India's Modi Slapped by Election Rout in Delhi

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Aspirational voters abandon Modi’s BJP and the Gandhis’ Congress for third party. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suffered the biggest defeat of his political career with his Bharatiya Janata Party being routed in elections for the Delhi state-level assembly. The Aam Aadmi or common man party has swept the polls winning 67 of the 70 seats, driving the BJP down to just three and the Congress Party to zero.

Eight months ago, Modi was swept to power in a landslide BJP general election victory because voters wanted a new style of government leadership that would meet their aspirations for a better life, more efficient and less corrupt government, and stronger economic growth.

Today, the people of Delhi have shunned Modi and turned to Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP's founder and leader, to drive change in the capital city's deeply corrupt and ineffective state-level government.

There are many reasons for this result. One is that the BJP—along with most observers—assumed that it would win Delhi easily and that the AAP was finished. It also overestimated Modi's charismatic vote-winning ability and underestimated a growing feeling that his national government has not become the promised agent of change during the eight months it has been in power.

BJP Panic

When it began to emerge last month that the AAP had been quietly rebuilding its reputation among voters, especially the poor, the BJP seems to have panicked and ran a negative campaign that tried to undermine the AAP's, and especially Kejriwal's, appeal. It poured top politicians and and other MPs into the campaign, even deploying several senior cabinet ministers so that it looked as if it had abandoned governing the country in order to win Delhi.

It then made a ludicrous decision, just two weeks before the February 7 election day, when it sidelined its Delhi political leadership and made Kiran Bedi, a 65-year-old former controversial police chief and social rights campaigner with no political experience and little charisma, its chief ministerial candidate.

It thought she would counter Kejriwal's appeal, but she quickly foundered while electioneering, and has even failed to win her own seat.

This raises questions about how such experienced politicians as Modi and his chief lieutenants, Amit Shah, the tough party president, and Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, could have made such a blunder. (There is some sympathy for Shah because his son is getting married today and the celebrations have been blighted!)

Significantly the AAP has gained a bigger popular mandate in Delhi, winning about 54 percent of the votes cast, than Modi and the BJP achieved nationally in the general election with 31 percent.

Even more remarkable, this has happened in the city that Kejriwal and his band of well-meaning volunteers failed disastrously to govern effectively when they led a minority government (with 28 seats—the BJP had 32) after December 2013 polls. They spent more energy on street-level protests than trying to run the city, and resigned after 49 days in February 2014. Since then Delhi has been run by bureaucrats under the city's lieutenant governor.

It has also happened after the AAP failed to win any of Delhi's parliamentary seats in the general election when its candidates were elected in only four constituencies (in Punjab), despite fielding candidates across the country. The party then seemed to have been marginalized in both national and Delhi politics. But it has rebuilt itself and has replaced its former image of rebellion and protest with a constructive approach.

AAP Decimates Congress

The BJP has however managed to hold on to its basic vote bank in Delhi, winning around 33 percent of the votes, which is roughly the same as in 2013. This indicates that the aspirational vote that brought Modi to power nationally last year has switched in Delhi to the AAP, deserting Congress.

These aspirational voters are not just the young, but include all strata of society, especially the poorer sections who suffer the most from corrupt bullying officialdom. These people feel that, despite the apparent lack of direction during the AAP's 49 days in power, they suffered less from brutal police and other officials than they had in the past.

Both Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the leader (along with his mother Sonia) of the Congress Party, have lessons to learn from the result.

Today marks the end of Modi's political honeymoon, of being a national icon who could wreak almost magical change in the way that India is run. He needs therefore to curb his egotistical style and to focus more on changing the way the government works and produce evidence of results, not just slogans.

Many observers are looking to the budget on February 28 for significant policy initiatives. Modi also needs to be more tolerant of fellow ministers, and less autocratic to the BJP's MPs. Opposition parties will be encouraged by the result to challenge the government's pending measures in parliament.

The Gandhis and other Congress leaders now have the humiliation of their party winning no seats, compared with eight in 2013 when they lost power after running Delhi for 15 years. Voters, including the Muslim minority, have deserted Congress and gone to the AAP, underlining the dramatic decline of India's once grand old party. Rahul Gandhi played a significant role in the Congress electioneering and, repeating what has happened in other campaigns, failed as a vote winner.

AAP Task "Scary"

Kejriwal is a former tax official who first attracted national attention during mass anti-corruption protests in 2011. He now has a huge job to try to run the Delhi government. This would be difficult enough if the government was totally in charge of the city, but it is not because the central government covers law and order and urban development, and there are inefficient separately elected municipal corporations (currently run by the BJP) which are notoriously corrupt.

Kejriwal said today that the overwhelming result is "scary" and "frightening." That could apply not just to the job of governing Delhi, but also to the opportunity that now looms of maybe gradually becoming a national center-left party, replacing Congress.

Modi reacted sensibly by congratulating Kejriwal and inviting him to have a cup of tea. Both men would gain from working together.

For Modi, it is a test case of his ability to build partnerships with states where the BJP is not in power, and of becoming a prime minister who can lead the country.

John Elliott's latest book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst with Reality (HarperCollins, India). He can be read at ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com.

India's Modi Slapped by Election Rout in Delhi | Opinion