On Monday, there was an earthquake in New Delhi. The shockwaves might have been electoral and the fallout political rather than human, but the repercussions were just as momentous. Just one year after it folded its government after a mere 49 days at the helm of the city-state of Delhi, the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stormed to victory in fresh state elections, capturing a historic 67 of 70 seats on offer. The victory is a blow to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and represents another nail in the coffin of the once dominant Indian National Congress. For the victorious AAP, and its mercurial activist-turned-politician leader Arvind Kejriwal, the victory is nothing short of a stunning reversal of fortune—the impact of which will be felt far beyond the narrow confines of the Indian capital.

The AAP was born out of a popular anti-corruption protest movement pioneered by Kejriwal and his idealistic cohort of rabble-rousers in late 2010 under the aegis of “India Against Corruption.” Joining forces with the octogenarian Gandhian activist Anna Hazare, Kejriwal mobilized Delhi-ites and other urban dwellers to pressure the central government into establishing a new anti-corruption ombudsman known as a Lokpal. Dubbing his fight, India’s “second struggle for independence,” as he called it, Kejriwal captivated the imagination of both the country’s middle classes as well as many of its underclasses with his David versus Goliath battle against the political establishment. Frustrated by parliament’s intransigence, Kejriwal, who had once proclaimed that “all the politicians are thieves—throw them to the vultures,” decided that if you can’t beat them, join them. Out of the ashes of India Against Corruption emerged AAP, and the 2013 Delhi assembly elections were its first target.

Milan Vaishnav
Vaishnav’s primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behavior.
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In electoral terms, Delhi holds minimal significance. The city-state has a population of 17 million, which makes it one of the most populous cities in the world, but home to only around 1.5 percent of India’s residents. Its administrative control is fragmented, with authority split between the state government and multiple, independent municipal corporations. But as the capital city and, importantly, as the center of the country’s high octane media industry, Delhi’s symbolic significance is highly disproportional to its actual political consequence. In 2013, AAP surprised nearly all the political pundits by winning 28 seats, enough to cobble together a government with the support of the ousted incumbent Congress Party and to make Kejriwal the chief minister of Delhi.

Kejriwal’s reign did not last even two months. Although he quickly delivered on several of his populist promises, such as slashing the prices of water and electricity and opening inquiries into the alleged crooked practices of big business houses, Kejriwal refused to abandon AAP’s agitational politics in favor of sober governance. When opposition parties balked at the introduction of a tough anti-corruption bill in the assembly, Kejriwal pulled the plug on his government and submitted his resignation papers.

In the intervening year, Delhi has been directly ruled by the central government, whose colors have radically changed as well. Just three months after Kejriwal’s resignation, the voters of India delivered a single-party majority government to Modi and the BJP in a landmark national election. This was the first such majority in three decades, and the first ever won by a party that was not the Congress Party. AAP, which tried to parlay its short-lived success in Delhi to the national stage, was resoundingly rebuffed. AAP’s overextension was a classic rookie mistake, evident to observers from Washington to West Bengal. For its ill-conceived efforts, the party managed a paltry four seats in parliament, all in the state of Punjab. It Delhi, it was shut out completely.

In contrast, since his triumphant national election victory, Modi has been a one-man electoral wrecking ball, delivering his party victories in Haryana, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra in addition to posting its best ever performance in Jammu and Kashmir. Modi’s electoral prowess at home has been matched with unabashed success in wooing the leaders of the world’s great powers, giving him and his party an aura of invincibility. On a recent visit, even U.S. President Barack Obama dwelled on Modi’s reputation, calling him “tough,” and recounting how the prime minister once survived an alligator attack.

Heading into the Delhi elections, observers had prepared themselves for another BJP rout; early election polls forecast a clear victory for the BJP. Yet Kejriwal, as it turns out, was unperturbed. After the AAP’s poor performance in the 2014 general election and his unceremonious resignation in Delhi, Kejriwal did what few politicians in India—or anywhere else—ever do: he apologized profusely to the citizens of Delhi and to his own party-mates for leading them, and AAP, off the rails. Chastened, Kejriwal confessed openly and repeatedly that he had learned from his missteps, admitting that, “whatever happens in Indian politics, one should never give their resignation.” Seeking popular redemption, Kejriwal returned to what won him so many well-wishers in the first place; day in and day out, he and his party colleagues dedicated themselves to listening to the grievances of the metropolis’ residents through a series of grassroots “Delhi Dialogues,” organized around issues such as transportation, public safety, and women’s rights. The results of this deliberative process were subsequently cut and pasted into the party’s action plan for the city.

