When the going gets tough, they say, the tough get going. And gone is the tough Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the state legislative assembly of Delhi, India’s national capital. This weekend a diminutive former income tax officer Arvind Kejriwal will be sworn in as Delhi’s chief minister after his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) secured 67 of 70 contested seats, the best performance ever by any political party in Delhi. In the final weeks of campaigning, Modi and his Karl Rovesque strategist BJP President Amit Shah, sensing defeat, went bombastic and heaped bizarre insults on Kejriwal. Well, tough luck. For gone are also the Prime Minister’s aura of invincibility and his meticulously cultivated “above the fray” demeanor of late.
For the uninitiated, Modi himself made history of sorts just eight months ago when he led BJP to absolute majority in India’s Parliamentary elections. The Kejriwal show in Delhi is astonishing for it has halted the Modi juggernaut (Since becoming PM, Modi’s larger-than-life persona has resulted in three clear wins and a respectable second place across various state elections for BJP). To add insult to injury, Kejriwal’s Common Man (literally, Aam Aadmi) has done so in the very heart of India’s political power center. There’s even more to this remarkable story; in a political career that is less than three years old this is already the second act for Kejriwal and AAP. Perhaps the astute politician in Modi is impressed by Kejriwal’s comeback; once a political pariah in national and international politics Modi’s own reinvention as the face of New India is epic.
There is one more common thread running through their stories. Between them, Modi and Kejriwal have largely reduced India’s Grand Old Party, Congress, to irrelevance, at least in the foreseeable future. And it is in this shared credential that we begin to see just how fundamentally different Modi and Kejriwal, and by extension, BJP and AAP really are.
Much of Indian national politics, post-Independence, has been shaped by Congress’ left-of-center vision for India. Of late, this vision has become fuzzy because, in strictly economic policy terms, it has been hard to distinguish between Congress and BJP. Since mid-1990s both have taken turns governing India as leaders of coalition governments -- and have offered more continuity than change. Consider the dubious distinction of opening up India’s nuclear energy sector to US companies. During President Obama’s January visit to India, Modi may have removed the final obstacle by capping liabilities on American companies in the event of a Fukushima-like disaster. But it was Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who first signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the then President Bush and BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who, before Singh, announced India’s entry into the elite club of nuclear powers by openly conducting tests.
Under Modi the pendulum is swinging more to right than ever before, but Congress has failed to communicate a clear, or frankly even a vague, alternative. In part, that’s because Modi’s message of good governance and promise of upward mobility in 2014 was carefully crafted for the ordinary Indian. His actions since then, however, speak louder than words. Through ordinances (emergency measures that bypass Parliamentary approval) Modi wants to make it easier for industry to acquire land from farmers and adivasis (indigenous populations), allow commercial mining of coal, and increase foreign investment in sectors like insurance. That’s because a core constituency for Modi is big business. These are competitive Indian companies that have built formidable worldwide operations and yet feel stifled at home by the bureaucracy and a slow-moving legal system. As the eternal struggle between haves and havenots unfolds in India’s gigantic transforming economy, Modi has turned into a globe-trotting salesman of himself and his idea of India, going everywhere from Madison Square Garden in New York to Sher-e-Kashmir Cricket stadium in Srinagar. After eight months in office, he looks as out of touch with ordinary people as the lackluster, uninspiring leadership of Congress – and the optics perhaps are even worse.
Enter Kejriwal, whose economic message is compelling but pulling in the exact opposite direction. He promises the basics: clean drinking water, cheap electricity, and free wifi. If business admires Modi, “the reformer” the slum dwellers of Delhi love Kejriwal the “populist”. These are men, women, and children who contribute to the informal economy of the country’s richest state, and yet are unlicensed to work and unprotected by law. They include rickshaw drivers and street hawkers who survive by paying weekly “hafta” or bribes. Working in Kejriwal’s favor is the fact that in his previous stint as Delhi’s chief minister which lasted only 49 days, people experienced real change. He seemed to want to deliver on his promise, even though one might reasonably wonder if he would have been able to sustain it.
