When the history of this period in Indian politics is written, February 10, 2015, will be remembered for two things. It was the date on which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s honeymoon finally ended. And it was a day when Arvind Kejriwal completed the fastest and most spectacular political comeback in recent memory.
Of the two, the end of the Modi honeymoon is more significant. Few objective observers can deny that, judged on many parameters, Modi has had a successful stint so far: the economy is limping back to normal, inflation is under control, global confidence in India has been restored, and the leadership vacuum that marked the last years of Manmohan Singh has been filled.
And yet, it is clear that the aura of power and invincibility Modi once projected has diminished. Much of this stems from the BJP’s misunderstanding of the mandate Modi won last year. India gave Modi a parliamentary majority so that he could get the country moving again. It was a mandate for governance, not for some ideological revolution. India did not vote for the politics of Hindutva, ghar-wapsi and love-jihad. Nor did the victory stem from any desire to see a one-party State or, as his supporters call it, a Congress-mukt Bharat.
Modi has probably worked out that the rabidly communal utterances of some of his colleagues have dented his image. That may explain why such comments have now reduced. But his obsession with being some modern-day Alexander who will conquer every state for the BJP has persisted.
He has found some success in assembly elections as the momentum of his parliamentary victory has endured and in those states where anti-incumbency has been a factor. But diminishing returns have now set in. The ‘Mission-44’ target for Kashmir was a madcap scheme which ended in embarrassment when the BJP failed to reach its target and could not win a single seat in the Valley. The claim that the BJP would sweep Jharkand was exploded when it struggled to find a majority. And even the successes have been less impressive than advertised. The logic behind the break with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra was that the BJP could win a majority on its own. In fact, it had to go back to the Sena to make up its numbers.
Given this background, the party was setting itself up for a fall in Delhi. In 2013, the BJP had been the single-largest party in the assembly and its chief minister candidate
Harsh Vardhan was well liked. In 2015, in the aftermath of the Lok Sabha landslide, all the BJP had to do was to repeat the 2013 model.
Instead the party sidelined Harsh Vardhan and announced that it would frame its campaign solely in terms of Modi’s own appeal. When that strategy seemed to be failing, it took the bizarre decision to import Kiran Bedi, who was not even a BJP member, and to impose her on the state unit. Bedi’s imposition demoralised the Delhi BJP, and the campaign floundered as panic set in.
Finally, the BJP did get a Congress-mukt Delhi. But it also very nearly got a BJP-mukt Delhi.
When Kejriwal resigned as chief minister of Delhi after a pitifully short stint in office, the middle classes were outraged and angry. When AAP then went on to contest parliamentary elections all over India only to meet with humiliating defeats, the media wrote it off. Much of the ire was directed at Kejriwal, who went against the national mood by challenging Modi in Varanasi. The media consensus was that hubris had set in: He genuinely believed he had become a national leader on the back of the India Against Corruption movement, where he was Anna Hazare’s Svengali.
So what explains the comeback? Mostly, it is that both the national mood and Kejriwal have changed. Not only has Kejriwal broken free of the old IAC leaders, he has also gone beyond their agenda. The Lokpal Bill, which dominated his speeches (and was the ostensible cause for his resignation), is now played down. The old middle-class messiah image has been junked.
Instead, Kejriwal has hijacked the old Congress base: Slum-dwellers, auto-drivers, industrial labourers, migrants, Dalits, Muslims and people at the very bottom of the social pyramid. He now stands for the little guy, who is thrashed by the police, driven out of his jhuggi by civic authorities, forced to pay hafta to a variety of officials and oppressed by the city’s established power structure.
In 2013, Kejriwal won a substantial chunk of this vote. In 2015, he has grabbed all of it. And he has benefited from a second factor: Many Congress voters (especially in the middle class) who recognised that the Congress had no hope of winning the election voted tactically to defeat the BJP.
And there’s a final factor: The idea of the Aam Aadmi Party. Even those who have reservations about Kejriwal’s own record are impressed by the idea of AAP: A party created by outsiders to the political system who dare challenge the established order. Throughout the campaign, Kejriwal emphasised the David-vs-Goliath nature of the battle. To vote for the BJP, he suggested, would be to vote for the failures of all Indian politicians through the ages. To vote for AAP would be to vote for change, for another way of running things. Delhi has taken him at his word. His massive victory has exceeded all expectations.
It is easy to come to snap judgments on the basis of one assembly election. So let’s be cautious. The honeymoon may be over but Modi’s popularity endures. If he scales down the empire-building obsessions and concentrates on governance, he could regain the initiative. Kejriwal has won a landslide victory in Delhi but he is not yet the national alternative that the talking heads on TV claim he is. He may get there one day. But it will take time and hard work.
But for now, Kejriwal has reason to rejoice. And Modi has serious cause for concern.
The views expressed by the author are personal