A local election in India is not likely to garner world attention, but the outcome of the recently concluded Legislative Assembly elections in Delhi, a sprawling city of more than twenty million people, portends much for the future of democracy—not merely in India, but all over the world. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), founded a little over two years ago by a rather nondescript former revenue service officer, has secured 67 of 70 seats in the State Assembly. These results, confounding the expectations of pollsters and the party’s most optimistic supporters, would have been astounding at any time but are now all the more remarkable in view of the fact that AAP, which speaks for the “common man”, had been written off after the national elections last May which brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power with a clear indeed compelling majority. Moreover, Arvind Kejriwal, who has now taken the oath of office as Delhi’s Chief Minister, was widely viewed as having irreparably imperiled his political career when he resigned from the same position after a mere 49 days in office in February 2014.
The extraordinary electoral triumph of AAP can certainly be read in various registers. Some people are likely to view the mandate for AAP as the electorate’s expression of strong disapproval of the BJP’s tolerance, if not instigation, of Hindu extremism. The ideologues of Hindu nationalism have been enjoying an unchecked run of privileges since the BJP came to power, running down minorities, glorifying the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, and putting considerable resources into “reconverting” Muslims, Christians, and others to Hinduism. Gandhi, however venerated he may be in the rest of the world, is despised by many of these Hindu ideologues as an effeminate and wooly-minded Hindu who was soft on Islam. (The shared dislike for Gandhi among the Hindutvavadis and those who pride themselves on their staunchly progressive credentials—measured these days by, more than anything else, a declaration of supreme and often unqualified admiration for Ambedkar—is another interesting story about the complicity of the right and the left, but one that will have to be told another time.) The Hindu extremists profess, however, to have much concern for the Muslims, and euphemistically describe their efforts to bring Muslims back into the Hindu fold as a homecoming (ghar wapsi), a form of return to the mother’s bosom. Though one can see why the AAP victory might be interpreted as an affirmation of the secular values of the republic, there is little evidence to substantiate this view.
AAP’s electoral victory, and in particular Kejriwal’s personal triumph, is also being projected as yet another round in the eternal conflict of David and Goliath. Many commentators are viewing the electoral outcome as a crushing defeat for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the immensely popular—and to some charismatic—leader of the BJP who campaigned for his party candidates and vilified Kejriwal as a “Naxal”, the term used to designate political activists who are inspired by Maoism and are committed to the use of violence to overthrow the bourgeois state. In last year’s national elections, Modi gained considerable mileage among the voters when the ruling Congress party’s elites scoffed at his humble origins as a chaiwallah (tea-seller). Kejriwal has shown that he is just as adept at this game: he describes himself as a simple man and dresses humbly. Indeed, if Modi is inclined towards high ethnic fashion, Kejriwal has similarly shown a flair for a different kind of sartorial politics. The “muffler man” makes appearances in public with a scarf wrapped around his head, so signifying his solidarity with working class people.
There are, of course, more substantive ways in which the tussle in Delhi between AAP and BJP might be cast as a battle between David and Goliath. It is now almost easy to forget that the quest for power in Delhi originated as a three-way contest, and that AAP’s victory eviscerated the Congress, the ruling party in India and Delhi alike for decades. The BJP is also an established political party: in its present shape its history goes back to the early 1980s, though earlier incarnations of the party have been around since 1951. The BJP could draw upon a gigantic electoral machinery, millions of supporters and volunteers, and immense financial resources. And yet it was humbled, indeed decimated, by a political party which has barely gotten off the ground. Contrary to the widely held view that elections cannot be waged and won without insanely large sums of money, AAP has unequivocally shown that, at least in India, elections are not necessarily the preserve of those who are wealthy, well-connected, or the scions of political families.
There is much else that is tremendously exciting about AAP’s sweeping victory in the Delhi Legislative Assembly elections, but the critical question is whether there might be some lessons in this triumph for those interested in democracy’s prospects globally. We have been living, since the end of the Cold War, in the age of what might be called new democracy movements. The ‘Arab Spring’ was celebrated the world over. However, the embers of hope have been extinguished in most places. The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square languish in jails, when they have not been killed outright; in Syria, meanwhile, the uprising against Bashar al-Assad has produced the world’s greatest refugee crisis in decades. But these revolts were at the outset tarnished by violence, and there is some justification for saying that what begins in violence will end in violence. India’s masses may be poorly educated, often illiterate, and generally not too well-informed about political processes. Yet it is indubitably the case that they have repeatedly and insistently shown their wisdom at the voting booth and expressed a clear preference for the ballot over the bullet. Whatever democracy’s failings in India, and they are very considerable, when we consider the shocking inability of the state in nearly seven decades after independence to provide the majority of Indians with minimal guarantees of livelihood, well-being, and security, disempowered communities of various hues are beginning to understand that violence must be eschewed and that the ballot has given them new prospects for advancement. Delhi’s mainly poor citizens have shown yet again that there is nothing like the ballot box to check the arrogance of power. The rest of the world should take heart from India’s continuing experiments in democracy.