Among the most anticipated races in India’s third election phase today will be in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, where Arvind Kejriwal hopes to make just as large a breakthrough in national politics as he did back in December in local politics.
Kejriwal’s new anti-corruption party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, Common Man Party) burst onto the national spotlight when it won 28 out of 70 seats in Delhi’s legislative assembly, largely by stealing seats from the 16-year government of chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस).
Though the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) won 31 seats, Kejriwal won the begrudging support of the eight remaining Congress legislators to form a government that would ultimately last just 49 days.
But following his resignation after a high-stakes fight over an anti-corruption bill, Kejriwal turned immediately to the national election campaign, with hopes of doing this spring what he managed to do in Delhi last December — energize voters both disenchanted by a decade of Congress rule and uncertain about a BJP-led government.
There are signs, however, that Kejriwal may have made a mistake — instead of building on its Delhi gains, the AAP could fail to make any advances nationally and it could even find itself embarrassed on its home turf.
Kejriwal’s record as chief minister
No one will dispute that it was a very busy 49 days.
Even before the New Year, Kejriwal enacted campaign promises to provide 20 kiloliters of free water to Delhi households and to cut electricity prices by around 50% through subsidies for Delhi residents. In order to boost educational outcomes, he reserved 90% of government-funded Delhi universities for Delhi residents. Kejriwal took steps to protect women and the poor in Delhi — by transforming out-of-service buses into night shelters and funding a new force designed solely for ensuring the safety of women.
His government took a serious line against corruption, establishing a special hotline for Delhi residents to call to complain about bribery and corrupt officials, and he picked a fight with India’s supreme court over his intent to suspend four Delhi police officers over his law minister’s authority to order the search and arrest of foreigners. Kejriwal ultimately used the furor to demand full control over Delhi’s police and a path for, ultimately, Delhi’s statehood.
In one of his more protectionist steps, he blocked foreign direct investment approvals that the previous Congress administration had provided for foreign retailers.
Kejriwal’s red line was the Jan Lokpal bill, anti-corruption legislation that would have created a special ombudsman and committee to investigate impropriety and other public grievances, empowered whistleblowers through special protections. Kejriwal pledged to move ahead with his own version in Delhi, bypassing India’s central government. On February 9, Kejriwal said that he would resign in the event that the Delhi assembly failed to enact the Lokpal bill.
Five days later, the BJP and Congress refused to allow the bill to move forward, and Kejriwal followed up on his threat to resign. Delhi’s government has been in suspended animation ever since.
Taking his campaign nationally
As understandable and as principled as Kejriwal’s position may have been, it’s nevertheless seen as a way for Kejriwal to more easily contest the national elections. With the AAP forming branches throughout all of India, Kejriwal’s resignation freed him from the day-to-day business of running India’s most active government to wage a national campaign.
No one thought that the AAP, founded only in November 2012, could sweep the national elections. But earlier this year, it wasn’t out of the question that it might win most of Delhi’s seven seats, pick up another seat or two in neighboring Haryana state (where Kejriwal was born) and possibly make the same kind of inroads in other urban centers, notably Mumbai, as it had done so magically in December in Delhi.
In that capacity, Kejriwal started targeting the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi — a shift for a party that came to power by largely supplanting a Congress government that was seen as corrupt and out-of-touch. Instead of running for a Lok Sabha constituency in Delhi, Kejriwal instead decided to challenge Modi directly in the Varanasi constituency in Uttar Pradesh, picking an increasing number of fights with Modi throughout the spring.
A backlash against Kejriwal’s national ambition?
What seems clear now is that Kejriwal risks losing almost all of his political momentum — and the likelihood that he’ll win fresh local elections in Delhi later this year — if his risky political gambit backfires.
Currently, Congress holds all seven seats in Delhi, though polls show that it could easily lose all seven.
An NDTV poll in March forecast that the AAP would still win four of Delhi’s seven seats in the Lok Sabha, but more recent polls suggest that the AAP could be reduced to between just one and three seats, a result that would be an incredible disappointment for a party that so recently seemed to command so much support.
Polls, of course, aren’t perfect, especially in India — and they could be missing a broad anti-Modi, anti-Congress wave that could land the AAP a dozen or more seats across India. But a Lokniti-CSDS poll from late March shows that 47% of Delhi voters believe Kejriwal’s resignation was the wrong decision (just 34% thought it was the right move), even though 68% of those surveyed approved of his government’s performance. The BJP now leads in Delhi with 46% of the vote, with just 26% for the AAP and 19% for Congress.
Overall, the AAP has a relatively strong slate of candidates across Delhi, though it would have been stronger if Kejriwal were running in Delhi instead of Varanasi. For example, Sandeep Dikshit, the son of the former chief minister, will struggle to hold his East Delhi constituency against the BJP and the AAP’s candidate, Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi (no relation to Congress’s leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi).
That hasn’t stopped analysts from writing off the AAP, even before a single vote has been cast or counted:
For AAP and Kejriwal, the lesson is clear: don’t forget the voter who got you national prominence in the first place. Kejriwal’s fast forward to national fame may be coming at the cost of Delhi – and possibly Haryana too, where Yogendra Yadav is not finding the going easy….
Kejriwal may be hogging the limelight in Varanasi, but in trying to scale up too soon, he may be cutting the branch he is sitting on in Delhi. The voter there is unhappy with him.