India elections: who suffers most from Common Man surge?

The insurgent Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, party continues to make headlines in India’s election, as it noisily attempts the transition from protest group to national political player. But which of the two mainstream parties — the Congress, or the BJP — is most likely to be hurt by their rise?

As my colleague Amy Kazmin showed in her piece on the AAP this morning, the party has in many ways upended the conventional logic of Indian elections, transforming itself from a marginal operation to a quasi-nationwide force.

Amy writes:

There is little doubt that AAP, which has selected the humble broom as its election symbol, has captured the imagination of many voters…. [also] the AAP has proven adept at guerrilla campaign tactics that draw sustained, and free, media attention.

Having won power in Delhi at the end of last year, the party has found itself at the centre of continued self-generated controversy, be that by attacking India’s media earlier this week, or hurling barbs at everyone from billionaire Mukesh Ambani to opposition leader Narendra Modi.

The AAP’s emergence is significant for many other reasons, not least the fact that it is the first time in recent Indian history that an entirely new party has risen to national prominence, without being either an off-shoot of the Congress or the BJP, or being rooted to a particular region, caste or linguistic group.

Even so, few analysts think the party is likely to win many parliamentary seast: as I wrote last week, its leader Arvind Kejriwal’s appears to be making little progress in southern cities like Chennai or Bangalore, leaving it at its most competitive only in New Delhi and a few other select northern regions, like the crucial swing state of Uttar Pradesh.

Yet if the AAP doesn’t win much representation outright, the votes it receives could still prove decisive in many constituencies, and even affect who ultimately becomes India’s Prime Minister.

In local areas, the AAP’s broom will necessarily sweep up votes previously destined for other parties. At the margin, this could swing the results of many dozens of close parliamentary contests, especially those being fought out as narrow two-way contests between the BJP and Congress.

At the national level, however, Mr Modi’s hopes of becoming Prime Minister also still require him to cross a certain threshold — often thought to be in the region of 220 seats — after which he will be able to form a viable coalition with himself at the helm. But if the BJP lose only a few dozen seats, perhaps because of an unexpectedly strong AAP vote, that threshold becomes much harder to reach.

Because of this, the conventional wisdom goes that it is the BJP that is most likely to lose out, the stronger AAP become. This is certainly what happened in New Delhi last year, where Mr Modi’s party would almost certainly have a won a majority in the city’s elections, had the AAP not unexpectedly surged into second place, propelling Mr Kejriwal into a brief and abortive tenure as the city’s chief minister.

Yet there is in theory another possibility, and one advanced by Rajeeva Karandikar, a statistician based in Chennai, and also the man behind the most reliable poll on India’s elections, operated by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

“The AAP were appealing to an urban, young, middle class upwardly mobile crowd. However, this group has been largely disenchanted by the antics that Mr Kejriwal and others over last 60 days or so,” Mr Karandikar says, referring to disillusionment in particular after Mr Kejriwal flounced out of his position in Delhi, to concentrate his party’s energies on the national poll.

Yet the AAP remains vocal and much-covered in the media, leading Mr Karandikar to speculate that the insurgent party’s message — which remains staunchly anti-corruption, and revolves around fierce attacks on both the Congress and the BJP — may now be appealing to less affluent, more working class voters in some parts of India.

Such voters are more likely to be supporters Rahul Ghandi’s party, or as Mr Karandikar puts it: “If this hypothesis is correct, then in the elections … AAP may end up damaging Congress more than BJP.” And on this view, Mr Modi may soon have reason to be thankful for the AAP’s new broom after all.

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Related reading:

Tough going for the Common Man in Bangalore, beyondbrics

India elections: will Modi really face key rival in Varanasi, beyondbrics

India’s Common Man party oozes charisma on its poll mission, FT