India: The Common Man triumphs (again)

24th Feb, 2015

No one would mistake Delhi in 2015 as a world-class city, and don’t feel disloyal to my adopted hometown for saying so. The fault does not lie with the twenty-million residents of this vast capital for the state of their city, though they did what they could by voting with their hearts this February to elect a man they feel could possibly, hopefully bring it up to scratch.

Mr. Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Admi Party took home 67 of the 70 seats in the Delhi assembly, with a clear mandate to reform this town through rooting out corruption and dismantling the “VIP culture” into a place worthy of its history and potential.

Delhi’s problems are numerous, from the very basic – inadequate road and refuse infrastructure- to the more complex. Religious tensions, inherent corruption and violence against women. So why did Delhi entrust the enormous task to Mr. Kejriwal (a zygote- politically speaking) and his party built on the ethos of the ‘common man’?

Furthermore, why did the monoliths of Indian politics, BJP and Congress, lose this election in India’s capital to a former tax inspector and his band of “anarchist” brothers and sisters?

The BJP made electoral history in India just last May, clearing the 272-seat majority needed, an event repeatedly referred to in the Indian press as a ‘landslide’. The allusion to landslides, tedious as it is, may have some value in regard to Delhi’s election. After all, a landslide implies a slippery slope…

The first bungle by BJP and Congress was their choice of leaders to run in this race. The BJP, relatively late in the game chose one Kiran Bedi, India’s first policewoman (whose media savvy was no coincidence in her appointment) as their face for Delhi.

Congress had the dynastic son, Rahul Gandhi. His flaws as a electoral persona are too lengthy for this article alone, yet subject to say after their heavy losses in the Lok Sabha elections last year, they stuttered on assembling a new party manifesto to interest voters, let alone dig out a viable candidate without the family suffix.

Kejriwal and Bedi are both newcomers. Bedi joined the BJP and politics only three weeks prior to the polls opening. Kejriwal’s AAP controlled Delhi’s Assembly for 49 days last year, hardly infusing his resume with democratic finesse. In his case, lack of involvement in this field fortifies the AAP party line of ‘common man’. For Bedi, BJP voters who abstained from punching her ticket state she was a rushed choice, lacking support of the already factious BJP. Her late appointment meant she and the BJP failed to expand her voter base, despite all the promises of a safer Delhi for ladies with a former policewoman at its helm.

The second reason why the BJP and Congress failed to win more than three seats is the lack of tangible changes in quality of life in Delhi following their win last May. Why should people put their faith in a party who haven’t delivered in their nine months in power?

The (countless) advertisements for BJP around Delhi depicted Modi’s face above statements of how his leadership has benefitted India so far; very little has changed. Traffic jams, stagnant building sites, homeless children, open sewers, pollution and red tape all endure. People I asked said things were either the same, or worse in terms of cost of living and quality of life. These are not quantitative measures, by any means, but it proves the point. If one campaigns nationally with a mandate to elevate, reform, improve, and liberalize an entire country, and even the capital sees no glimmer of change, you should expect your feet to slip a little down that landslide slope.

Modi has had high profile guests, presided over a period of falling inflation and cheaper oil prices, appointed relatively liberal ministers in key departments. Yet, for all the strides forward in international perception of India through this charismatic man, none of it has resulted in ground level change. It is pertinent to remember what Delhi actually needs as home to 20 million people is not approval from international guests, but roads and pipes and cables and street lamps.

The third and final reason why the BJP and Congress were outperformed by the AAP was because they categorically failed to appeal to the widest voter base in Delhi: the lower classes.

Now, Kejriwal was cautious not to present himself as a lower-caste pin-up, or a man on a mission to secure their needs above all else. The fact is, he didn’t need to. A former tax inspector, he led anti-corruption movements in 2010 and he represented himself as such: a common man trying to bring some accountability into Indian politics. He was able to further ensure the middle class voters were not alarmed that they may be put 2nd in a class war waged in the Capital.

From a different angle, the only social group where the BJP outperformed the AAP was in the upper classes. The BJP has not excelled in recent months in appealing to the common Indian. Modi normally takes a helicopter to meetings across Delhi to avoid traffic, and his ministers will use special lanes so as not to burden themselves with a problem so pedestrian. For those that missed it, the PM wore a specially designed suit costing an estimated 9 lakh (£9000), a move one Indian commentator has described as “an unmitigated disaster”.

In contrast, Kejriwal stated in campaigns that he would give 20,000 litres of free water to each household, halve electricity bills and introduce free Wi-Fi across the whole city. Leaving aside the economic viability of such subsidies, the AAP won the majority of seats because the greatest benefactors are the poorest groups of Delhi. For these people, halving of utility bills could mean the ability to know buy school clothes for their children, visit a hospital. This is the exact group alienated by a PM audacious enough to parade a suit costing two times the average annual Delhi wage to the world. What he gained in fashion kudos, he lost in capital votes.

Delhi is not an isolated case – Greece, Israel, the UK, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Portugal and Spain all go the polls this year. Those that already did have thrown out the incumbents. Lack of patience with trickle-down theories employed by governments in their high tax and benefit-slashing season has resulted in opposition parties usurping power globally. Only last year of course the opposition BJP trampled Congress in the polls. The problem for BJP is their grace period in the capital has been markedly short.

What lessons can be learned from Delhi’s elections? Keep in mind that Delhi’s population represents less than 2% of Indians, so this cannot be said to represent an overall change in tide against BJP. However, as this article points out, Kejriwal is now a substantial and vocal opposition figure to Brand Modi, a victory for democratic process and a starting point for media critique of BJP policy. No bad thing in the world’s largest and seemingly healthiest democracy. Stay tuned.


Grace Lown is an Economics graduate born and raised in London. After graduating with her MSc in International Relations, she earned her wings in a London think-tank. Currently living and working in Delhi, India.