India's Left-Leaning, Anti-Graft Party Made A Stunning Debut
TAKE Arvind Kejriwal's talk of "revolution" seriously. Back in June, crammed with this correspondent into a tiny Suzuki car in east Delhi, he predicted electoral triumph for his Aam Aadmi ("common man") anti-graft volunteers. It sounded fanciful at the time. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is just a few months old. Even as recently as late November Delhi's chief minister for the past 15 years, Sheila Dikshit, was roundly dismissing Mr Kejriwal as an irrelevance.
No longer. Thanks to Mr Kejriwal, Mrs Dikshit is out on her ear this week. Results from elections in five states delivered mostly misery for the ruling Congress party. In the national capital region (in effect a state) the AAP annihilated it. Mr Kejriwal himself toppled Mrs Dikshit in a constituency that she thought was cast-iron, crammed as it is with babus (civil servants) and presumed staunch Congress loyalists. Across Delhi Congress won just eight of 70 assembly seats, its worst-ever result.The AAP, with a broom as its party symbol, swept to 28 seats, a stunning debut for a group of political amateurs. They had raised funds with text messages sent to millions who had earlier backed the anti-corruption protests of Anna Hazare, a Gandhian activist. In Delhi 120,000 unpaid volunteers knocked on doors to discuss inflation and graft. Two populist promises, to halve household electricity bills and provide 700 litres of free water, went down well. Word also spread in old-fashioned ways: every motorised rickshaw in the city seemed to carry a poster of a broom.
For now Delhi, a city of 16m and India's wealthiest, lacks a government. The AAP squeezed in second behind the established Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which got 32 seats, just short of a majority. Neither is ready to form a minority administration, nor to cut a power-sharing deal, with a national election only a few months away (by May at the latest). So Delhi will probably need to vote again next year.
Can Mr Kejriwal's revolution break out beyond the capital? He has the ambition. He has studied Barack Obama's internet fund-raising, the appeal of a populist ex-cricketer, Imran Khan, to young Pakistanis, and how Arab spring protesters communicated through social media. But he is also aware how difficult it is to turn a protest movement into a political one. The charisma of Mr Hazare, for example, would have been a huge asset for the party. But he keeps his distance, calling all politics irredeemably filthy.
The limits to the AAP's potential are clear enough. Average incomes in Delhi are three times the national level, hinting at how the capital's common folk have different worries to poorer rural ones. Mr Kejriwal could do well in India's Hindi-speaking centre and north, notably in his native Haryana state, next to Delhi. But farther afield fewer would recognise him, despite his claim to have a network of offices in "every nook and corner" of the country.
Delhi is also unusual in that the fragmentation of politics seen in other states has come late to the capital region. It has never before had a party to garner non-Congress, non-BJP votes. Many other states have big third parties that dominate locally without securing a wider appeal. That leaves less space for newcomers such as the AAP to fill.
Yet the AAP will be relevant. The BJP expects to win the coming general election, but it needs strong support from middle-class city-dwellers who are most frustrated with Congress over corruption, a slowing economy and inflation. A strong showing for Mr Kejriwal complicates things. In Delhi the BJP would have won handsomely had it not been for the new party. Earlier polls suggested that many Aam Aadmi supporters would switch to the BJP for the national vote, but at the time it was assumed that the new party was not ready for a national push. After this week's events, who knows what is possible?