For perhaps the first time, Indians set aside community and religious divisions to vote against an incumbent government perceived to be corrupt. Nevertheless, the country’s new anti-corruption party performed poorly in this month’s national elections, picking up only four of the five hundred and forty-five seats in the lower house of parliament.
I have written about the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a political outfit borne out of anticorruption protests, here. I recently expressed hope that the urban, middle-class party would be able to encourage rural, low-income Indians to vote against corruption, rather than along community or religious lines.
I was partly right–but only partly. India’s vast electorate handed a resounding defeat to the corruption-plagued Congress party. Congress—the party that led India’s independence movement and has ruled the country for most of the past sixty years—won only forty-four seats, its worst showing ever. This would not have been possible if India’s voters had ignored issues like corruption and good governance.
However, AAP was unable to take advantage of this anticorruption sentiment. There are two major reasons for this.
First, my optimism about the AAP’s ability to draw support from low-income voters (as it had in Delhi elections) was not borne out in this election. The party remained still a middle-class phenomenon, unable to connect with low-income voters outside a few parts of northern India.
Second, and more importantly, the untested party was not seen as a viable alternative to Congress. Rather than “waste” their votes on AAP, Indians voted for the more established Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP, which fought the election on a good governance platform, won 282 seats: the first time since 1984 that any Indian party has won a majority in parliament.
The BJP is not an anticorruption party. It has had its share of corruption scandals, and critics claim that the party is too close to big business. Nonetheless, the party has promised Indians a better, more transparent government. AAP’s role must be to hold the BJP to its word. The anti-corruption party will have little sway in parliament, but in the absence of any credible opposition party, its activists can play an important role as an anti-corruption watchdog. We now know that if the BJP government falls prey to corruption, Indians will do to it what it has just done to Congress.