The honeymoon is over for India’s Modi, thanks to Delhi’s ‘AK-67

Aam Admi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal addresses supporters after a landslide win of historic proportions in the Delhi state election. EPA

A taste of the unpredictable, raucous world of Indian politics came to the Adelaide Oval as India played Pakistan in their Cricket World Cup showdown.

In front of me was an India supporter wearing a Modi mask. Party volunteers donning masks of Narendra Modi became ubiquitous in the election campaign that brought him to power last year. “Modi! Modi! You’re here?” shouted a man behind me, leading me to assume he was a fan of the controversial prime minister.

Minutes later, however, he shouted “Kejriwal! 67!” – a reference to the landslide victory of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi (common man) Party (AAP) in this month’s Delhi state election, in which the AAP won 67 of the 70 seats.

Three men later walked past us wearing Gandhi topis (hats) emblazoned with the party’s name and slogan – a symbol worn by the AAP’s legions of volunteers. This prompted yells of:

AAP! You won Delhi and now you’re here! I’m so glad to see you here! Kejriwal! 67!

Suddenly, thanks to the AAP’s unexpectedly sweeping victory, the dominant narrative of Indian politics has changed. Modi’s much-vaunted political “wave” in the 2014 national election has been brought to a grinding halt by a political upstart who had been dismissed as an “anarchist” by Modi. Modi campaigned in Delhi for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and it lost 28 seats, retaining only three.

A stunning twist on AAP’s rise and fall

A former civil service officer and activist, Arvind Kejriwal is known affectionately by his supporters as “Muffler Man” for his penchant for wrapping his head in a muffler to ward off the cold during Delhi’s bitter winters.

Kejriwal’s AAP burst onto the Indian political scene in December 2013, tapping into growing disaffection over corruption to win enough seats in the Delhi state election to head a minority government.

The party has attracted high-profile candidates and supporters. They include India’s leading human rights lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, activist Medha Patkar, social scientists Yogendra Yadav and Rajmohan Gandhi (a grandson of Mahatma) and Meera Sanyal, who quit her job as head of the Royal Bank of Scotland to contest the national election. The AAP’s victory also represented a new type of politics – one not grounded in dynasties, class or identity politics, but in issues of livelihoods and accountability.

A young Aam Aadmi supporter, dressed as party leader Arvind Kejriwal and wearing a topi, attends the chief minister’s swearing-in. EPA/Harish Tyagi

But the AAP’s stint in power was short-lived. After failing to get his anti-corruption bill through the state legislature, Kejriwal resigned as chief minister after 49 days. That left Delhi under the control of the central government for more than a year while fresh elections were organised. The AAP performed poorly in the 2014 national election and lost support in Delhi, where voters punished it for prematurely quitting government.

In the meantime, Modi had quite the dream run after his 2014 election victory. He was feted by world leaders, including Tony Abbott and Barack Obama, and fawned over by the Indian diaspora.

Opposition to Modi’s rule has been muted. The Congress Party, which Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party trounced in the national election, remains in disarray. It has been wiped out as a political force in Delhi – a remarkable state of affairs for the “grand old party”, which dominated Delhi politics for 15 years.

A powerful regional rival of Modi, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalilithaa, was recently convicted of corruption. Another regional leader, Mamata Banerjee, has been put on the defensive by the BJP’s electoral inroads in her state of West Bengal.

Modi faces rising discontent

However, discontent has been brewing within the electorate and within Modi’s Hindu nationalist movement. The last nine months have brought little of tangible benefit to the aam aadmi; Modi’s government is increasingly seen as favouring the business elite.

The government has sought to alter labour laws and the previous government’s social policies on welfare and land acquisition to make them more business-friendly. It has also attempted to undertake these reforms through stealth – by-passing democratic debate by introducing ordinances to dilute existing legislation. This is counter to the expectations of greater accountability and transparency that have been at the core of voters’ demands.

The BJP’s grass-roots affiliate, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has also revived the spectre of destabilising social conflict through its attacks on churches and campaigns against Valentine’s Day and the supposed rising prevalence of Muslim men marrying Hindu women.

Modi and the BJP leadership seem to regard these incidents as embarrassments, but they also appear to be struggling to control these extremist elements. Another problem is the RSS’s unhappiness with the pro-business, pro-market thrust of the BJP’s economic policies.

The Hindu nationalist movement has long been divided between those espousing hardline Hindu nationalism and anti-globalisation economics and those, like Modi, who are committed to pro-market, pro-business economics and use the divide-and-rule politics of Hindu nationalism as a tool to win power. These tensions are now coming to the fore.

AAP comeback galvanises opposition

Despite being punished in the national election, the AAP and Arvind Kejriwal remained popular. This was because even his brief period in office resulted in tangible change in the lives of Delhi’s inhabitants. Stories abound about how corruption dropped during the AAP’s 49 days in power thanks to the introduction of measures like a phone hotline to report corrupt officials.

Kejriwal has acknowledged his resignation was a mistake and asked for Delhi’s forgiveness. An electorate eager for new ideas and a new style of politics has been keen to oblige.

While it has national aspirations, the AAP remains a regional electoral presence confined to Delhi and Punjab. The Kejriwal team, dubbed “AK-67” by the media, has a long road ahead to address Delhi’s myriad governance problems.

Nonetheless, the AAP and Kejriwal have emerged as a visible face of opposition to Modi. Kejriwal’s modest dress sense and persona and his campaign against India’s “VIP culture” present a stark contrast to Modi’s “strong man” image and love of expensive monogrammed suits.

The AAP’s victory in Delhi has also reinvigorated opposition politics. The first face-off will be over the BJP’s Land Acquisition Ordinance. Modi is eager to have this passed through the upper house, where the BJP is in the minority, to facilitate the acquisition of land for industrial developments.

With a galvanised opposition – including the AAP, the Congress, the RSS, the Left and regional parties – Modi’s task just got a whole lot tougher. The honeymoon is definitely over.