DELHI — Kaushal Kumar, a 30-year-old auto-rickshaw driver, lives with his seamstress wife and their three children in a slum in southern Delhi’s Mehrauli area. Together they earn about $11 a day, nearly all of it consumed by food, household bills and their children’s education. Less than a year ago, voters like Kumar — fed up with corruption and woeful public services during 10 years of Congress Party rule — handed Prime Minister Narendra Modi a landslide in India’s national election. Kumar says he also liked Modi’s tough rhetoric against Pakistan. “There was no other choice,” Kumar says.
After that victory, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appeared firmly on course to reshape India’s political and cultural geography according to its Hindu nationalist ideology. Over the past few weeks, the BJP marched victorious in three state elections and gained ground in conflict-torn, Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir.
So the Feb. 7 state-level elections in the National Capital Territory of Delhi didn’t seem like they would be much of a battle. The big opposition parties ran weak campaigns, and the BJP led with its ace: Modi. On roundabouts, on traffic lights, on apartment blocks, on the façades of shopping malls, Modi’s was the sole face of the BJP campaign, along with the slogan, “Delhi Will Walk With Modi.”
Instead, the BJP is losing Delhi — and largely because of these same voters. Early results Tuesday suggest a landslide victory for the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party, or AAP, a 3-year-old upstart led by a former tax collector with a mustache and muffler. The AAP embraces the anxieties of people like Kumar, focusing on the everyday battles of life in a hard city. About 4 million of Delhi’s 16 million people live in abysmal poverty in the slums, and most of the city’s workforce earns $3 or less a day — not enough to afford decent housing, education or drinking water. “Modi talks about big things like bringing big factories and bullet trains,” Kumar told Al Jazeera, explaining his vote for the AAP in the Delhi elections. “That may be good for our country, but that’s not going to help me.”
A defeat could threaten the BJP’s prospects in several state elections later this year, in effect stalling Modi’s conquest of India and forcing the BJP to refocus on the fundamental issues facing Indian voters. “People — especially in migrant areas, lower castes, Muslims, and other minorities — found AAP more exciting because they were better listeners,” said Shiv Visvanathan, a leading Indian sociologist. “They went door-to-door, house-to-house with simple solutions.”
The AAP’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal, is no stranger to Delhi politics. He was a junior bureaucrat in India’s taxation department and helped launch the 2011 anti-graft protests from which the party was born. His campaign against corruption gained him immense popularity among the poor and the lower middle class, who bear the brunt of institutional corruption. In December 2013, the party made a strong showing in Delhi, and cobbled together a government with Kejriwal as the state’s chief minister.
He lasted only 49 days. Unable to follow through on his big promise to create a powerful anti-graft agency, Kejriwal resigned, a move that made him look like a political neophyte. The party was unable to turn itself into a national force and won only 4 seats in parliament in 2014. Kejriwal ran for a seat against Modi and lost by 337,000 votes.
The victorious Modi stepped out cocksure onto the world stage. He met adoring crowds in Madison Square Garden. He had dinner with President Barack Obama at the White House. He hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin (and some Crimean intrigue) in New Delhi. When Obama visited India in late January, Modi posed wearing a million-rupee suit (about $16,100) embroidered with his own name.
Meanwhile, a chastened Kejriwal had quietly returned to work. As Delhi elections came near, he apologized — a rare sign of humility in Indian politics — for resigning so quickly after his first stint in office. “It was a mistake, an honest mistake; but a mistake all the same,” he said.
The AAP drew massive crowds at rallies ahead of the Feb. 7 Delhi state elections, and voters seemed willing to trust Kejriwal again. He turned “49 days” into a rallying cry, reminding them that even in that short time in office he had cut electricity bills and promised to provide up to 20,000 liters of free water to every household per month. He had eliminated much-hated middlemen from the transport authority, who demanded bribes for annual meter clearances for auto-rickshaw drivers. Kumar says he could feel the difference in the attitudes of Delhi’s police — he says he wasn’t harassed once in those 49 days. "Kejriwal created a fear (among the police) that 'someone is watching you,'" he said.
Meanwhile, the BJP made a huge tactical error in choosing Kiran Bedi to run against Kejriwal. A legendary criminal justice reformer, Bedi, 65, had a reputation as the one honest cop of her time. She was part of the 2011 anti-corruption campaign and would sit next to Kejriwal in press conferences. Bedi’s campaign was a disaster. At one bizarre public meeting, she made her supporters jog like police recruits at a training academy. And the myth of her personal courage came apart at the seams, Brian Williams-style, when she reluctantly confessed in a television interview that it was another young police officer, not her, who had towed a car belonging to the office of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1982.
Kejriwal’s resurgence rattled the BJP. The party and its sister Hindu nationalist organizations deployed thousands of workers to canvass for a BJP victory. BJP leaders taunted Kejriwal as a deserter, and the prime minister campaigned against him personally, calling him an anarchist. “We need development here, not anarchy,” Modi said.
The BJP still has a strong base of support in Delhi —among the aspirational middle class, not the poor. Sanjay Sachdeva, 45, a builder, voted for Modi in last year’s national election and for the BJP again in Delhi this weekend. “Modi-ji’s intention is good,” Sachdeva told Al Jazeera, using an honorific suffix for the prime minister. “He wants to bring technology and money from outside and use the surplus labor from inside.” Sachdeva believes that, thanks to Modi, his son, who studies at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, won’t have to go abroad to find lucrative work. “Modi-ji is bringing America here. Isn’t that a miracle?”
For India’s opposition parties, the miracle is that a leader who looked all but invincible just nine months ago now looks vulnerable. The BJP’s poor showing in Delhi may open space for strong regional parties to unite into a “third front” coalition against it. (The Congress Party, with the second-largest bloc of seats in Parliament, has become all but irrelevant.) That effort might build quickly, with elections in Bihar, a key northern state, just a few months away. "It will kill the kind of euphoria BJP had built,” said Sanjay Kumar, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and an expert on Indian elections. “It is going to be not a full stop, but certainly a comma in the BJP's future prospects."