Illustration by Kelsey Dake
Illustration by Kelsey Dake

As India prepares for national elections in May, what is being called the “Modi wave” seems almost unstoppable. Since naming Narendra Modi -- the controversial chief minister of the state of Gujarat -- as its prime ministerial candidate, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has consistently topped opinion polls. Modi’s BJP decimated the ruling Congress Party in recent state elections -- a harbinger, many now believe, of the national outcome.

Before they start measuring drapes in Delhi ministries, however, “NaMo” and his friends might want to take another look at those state results. They underscore not just Modi’s resurgent popularity -- but also its very real limits.

Modi casts himself as a decisive leader with a reputation for delivering “good governance.” Indian executives love his business-friendly attitude. His muscular, and at times coarse, language on national, international and social issues has endeared him to a sizable section of urban India tired of weak and indecisive Congress politicians.

True, Modi’s reputation as a hard-line “Hindu nationalist” -– a pretty hard-edged category to begin with -- has left many of the BJP’s potential allies cold. A shadow hangs over his record in Gujarat, where anti-Muslim violence in 2002 claimed more than 1,000 lives.

But the Congress rules India today with only 206 out of 543 members of parliament, plus coalition allies. A strong showing in India’s cities and towns, combined with the BJP’s traditional base in the populous “Hindi belt” across north and west India, could net the party at least that many seats in 2014. Public anger over rampant corruption is greatest in cities: So is Modi’s appeal.

That’s why the BJP should be deeply worried about its performance in the recent state elections in the capital of Delhi, where, in its first outing, the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party won almost as many seats as Modi’s BJP. On Monday, the AAP agreed to form a government with Congress's support for the capital region.

In a country dominated by parties representing corruption and privilege, divisiveness and violence, voters see the AAP as the harbinger of a new kind of politics. Its appeal cuts across class, caste and community -- unlike that of the Congress or the BJP, both of which pander to narrow interest groups to one degree or the other.

Although the demand for a Lokpal, or national ombudsman, to tackle corruption in high places has been the most visible manifestation of this disaffection, there is simmering resentment on many issues that affect ordinary Indians. The AAP and its charismatic leader, Arvind Kejriwal, have tapped into this discontent by putting forward a simple thesis: Nothing will change as long as politics is monopolized by the privileged. Consciously avoiding being labeled left or right, the party has come up with an agenda that is arguably one of the most progressive in India today.

New parties have made dramatic debuts in the past. But they tended to articulate the interests of a specific region or section of the population and thus had limited national impact. The rise of an alternative that is empowering and inclusive in its platform, as well as electable, is a dramatic new development.

If the AAP manages to extend its electoral influence across the country, especially among urban voters, it could undermine the sharp contrast between Congress and BJP that Modi is hoping to draw. In Delhi, where the contest was triangular, many voters cast their lot with the BJP for fear that a vote for a new party might be “wasted” and would allow the Congress to squeak through. But this “discouraged voter effect” is likely to dissipate.

On the other side, those voters -- especially Muslims -- who backed Congress because they fear a Modi-led BJP are likely to conclude that their vote might have been better cast with Kejriwal’s AAP. Nationally, the Congress could lose as many as half its seats. An urban Congress voter who is keen to keep the BJP out of power could see the AAP as the best way of ensuring that outcome.

The AAP had national aspirations from day one and focused on the Delhi assembly as a way to demonstrate the scalability of its appeal. Now that it has tasted success, the party plans to present candidates in dozens of constituencies, especially in cities and towns. In most of these places, its campaign is likely to blunt the Modi effect.

The BJP is certain to sharpen its attacks on Kejriwal’s upstarts. As long as the contest is framed as Modi versus the Crown Prince -- or “shehzada,” the derisive name the BJP leader uses for diffident Congress heir Rahul Gandhi -- the advantage lies with the BJP. Modi versus the common man is a different matter altogether.

(Siddharth Varadarajan, former editor of the Hindu newspaper, is a New Delhi-based journalist and commentator.)

To contact the writer of this article: Siddharth Varadarajan at svaradarajan1@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net.