The straightforward reason for Arvind Kejriwal's resounding victory is that the Congress vote -- which amounted to 24% in the 2013 assembly elections -- significantly switched to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The land ordinance, whose implications the AAP was quick to pick up on, also turned rural notables against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
But this victory is about so much more; it is about where the urban poor belong in mainstream politics, what this does to the authority of Narendra Modi and what this impact will have on national politics at large.
Kejriwal’s win is an important reminder that the politics of expressing a ‘preferential option for the poor’ can be a successful strategy in electoral democracy. The thing that strikes you as you listen to AAP supporters either on videos posted on Facebook or the auto driver who happens to support him is the intensity, the vehemence and the air of defiance that is imbued in their support for Kejriwal. There is also a festive exuberance of a hitherto silent urban insurgency, reared on cynicism about the empty spectacle of power, now finding utterance.
And why not. The AAP stood by its urban poor base literally through thick and thin, making a decisive impression during its stint in power by offering free water, halving power bills and enforcing a measure of discipline and restraint on Delhi Police which, in most accounts of the poor, had never happened before. Kejriwal and Co. endured withering criticism from their own supporters over resigning in haste and yet kept in touch with underprivileged communities, helping to rebuild slums, and offering a range of services including legal advocacy through its stream of volunteers. The AAP grew out of an eco-system of social movement activism – featuring civil society leaders and academics – that is marked a no-frills tenacity that other political parties struggle to match. The RSS does have that level of commitment but its effectiveness is hamstrung by its lack of inclusivity and its problematic relationship with capital and the entrepreneurial political class that populate its allied outfits like the BJP.
Kejriwal has no such ambiguity. He makes explicit the connection between someone’s power and affluence and other’s deprivation. The themes are clear: the public good is being corralled into private interests. Politicians, big business and power companies are all complicit in this process robbing the commonweal of resources that can benefit all. Poverty and the absence of power is a derivative of the rich man’s agency and Kejriwal wants to use the state to restore a level-playing field. Others have tried this narrative before but in the person of Kejriwal this has particular velocity owing perhaps to his technocratic expertise, his fluency in English and the vernacular and his distinctive, studious delivery that works well both in public meetings and on TV. While Prime Minister Modi can scarcely bring himself to be asked two back-to-back questions in a press conference, Kejriwal handles any TV anchor with an assurance that borders on rudeness, which works as an asset if you have a reputation for speaking for the poor. They see in his clarity their own rage articulated and radiated to the rich and powerful. He offers to the urban poor the delight of someone speak up unapologetically for the underclass without so much mentioning caste and religious divisions and, for the volunteers, there is the moral spur of participating in that endeavour.
Kejriwal’s command of the TV interview, alongside Yogendra Yadav, has disrupted middle class constituencies that Modi has come to take for granted. You only have to see the reaction of the upwardly mobile English speaking young people watching Barkha Dutt or other anchors interviewing Kejriwal to see that his responses provoke grudging admiration even from young sceptics. No anchor gives him / AAP an easy time and their sheer determined engagement with the public sphere has gradually expanded their circle of influence.
The BJP, Amit Shah and Modi made several mistakes. They picked two leaders to take on Kejriwal. Kiran Bedi was to counter his activist credentials, but she was a disaster from the start committing a series of gaffes and, in Mihir Sharma’s memorable words, “towed away the PM’s victory”. Picking her at the expense of Harsh Vardhan and other leaders served to severely undermine morale of the party cadre. Nirmala Sitharaman was projected an upright, technocratic counter who would pose five daily questions to Kejriwal. The irony of posing questions to an activist who had actively courted the media while the government prided itself on keeping away from scrutiny wasn’t lost on many. Who were the questions supposed to impress anyway? They were hardly any undecided voters by the time Sitharaman’s questions came along and all they ended up doing was undermine her standing a bit.
More than anything this was Narendra Modi’s failing. And because Delhi is a microcosm of India, he may well pause to reflect on the effects on the way he is projected. He came across in the Lok Sabha election as the person to end Congress’s policy stupor and be the man in charge. He portrayed himself as the man to fulfil the aspiration of urban youth struggling to succeed in a globalised economy. But in the intervening time that it takes for trickle-down economics to work, leaders still have to relate to the lived experiences of the poor which must be reflected consistently in the idiom they usually employ. But Modi has in recent months been all aspiration and no perspiration. Building relationships with world leaders is fine so long as you handle optics carefully. The Rs 10 lakh suit was an unmitigated disaster. The vast underclass which silently asks itself why it is not entitled to a pay hike each time its employer acquires a smartphone, a car or any gadget will have quickly concluded that this is not a poor man’s PM. Nobody is more nimble than the poor in discerning where the emotional investments of power are.
There are those who will maintain that the PM’s standing remains high and that this is about Assembly elections. But the BJP will have to contend with the many in the middle class, both English and Hindi speaking, who voted for him in May and yet picked Kejriwal this time.
It must not escape BJP’s notice this time that liberal issues do matter for the upwardly mobile. Persistently toxic vilification of minorities by BJP figures and ideological affiliates, saffronisation of education instead of preparing the young for a globalised workplace and loony rhetoric about ancient science and reproductive obligations of women are all real turn offs for large sections of the urban middle class.
The Delhi election has also shown the limits of gaming mainstream media through embedded journalism, while there is an entire social media universe out there openly and obliquely backing the opposition, challenging the BJP narrative in the face of organised trolls. Buzzfeed India’s story on the 10 lakh suit caused untold damage. There were plenty of dissent in mainstream media too. Ravish Kumar’s walkabout conversations on NDTV gently questioning BJP leaders about the state of roads in the age of Swachh Bharat, the anomaly of smart cities rhetoric when women wait for 4-8 hours for water were a daily headache for the BJP.
There are of course national implications from this win. The AAP can now confidently project itself as the secular, national alternative to the BJP and being all the Congress could have been. The immediate effect will be on the Congress which is likely to have a desertion crisis, given the entrepreneurial instincts of the political class.
The fickle nature of political discussion is such that the conversation will quickly move to questions about AAP and Kejriwal’s capacity to govern. All that is for the future. Let the poor enjoy their moment and others savour that there is now a feisty opposition to contend with.