The plucky upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won big at the Dehli State Assembly polls Tuesday, claiming 67 out of 70 seats and over half the popular vote. The stunning margin of victory shocked onlookers, who see the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi as the first major blow against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
While the Delhi state elections have no bearing on the national parliament, they are watched with especial interest because of the influence of the capital city on the rest of the country. In fact, Modi himself even campaigned in the Delhi race on behalf of BJP candidate Karin Bedi, which analysts believe makes the victory of AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal a personal affront as well as a political one.
Some Western observers have argued that despite Modi’s boost, BJP ran a particularly weak campaign in Delhi over the past several months. So now, thanks to Tuesday’s results, the ruling party’s popularity is being called into question. The ideological tension between the two parties typifies still unresolved debates about India’s economic and foreign policies.
Modi and the BJP won the elections that put him in power in May 2014. Modi’s platform signaled a new and prosperous era for a transitioning India. Widely seen as a pro-business candidate, Modi champions modernity and keeping India competitive in the global marketplace. He has made it a priority to attract international investment, and has been proactive about building his country’s relationship with key players throughout the region (including Pakistan, which bolstered his credentials as a different kind of Indian leader.) His posturing was sometimes lavish — for example, his hologram likeness appeared at certain events to highlight India’s considerable tech capabilities.
But India’s makeover-in-progress is less adored by its poorest constituents. Modi’s stance against “hand-outs” echoes Reagan’s “trickle-down economics,” but Delhi’s poorest residents have trouble meeting their short-term basic needs. More worryingly, the BJP appears to have an authoritarian nationalist streak, as evidenced by recent police crackdowns on Muslim and African communities.
Kejriwal and the AAP — whose name means “Common Man Party” — successfully capitalized on these misgivings to achieve their landslide victory. Kejriwal’s campaign promises were relatively simple — he vowed government transparency, and to reduce utility bills and bring free water to Delhi’s slums. During public appearances, he often wore his scarf in the fashion of Delhi laborers in a show of solidarity. He also appeared to make a connection between India’s increasingly global orientation and neglect of its own poor: last month, he spoke at Columbia University and lambasted Modi’s foreign policy as little more than PR.
While Delhi’s droves of poor were effectively mobilized to tip the scales against BJP, Modi’s party remains generally popular throughout the country. Still, local Delhi politics will serve as an example of an alternative set of priorities for other states, whose opposition leaders may be galvanized to follow suit.