscle power? Will the horizontal, open and heterogeneous model that enabled AAP to lead a multi-class rebellion against Modi survive this coming storm? And, even at that stage if AAP crumbles as an organised party, will its ideological legacy come back at some point to overcome the Modi model of creating strategic hamlets of coercive Hinduism for the masses while throwing open the gates of plunder for robber baron capitalism?