Thursday, 12 February 2015

Indian politics: Mufflerman triumphs

Nguồn tin:

POLITICAL cycles in India are speeding up. Just over a year ago the country feted Arvind Kejriwal, of the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party (AAP), as a political hero. He had turned an anti-corruption movement into an electoral machine, winning voters from across religious, caste and class lines. Storming assembly polls, his AAP took power in Delhi, the national capital which is effectively a state.

Mr Kejriwal (pictured above, on a supporter’s face) blew his opportunity. As Delhi’s chief, he attacked venal police and bureaucrats, and gave the poor free water and cheap electricity. But his rule was chaotic, confrontational and short. He resigned after 49 days. Worse, he launched an over-ambitious campaign in last year’s general election. The AAP flopped, taking just four seats; none in Delhi. He apologised, both for quitting in Delhi and for fielding too many candidates nationally.

Eight months on, the cycle has turned again. Assembly polls in Delhi on February 7th gave Mr Kejriwal one of the biggest wins for any party, anywhere in India, since independence. AAP won 67 of 70 seats. Congress, which ran the city for 15 years until 2013, was obliterated. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in power nationally, suffered its worst ever result in Delhi.

The outcome is significant. Delhi, with 18m residents, is small but matters more than many states. When Mr Kejriwal becomes chief minister on February 14th he will get a platform for opposing Narendra Modi, the prime minister. Capable on television and keener than Mr Modi on public debate, he could speak about national issues. If he is smart, however, he will hunker down and try to run Delhi well, so voters might trust him later nationally. After results were announced on February 10th he vowed not to be arrogant.

AAP won for many reasons. If the election had been held in July, the earliest plausible date, enthusiasm for Mr Modi might have swept in the BJP, which has recently won four other state polls. Instead, AAP had time to marshal voters, who liked Mr Kejriwal’s humility and promise of honest rule. The BJP candidate, Kiran Bedi, charmed nobody. Most important, the non-BJP voters united behind Mr Kejriwal: the BJP got 32% of the vote, about the same as last time; AAP got 54%.

This counts as Mr Modi’s first big electoral loss. The campaign centred on him: he was at the forefront of BJP election propaganda, billboards and newspaper advertisements, as well as four rallies. Many voters, even some BJP MPs privately, welcomed a check on what is widely seen as his arrogance; he is known as high-handed and aloof in government. His appeal to ordinary voters has slipped: he recently appeared in a lavish suit, its golden pinstripes embroidered with his name. “India’s electorate fundamentally doesn’t like hubris,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the head of a think-tank in Delhi. Mr Kejriwal appears modest: he sports a tatty scarf and is dubbed “mufflerman”.

Many voters also disliked evidence of religious extremism. One BJP minister, in Delhi in December, called non-Hindus “bastards” and earned only a light reprimand from Mr Modi. A fringe around the BJP seeks mass conversions to Hinduism, while stirring fears of “love jihad”, a supposed Muslim campaign to seduce Hindu women. Mohan Bhagwat of the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an ally of Mr Modi, repeatedly says that all Indians are Hindus, offending minorities. Recent attacks on churches in Delhi have also spread anxiety.

As for Congress, the election in Delhi has left it “staring at the abyss of irrelevance”, says Jairam Ramesh, a former cabinet minister, unless it reforms and finds a new leader. The AAP’s main strategist, Yogendra Yadav, talks of his party filling a vacuum in the national opposition. A test looms in assembly elections in poor but populous Bihar, where the BJP hopes to expand. But other parties, as in Delhi, could again unite against the BJP.

All eyes are now on Mr Modi. He could change his ruling style (and tailor), but shutting up Hindu nationalists will be trickier: they help to fire up the campaigns of many BJP MPs during elections. His biggest challenge will be judging the public mood. Those anxious for change hope the budget on February 28th will signal his support for radical devolution of power to states, changes in the tax system, a new land law and more.

But Mr Modi’s intentions are unclear. He may see such reforms as a boost to the economy which would win him more support; or he may back off, fearing the political risks. He and Mr Kejriwal face similar pressure: voters who provide huge electoral mandates are often also the most impatient for results. That does not make delivering them easy.

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