India’s Narendra Modi on Tuesday (10) suffered his first major election setback since becoming prime minister last May, as anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal won a landslide victory in Delhi state polls.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got just three of the 70 seats in the Delhi assembly in elections held last weekend, dealing a setback to his efforts to consolidate power and push through much-needed economic reforms.
Former Delhi chief minister Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) won 67 seats, according to official results released hours after Modi conceded defeat and promised the city’s new leader his government’s “complete support”.
Analysts said the result was a blow for a leader who has enjoyed an extended honeymoon with voters since his landslide general election victory. Delhi is a small state, but high profile, and such a comprehensive rout in the capital is a blow to the BJP’s ambitions to capture India’s second most populous state, Bihar, in an election later this year.
“While Delhi is not very significant in electoral terms, a BJP loss there shatters the popular narrative around the party’s invincibility,” said Milan Vaishnav, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.
“A loss in Delhi certainly signals an end to Modi’s honeymoon. Furthermore, because it is the capital city, an opposition government, especially one led by the confrontational AAP, would be a constant thorn in the government’s side.”
India’s main stock exchange shrugged off the BJP’s defeat, rising more than one per cent, as traders turned their sights to a reform-friendly federal budget that the Modi government is expected to unveil later this month.
Kejriwal’s win marks a stunning comeback for the anti-graft champion and self-styled anarchist, who resigned following a chaotic 49-day spell in charge of the Delhi state government a year ago.
“Thanks for the unprecedented victory,” Kejriwal, a former tax official-turned politician, told hundreds of cheering supporters outside AAP headquarters in Delhi.
“But it’s very scary – the kind of support the people of Delhi have extended and the mandate we have been given, I appeal to the AAP workers and leaders not to be arrogant,” Kejriwal said.
After apologising this month for leaving voters without an elected government for a year, Kejriwal was the star of the election campaign, outshining Kiran Bedi, a former policewoman who was the BJP’s pick for chief minister.
The AAP leader’s pledges to tackle entrenched corruption and lower utility bills won over legions of working-class voters willing to give him a second chance. He will be sworn in as chief minister on Saturday (14).
The Congress, which has dominated politics since India’s independence, suffered another mauling after being thumped at the general election. The party did not manage to win one seat.
The BJP, which won 31 seats out of 68 the last time around, managed to keep its share of the vote intact at 32.2 per cent. In 2013, its share was 33.07 per cent.
“We have not lost this election. Our vote share is more or less intact… we have been defeated by polarisation of pseudo-secular forces,” said Giriraj Singh, a prominent BJP MP.
The BJP has won three state polls since May and could share power following a fourth, mostly on the back of Modi’s popularity.
Modi needs to win even more this year and next to gain control of both houses of the national parliament, where he is attempting to push through reforms on land acquisition, tax and other issues to revive the economy.
States are allocated seats in the upper house, where the BJP lacks a majority.
A BJP spokesman denied the results were a sign of anti-Modi sentiment, saying the election had been fought solely on local issues.
“There is not an iota of negativity against the NDA (national) government anywhere in the country, let alone in Delhi,” spokesman GVL Narasimha Rao told local TV channels.
But analyst Amulya Ganguli said people were tired of waiting for the reforms the BJP had promised ahead of last year’s general election.
“There is no doubt that Modi’s popularity has dwindled,” he said. “People in Delhi want development and Modi has nationally failed to deliver on his promises.”
Kejriwal famously declared himself an anarchist during his brief tenure last year and staged several street protests outside government offices.
After winning plaudits for rejecting the VIP culture of Indian politics, his administration lost its sheen, with a raid on a largely African neighbourhood, sparking claims of racism.
But Kejriwal won Delhi voters around this time with campaign promises such as free Wi-Fi for the capital’s 17 million residents.