Home >Opinion >India gives Narendra Modi his first taste of defeat

After listing in the opposite direction, Indian democracy has just gotten more diverse.

A year of extraordinary churning reached its grand finale on Tuesday when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won by a landslide in New Delhi’s legislative assembly election. What was most astonishing about the AAP’s performance was that it routed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the country’s ruling party, winning 67 out of 70 seats.

The defeat was a personal setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who in last May’s national elections seized power with a similarly electrifying campaign and decisive victory. Modi and the BJP’s high command had poured considerable amounts of time and money into the Delhi elections. The Prime Minister campaigned extensively—only last week, he addressed four public rallies—asking voters to usher in a local government that would work closely with his own.

Indeed, it was the first reverse suffered by Modi in a political career spanning 13 years—an astonishing record. This suggests not so much that the “the Modi effect," which delivered several Indian states to the BJP last year, is waning, but only that the prime minister is not invincible and that, if anything, he has been in power long enough for his own political emphases (and evasions) to work against him.

By so comprehensively routing the party in power at the centre, AAP has opened up a number of political possibilities and set a number of electoral records. It was, for instance, one of just a handful of occasions in independent India’s 63-year-old history of elections when a single party took more than 50% of the total vote.

Most important, the AAP’s victory fills the vacuum left in the New Delhi city-state by the rapid decline of the Congress Party, which, having given up power at the centre last May, now seems too self-absorbed and supine even to play the role of a responsible opposition in the parliament. (Predictably, the Congress fared even worse than the BJP in the weekend election, winning no seats.)

Modi now knows that, all the way to the end of his term in 2019, he will have an adversary in the capital in the form of Arvind Kejriwal, the head of AAP, who astutely positioned himself as a kind of David to Modi’s Goliath. And further, that when outrageous provocations to India’s delicate religious equilibrium from the Hindu right—such as the “ghar wapsi" “honour Godse" campaigns of recent months—next erupt, there will be a powerful new voice in the capital all too eager to attack them, as Modi had not.

Last but not least, the BJP will now be forced, perhaps as early as the budget session in parliament later this month, to clarify its own, much-vaunted “development model." This is already being criticized by some on the right as favouring piecemeal advances instead of coherent economic reforms, by others on the left as being too friendly to big corporations and too slapdash about environmental concerns.

That’s not to say that the AAP’s view of economic policy is completely sound, either. And just as Modi’s election promise to bring back black money illegally stashed in Swiss banks to India proved chimerical, Kejriwal’s similar promise to end Delhi’s pervasive “rishwatkhori"—the culture of petty bribery and corruption—will also test him severely. As Bloomberg View’s Dhiraj Nayyar pointed out, the setback to Modi will be an example to Kejriwal, too, of how swiftly things can go wrong.

Whatever the impact of the AAP’s victory on the economic policies of state and country, there is certainly some reason to be optimistic that it will in the long run have a cleansing effect on the economies of the political parties themselves.

Part of the AAP’s appeal to poor and middle-class voters was that its campaign was financed by small and large donors whose contributions were all listed on its website. Having won a major electoral prize with this approach, it can now draw attention to the murky funding system produced by India’s election-finance laws, which allow (as detailed in separate papers by E. Sridharan and Rajeev Gowda, and the political scientist Milan Vaishnav) for a lack of transparency in political finance and create “a market for criminality" in Indian politics.

Finally, the setback in Delhi may prove, in the long run, to be good for both the prime minister and his party. Since last May, the BJP has been unable to resist the temptation to deploy Modi extensively in state elections. And perhaps Modi, who loves the thrill of rousing a crowd, had been unable to resist the rhetorical arts too, and had rationalized this tendency—and the enormous investment of time that campaigning requires—to himself as a way of spreading his gospel of “development" among his country’s far-flung citizenry.

One might say that, nine months into his term, Modi was yet to exit campaign mode. Every new victory he delivered for his party further confirmed and extended the Modi effect. A party with a huge cadre and a wide base of capable politicians was becoming ever more reliant on the figure of a Great Leader, come from the capital to help win the state. Whether this was good for Indian democracy, it certainly was not good for democracy within the BJP.

The office of the prime minister is a full-time job—more than full time. Perhaps, after the reverse in Delhi and the realization that defeats in state elections are more embarrassing than victories are pleasurable, Modi will now focus on his primary task and leave the state units of the party and their leaders to find their own language and their own strategies. Bloomberg

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