Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme
The opposition victory in Delhi’s legislative elections is less a vote against India’s prime minister than a warning to stick to a development-focused agenda.
A desolate scene at the Delhi BJP office on 10 February 2015 after its defeat in Delhi assembly elections. Photo by Getty Images.A desolate scene at the Delhi BJP office on 10 February 2015 after its defeat in Delhi assembly elections. Photo by Getty Images.

The stunning victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in elections to Delhi’s legislative assembly on 7 February is clearly causing reverberations around India’s political establishment, and has been widely interpreted as the end of Narendra Modi’s honeymoon period. While it is not a rejection of the prime minister’s development agenda, it highlights the reality that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has built previous electoral victories on a divided opposition.  Its implications may well spread far beyond Delhi.

Sensing Modi’s likely ascendency, many Western countries expended energy in courting him in the run-up to last year’s election. For the previous decade, many had ostracized Modi for his response to the 2002 riots that occurred in Gujarat while he was chief minister (CM). The belief that Modi was the likely prime minister, coupled with the desire to strengthen relations with India, as well as the fact that he had been cleared of complicity in the riots in each court case, meant that past concerns were put to one side. Underpinning this recalibration was a belief that Modi was a changed man; the earlier firebrand had transformed into a managerial technocrat, focusing on development issues — providing power to farmers for instance — in Gujarat.

The 2014 general election campaign did little to change that impression. The BJP’s success was built on a promise of development — house-building, access to sanitation and so forth. Progress has understandably been slower than many would have hoped. But the Delhi election does not change the fact that if successful strategies are put in place to begin delivering on promises made by, say, the third year of the current parliament, Modi may well be able to preside over a 10-year transformation of India.

Modi has also been wooing foreign investment. His bonhomie with foreign leaders, whether Chinese or American, is a powerful signal that India is open for business. India’s economic boom in the middle of the last decade was driven in part by positive investor sentiment. The subsequent realization that ‘red tape’ was still an impediment to business helped drive the slowdown. Recreating a feel-good wave could well boost economic growth; if it coincided with better governance, it could even become self-sustainable.

The Delhi election doesn’t change this, either. It reduces Modi’s air of invincibility and will mean that he faces genuine opposition, admittedly from a chief minister rather than in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. The fact that it is India’s capital will give new Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal much greater prominence internationally than any other CM. But given that both Modi and Kejriwal won landslides on a platform that reflected an aspiration for change rather than a promise for some form of community-based redistribution gives them a (relatively) shared agenda.

If Modi’s vision is to be implemented, it necessarily requires cooperation with chief ministers. Clearly, that is easier if states are BJP-controlled, and BJP-controlled states can be used to test economic reforms. But if a vision is to be India-wide, there has to be some level of cooperation with the majority of states, which do not have BJP governments.

Until the Delhi election, the BJP had been performing strongly in recent state elections. It may well continue to do so and edge closer to a majority in the upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha. But one takeaway from both the general election and the Delhi election is that the BJP is far from a majority party. It won a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha with a little over 30 per cent of the vote. Its vote was concentrated geographically, and the opposition was divided. In the Delhi election, it won 32 per cent of the vote. The obvious takeaway is that a divided opposition benefits the BJP. If the economy booms, more parties are likely to want to join hands with the BJP. If it does not, and if the opposition was united (admittedly, a very big if), the BJP will struggle to win two terms.

An alternative takeaway is that the social base of the BJP needs to be widened. The reaction to US President Barack Obama’s recent speech, in which he mentioned the need for religious tolerance, suggests sensitivity towards communal issues. Delhi witnessed a number of small-scale communal incidents — including vandalism against churches — in the run-up to the state election. If such incidents were replicated in the run-up to the Bihar election later this year, the outcome may well be much worse.

Any switch towards a more Hindutva-focused agenda would seem likely to encourage the consolidation of non-BJP parties. A serious outbreak of communal violence while Modi is PM will be bad for India, but also troubling for the West. Having portrayed himself in a presidential manner, Modi would struggle not to take some responsibility.

Thus, sticking with a development agenda must be imperative. The Delhi election should be seen as a blip for the BJP, a demonstration of the value Indian voters place on development and reinforce the need to focus on delivering that development. While voters may be getting impatient, what’s important is where India stands at the time of the next election.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback