Why we need to watch what happens in Delhi tomorrow

Delhi went to the polls on Saturday to elect a new regional assembly. The results are not due till Tuesday but exit polls indicate that the AAP or Common Man Party has scored a clear win over the Hindu nationalist BJP.

If this comes to pass it would be a significant result because:

1. It will be the first major setback for Narendra Modi

Indian PM and BJP leader Narendra Modi

Since the BJP and its candidate for Prime Minister Narendra Modi did the seemingly impossible and won an outright majority in the Indian parliament last year they’ve been having an excellent run. A pretty striking example is that the BJP is now the second largest party in Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir.

Delhi would break this streak. I would suggest that is to be welcomed.

I am rather conflicted about Modi. On an instinctive level I regard his sectarianism and links with violent Hindu extremists with horror. On the other hand, he probably is the person most likely to deliver the kind of economic reform India needs. My calculation is that an emboldened BJP is more likely to pursue its own sectarian agenda, whilst a chasten one will feel more need to keep voters on side by delivering economic results.

2. Congress is in a terrible position

I recall a joke on Have I Got News for You from the time of the first elections to the Scottish Parliament when the Conservatives were at the nadir of their popularity. The show was recorded before results had been announced, so presenter Angus Deaton warned “we cannot tell you how Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish Socialists have done. However, we can tell you the Conservatives have done very badly.” Similarly, while we await to see how the AAP and BJP will have done, we can say with confidence that Congress will have a miserable time when results come out.

Until two years ago, it ran both Delhi and India. Then it was hammered by Modi at a national level and Assembly elections in the capitol saw the BJP take the most seats followed by the AAP with Congress trailing far behind. The party then joined an AAP lead coalition. However, the AAP walked out a few months later claiming that Congress had sabotaged its efforts to combat corruption. Now, one exit polls indicates Congress may come away with no Assembly seats at all.

Essentially Congress’ predicament is similar to that of established centre-left parties in Europe. Its bond with its traditional voters has broken down and it is now perceived by most as a political machine rather than a genuine movement. That leaves it vulnerable to upstarts like the AAP.

In the light of the apparent result in Delhi, the Economic Times asks what must be a disturbing question for Congress:

If the AAP can smash the Congress’ entrenched base in Delhi in a matter of two years, what would happen if it decides to expand its role as a new “Leftof-the-centre” alternative to BJP by trying to occupy the receding Left turf in West Bengal as a new challenge to Mamata; or to emerge as an alternative in Bihar, in place of the much discredited JD(U) and RJD, to put up a credible resistance against BJP? The Congress too is aware that a victory in Delhi would boost AAP’s national ambition and chances.

APP could look at Punjab where it won two Lok Sabha seats as its another area for growth by breaking the bipolar politics of Congress and Akali-BJP combine. A victory in Delhi could boost the confidence of underprivileged social sections as well as minorities to look at AAP as the new force that can confront the BJP and Modi. Even a sizeable sections of urban middle class, the traditional supporters of the BJP may once again start looking at the AAP as a new platform to park themselves.

3. The AAP is an important test case in whether Occupy style protest movements can be converted into successful political parties

Arvind Kejriwal: the likely next First Minister of Delhi.

The rise of new radical left parties opposed to austerity like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain has been a subject of much analysis. However, this has generally viewed it through the prism of the Eurozone crisis. The rise of the AAP indicates there may be broader forces at work.

Like those European parties, the AAP has its roots in a protest movement: Indians Against Corruption. This emerged from the backlash against a string of high profile scandals including the disastrous Commonwealth Games held in Delhi and a rigged sale of 2G spectrum licences that appeared to cost the country $40 billion. It rose to prominence in 2011 at a similar time to the Occupy protests and the Arab Spring. It used similar tactics to those movements but reflected them through India’s tradition of Ghandian social protest. The movement came to be focused on a hunger strike by an activist Anna Hazare. This helped to force the government to create a stronger anti-corruption ombudsmen.

Hazare wished to keep the movement apolitical. But many other participants including his ally and likely new First Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal took a different view and the AAP was the result. Unlike most Indian parties it was based not on patronage networks but on social movements. Before the poll on Saturday it sent activists out into the poorer areas of Delhi armed with smartphone cameras to ensure that no one from rival parties could offer inducements to vote without detection.

There are two important lessons the likes of Alexis Tsipras might take away from the AAP’s apparent success. Firstly, moving from protest to party politics does not necessarily mean narrowing your base. Indians Against Corruption was a mostly middle class movement but now the AAP seems to draw most of its support from poorer voters (albeit still generally those in richer areas). Secondly, it viewed power in a very instrumental way. When being in power as part of a coalition was not delivering the results it wanted, it walked out. Now a few months later it seems like it might be about to be headed back into power with the majority that will enable it to push its anti-corruption measures.

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