Admittedly, Kejriwal took a state while Modi took the country. But allow me, dear readers, a moment of exultation. As a Delhiite (at heart, though no longer in residence), I am used to seeing my city reviled for its flash and filth both, never regarded as a worthy role model or a positive trend-setter. [To understand what I mean, or just for laughs, check out #BombayvsDelhi.]
Setting aside all feelings of triumphalism though, let us consider the possibilities. In between the two extreme core bases of Modi and Kejriwal are multitudes of Indian voters, sliced and diced by pollsters according to income level, religious affiliation, caste identity etc. If Delhi – the city of the top dog and the underdog, settled and migrant, rich and poor – can be considered a microcosm of India then maybe, just maybe we can dare to hope that dependable vote banks can become savvy swing voters, if they see a credible alternative. In Delhi, Kejriwal easily stole votes away from BJP’s traditional middle-to-upper-class base. Could it be that in this sprawling megapolis voters are testing a new, different model of economic development and governance? In a country that is rapidly urbanizing, an experiment in the capital could be seen as an audition for something bigger.
Why did voters gamble on a man who happily agrees he is an “anarchist”? Because change and anti-establishment politics have become attractive. Besides, Modi may still inspire awe, but Kejriwal is real and likeable. It is a rare Indian politician who envelopes his wife in a spontaneous hug when election results are announced. The more relevant question, of course, is: can he actually deliver on the basics he promises? AAP, which counts among its members former senior financial services and technology company honchos like Meera Sanyal and Adarsh Shastri, insists that its plans are grounded in economic logic. Yes, AAP does not have a track record and Delhi voters are gambling. But not long ago talking heads in India encouraged voters to take the more dangerous gamble on Modi who did have a track record. With great power comes great responsibility, they argued, and hence the country will not see a repeat of the Gujarat bloodbath.
This brings me to religion, a perennial factor in India’s vote bank politics which has played a particularly significant part in Modi’s rise. I am optimistic, not naïve. Not for a moment do I doubt Hindu hardliners’ continued support for Modi. His massive army of foot soldiers, in the shape and form of Rashtriya Svaymsevak Sangh (RSS) cadets, however, was beaten by AAP’s yes-we-can-style tech-savvy flash mobs who canvassed door-to-door to get out the vote in Delhi.
Presumably, Hindu organizations were pre-occupied with organizing Gharwapsi (homecoming), protesting Love Jihad (yes, you read that right) and running related programs that have gathered momentum under Prime Minister Modi. So yes, one more commonality between Modi and Kejriwal is the revival of grassroots politics, in a way that merges political campaigns with real activism, but from two opposite ends of the spectrum.
The labels attached to these two men provide a clue as to where conventional economic wisdom lies nowadays, or at least the one upheld by mainstream media. Do they hold up to scrutiny? Modi, who has big business and religious groups under his tent, is more traditional as a rightwing leader. Kejriwal’s support, however, does not come specifically from organized groups like labor unions, but rather from the disaffected and the disillusioned in general, of who there are many in Delhi and in India.
Call them reformer or populist, rightwing or leftwing, each one insists he is driven by pragmatism, not ideology. [Leave it to economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen to argue over the correct economic model for India and leave it to this commentator to side with Sen in a future piece]. That’s smart politics, for the voter is pragmatic too. The Indian voter is saying “yes” to economic inclusiveness and public accountability as much as the Greek voter said “no” to austerity. The question of “how to” achieve that goal won’t be settled for a long time, but at least Kejriwal’s emphatic win may give rise to something that will begin to fill the vacuum created by Congress’ wishy-washiness.
Maybe the choice in 2019 will not be between evil and lesser evil.
Deepali Srivastava is Content Director at Kite Global Advisors and a writing instructor to young people of all ages, from fifth graders in Brooklyn to undergraduates at Hofstra University. She is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared on MSNBC.com and Business Standard (an Indian business daily). She has a Masters in International Political Economy and Development from Fordham University. Twitter @deepalisriv.