Why a new player like Kejriwal can, but a PM aspirant like Modi shouldn’t
In this past year, we have witnessed the mercurial rise of two figures aiming to capture power in New Delhi, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal. For Modi, 2013 was the year he transitioned from being one of many electorally successful BJP chief ministers to the pre-eminent face of the party. It is easy to forget that this transition was not a foregone conclusion. In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the BJP’s unexpected defeat, especially the limiting of its coalitional options, had been seen as partly due to the political fallout of the 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat. Internally, Modi’s growing cult of personality also worried the RSS, which did not want any individual politician’s clout superseding that of the sanghathan. The year 2013 actually began with reports of tensions between Modi and key figures both within the BJP (notably L.K. Advani), and the larger NDA (notably Nitish Kumar). The year was not the culmination of a smooth, inevitable ascent to power. It was the year in which Modi leveraged his dominance in Gujarat, and his popularity among rank-and-file party workers, to overcome the considerable opposition to his becoming a prime ministerial candidate.
Kejriwal’s rise in 2013 is of less national significance, but was even more unexpected. His decision to enter the “dirty” river of electoral politics was largely ridiculed. One year later, Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party placed second in the Delhi assembly elections, a result capped by his own victory over a three-time chief minister. This victory was especially impressive given the high barriers to entry for new parties in India, particularly those that are not started by disgruntled leaders of existing parties. Our first-past-the-post electoral system gives no prizes for second place. A new party has to beat established opponents outright for every single seat it is accorded. By contrast, in proportional representation systems, like in Spain and South Africa, seats are allocated according to the percentage of votes a party wins, affording even small parties some representation. The rising costs of contesting Indian elections make them even more inhospitable for new parties competing against established rivals with developed fundraising infrastructure, resources and favours accrued from past stints in office.
Modi’s ascent and Kejriwal’s arrival are thus markedly different phenomena that overcame distinct obstacles. Yet, their concurrence does highlight interesting new possibilities within our electoral landscape. Most