Voters in New Delhi Shock the Old Order: Chandrahas Choudhury

Thrilling new energies are coursing through Indian democracy.

On Sunday, a rude jolt was delivered both to the governing party in the capital, New Delhi, and to the very nature of political power as commonly understood and often cynically exercised.

Assembly elections in Delhi, India’s only city-state, resulted in the ruling Congress party -- which has headed India’s coalition government since 2004 -- being booted out of power after three consecutive terms in office. It won only eight of the 70 seats on offer. Ordinarily, such an unambiguous expression of voter discontent would have meant a huge swing toward some other long-established party: in this case, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition group both in Delhi and on the national level. But while this was the case in three other states that also had elections -- Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh, all of which voted or returned the BJP to power -- in Delhi the story was far more surprising.

An astonishing 27 percent of voters (out of the 65 percent turnout of the 12 million eligible voters in the city) gave their endorsement to the “jhaadu,” or the humble broom of the Aam Aadmi Party (“Common Man’s Party”).

At this time last year, the broom symbol was virtually unknown. As the scale of the new wave became apparent when counting began Sunday morning, television cameras zoomed in on a mass of people triumphantly waving brooms outside the office of the AAP, which arose last year from the ashes of a frustrated civil movement to get Parliament to pass a stringent anti-corruption bill in 2011. By afternoon, it was clear the party had made a spectacular debut, winning 28 seats and restricting the BJP to 32.

The result is a deliciously piquant situation in which no party has a majority in the capital. And with the AAP declining to support either the congress or the BJP, the stage is set for a re-election within the next six months, one in which the AAP might well extend its gains and seize power.

Two major future outcomes may be divined from Sunday’s election results in Delhi and the three other states. The main signal of the results is that the Indian voter has lost patience with the national coalition government, and that when general elections take place within the next six months, it will probably be a BJP-led coalition that will return to power after a decade.

It’s unclear whether in the long run this would be good for Indian democracy -- the party’s campaign will, after all, be fronted by Narendra Modi, an arch-centralizer whose “Yes, I can” rhetoric is reassuring to voters but disguises a cavalier disregard for due process. But to its credit the BJP has run a number of well-managed state governments across north and central India, its main electoral base. No one could say it doesn't deserve a chance to scale up its operations. And a change of government certainly seems to be what the markets want. On Monday, the day after the results, the benchmark S&P BSE Sensex rose more than 1.5 percent to an all-time high; while the rupee, buffeted earlier this year by India’s slowing growth and the government’s inept stewardship of the economy, touched a four-month high.

But whether the Congress-led coalition manages to hold on to power next year or the BJP seizes it, that would still represent the inevitable victory of a giant party machine, well-lubricated by vast infusions of cash (much of it from donations from undisclosed sources), and probably involving some level of manipulation of India’s many pliant media companies in the form of “paid news” campaigns .

In recent years, any attempt at a “new politics” had always been derided by the established politicians as hopelessly naive, doomed to flap away ineffectually on the fringes of Indian politics. What hopes there remained for change in the big parties, and new ideas for a fast-changing India, were fruitlessly invested in an apparent "new wave" of young politicians. That is, people like the Indian National Congress’s unworthy (but admittedly young) dynast and prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi.

Surely, then, the most warming story -- both at the emotional level of an underdog winning the day, but also at the substantive level of a political rhetoric stressing ideas and not personalities, crowd-sourced political funding and voter mobilization not rooted primarily in the politics of identity -- is the rise of the Aam Aadmi party in Delhi and the potential ripple effects of the movement around India.

After all, none of the leading lights in the party had ever contested an election. Repeatedly mocked by both the major parties for their presumption in pronouncing to elected politicians, the activists of the anti-corruption movement -- most notably the former civil servant Arvind Kejriwal, the Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan and the political scientist Yogendra Yadav -- broke with the movement’s talisman, the septuagenarian social activist Anna Hazare, when they decided last year to set up a political party. They set their sights on the forthcoming elections in a single but enormously significant political ground: Delhi.

There's much to admire about the party’s ability to mobilize (and indeed enthuse) many disenchanted voters among the middle-class and first-time voters among the youth, its ground-level approach to selecting candidates, and its transparent system of fundraising.

For all these reasons, there’s some truth to Kejriwal’s contention this week that the AAP’s success in Delhi wasn't the victory of a party, but of a movement.

Critics have complained that the party’s manifesto for governance in Delhi (including the promise of major cuts in electricity rates) is too populist and too naive. But it’s not as if the more business-friendly dispensations of its competitors are representative of a genuine commitment to free markets -- no major Indian political party has committed to anything more than piecemeal economic reform. And meanwhile, the result of the creeping spread of cynicism and the play of special interests in Indian politics is that governance has ceased to be thought of as an art and a discipline in its own right, but merely the delivery of a set of minimal expectations and sops.

The more meaningful question to ask, to my mind, when considering the AAP's future is: What happens when it is forced to tackle issues on which its current, unshakable sense of "We, the people" leads it not into progressive but reactionary positions? It isn't known, for instance, if the party has any position on the Supreme Court's refusal to decriminalize homosexuality -- a position on which much of middle-class India might be in agreement.

But regardless of what results ensue from the AAP project, for thousands of citizens of Delhi, including myself, there’s something very warming about a party manifesto that says: “Government schools to be made as good as private schools.” More than subsidized food and fuel, and the reservation of government jobs for disadvantaged groups -- two favorite gimmicks of the big parties to draw in the poor -- this is the kind of thinking required to move India on from its dysfunction and stasis.

Did the election results of last weekend usher in the most exciting hung parliament in Indian political history -- not so much an impasse as a half-finished story that suddenly made the citizens of Delhi aware of their power? That would be my guess.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter.)

Chandrahas Choudhury at