As the AAP machine gained strength over the fall, the feeling of panic and desperation within the BJP steadily rose. In an eleventh hour Hail Mary, the BJP high command parachuted in the celebrity ex-police officer Kiran Bedi, once a staunch Kejriwal ally, as its chief ministerial face. Even this last-ditch attempt to reverse the BJP’s fortune came up short—Bedi’s anointment ruffled the BJP rank-and-file’s feathers, fueling dissent within the cadre, and exposing her dearth of campaign experience. Faced with a challenge from Kejriwal to a public debate, Bedi demurred; having mocked Kejriwal for not receiving an invite to India’s Republic Day celebration in January, she sheepishly backed off after coming under media fire. In the court of public opinion, she seemed no match for one of India’s most media savvy politicos.

The polls began to shift in late December, but few predicted the magnitude of Monday’s result. In a stunning turn of events, AAP won over 50 percent of the votes and 95 percent of the seats. The BJP won thirty-two percent of votes, just one percentage point less than its 2013 tally, but this earned the party only three seats thanks to India’s winner-take-all electoral rules, which regularly produce seat tallies that are wildly disproportionate to the popular vote.

Despite its big loss, the BJP was hardly even the night’s biggest loser; that dubious distinction would go to the Congress. Since its shellacking in the 2014 general election, when it won just 44 seats in parliament (down from 206 in 2009), the Congress has been in unmitigated freefall. It has come to represent the absolute worst tendencies of an ossified ancien régime: out of touch with the common man, lacking leadership and ideas, and anachronistically sycophantic to a tired political dynasty. In light of these glaring faults, everyone knows that the tight grip of the Nehru-Gandhi family must be loosened, and virtually no one expects that it will. If present trends continue, it is only a matter of time before the Congress splinters into several regional franchises.

For Modi and Amit Shah, his longtime aide and handpicked choice as BJP party president, the Delhi verdict represents their political comeuppance. A few days before election day in Delhi, Shah gleefully told The Hindu newspaper that he had run 41 elections and never lost a single one. Despite this lone setback in the capital city, the BJP is in a stronger position nationally than it has ever been. In addition to its impressive parliamentary delegation, the party controls a quarter of India’s states—its highest ever tally. Yet it is in danger of committing the same mistake the Congress made long ago: centralizing all political power and authority within its supreme leader and sidelining its state leadership. India’s federal polity is too decentralized for such a top-down strategy to work on a sustained basis; ironically, the major advantage the BJP had over the Congress in recent years is the fact that it actually cultivated powerful state leaders. Abandoning this strategy risks making this week’s upset in Delhi the start of a trend rather than a fleeting aberration.

Beyond its vertical organizational structure, the party also faces a tricky problem arising from its own ranks. The BJP is just one of many entities belonging to the larger Sangh Parivar, a diverse collection of Hindu nationalist organizations ranging from a farmer’s union to a tribal welfare association. When Modi catapulted the BJP to national success last May, he emphasized issues of development and governance, rather than cultural nationalism. Yet instead of completely disavowing his organization’s Hindu majoritarian ethos, he relied on it opportunistically, primarily in select local—as opposed to national—theaters. Having helped Modi to the top, the Sangh has enjoyed flexing its muscles under a new BJP government, highlighting contentious cultural issues at odds with the prime minister’s economic agenda. The precise contribution of the Sangh’s controversial pro-Hindu maneuvers on the BJP’s Delhi election debacle is impossible to isolate, but the least one can say is that they certainly did not help. Looking ahead, Modi has his work cut out for him: he will have to continue the high-wire act of pushing his development agenda while keeping Hindu nationalist foot soldiers in the tent—a difficult balance. But if Modi cannot find a way to do so, the BJP’s national ambitions will be frustrated.

For the moment, in Delhi at least, the AAP now finds itself back in control, this time with an unprecedented majority rather than a tenuous coalition government. It has an opportunity to follow through on its unfulfilled promises from 2013, demonstrating to Delhi-ites and the broader Indian public that a new brand of politics can actually deliver the goods in a democracy as unwieldy and as prone to shortcuts as India’s. If it can firmly establish a proof of concept first in the city of Delhi, then the sky is the limit. India is badly in need of a party that caters to its urban dwellers, whose ranks will swell by more than 400 million between 2014 and 2050. Modi and the BJP had convincingly claimed this terrain, but their monopoly has been shattered. With its emphasis on fighting corruption, delivering public services, and cleaning up the police, AAP has a readymade urban appeal. Its challenge, however, will be to forsake easy populist wins in favor of sustainable policies over the long run.  

But for now, Arvind Kejriwal can sit back and enjoy his moment in the sun. He will be sworn in as Delhi’s new chief minister on February 14, exactly 365 days after he abruptly resigned the post. This time, demonstrating the lessons from his previous go-around, he will take the oath of office under a new slogan—paanch saal Kejriwal (“Five years for Kejriwal”).

This article was originally published by Foreign Affairs.