NEW DELHI — After India’s most famous anti-corruption crusader, Arvind Kejriwal, quit his post as New Delhi’s chief minister after just a few weeks last year, he was sidelined politically and lampooned as a maverick who couldn’t handle responsibility.
But his stunning comeback in the capital’s elections Tuesday surpassed the scale of victory predicted in most polls and was a major setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing party. Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party won 67 voting districts out of 70 in the legislative assembly, with Modi’s party taking just three.
In the weeks before the election, Kejriwal had spent hours with voters in street-corner meetings, shoring up support among the capital’s working class by focusing on issues such as electricity and slum rehabilitation. He also repeatedly apologized for his party’s failed attempt to govern Delhi last year.
Ultimately, voters were willing to forgive him.
“So what if they fell short the last time — a lot of people have very high hopes of them,” said Rajan Kumar, 45, an electricity broker. “They will do better this time. I can tell."
On Tuesday, as word of the victory spread, Kumar and other Common Man supporters descended upon the modest party headquarters, dancing, cheering and jamming roads in celebration. When Kejriwal appeared at midday, his supporters showered him with marigold, rose petals and confetti.
“It is very scary, such a big mandate the people have given us,” Kejriwal said. But he pledged to“turn Delhi into a city that can be a pride of both the poor and rich people.”
The Common Man Party promised voters a slew of populist measures if elected, including cheaper electricity, affordable housing, student loans and free WiFi. But in the end, the party’s appeal cut across class lines, a testament to the fact that many remain tired of what party leader Ashutosh called “rampant everyday corruption” and the “politics of the privileged.”
"We're middle-class people,” said Madhu, 53, a retiree and housewife. “We need someone who will think like us . . . like a common man, with ‘common’ concerns like ours, about safety for women and children.”
Modi tweeted that after the defeat, he called Kejriwal and assured him of support. But a senior member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Ravi Shankar Prasad, conceded that it had not “read the mood of the people of Delhi well.”
Modi remains very popular nationally, but he has been the subject of some criticism in recent weeks for what is seen as excessive foreign travel, as well as his choice of attire during a meeting with President Obama — a showy custom-made suit with his name emblazoned in pinstripes.
“This is a decisive vote against Prime Minister Modi’s style of functioning,” said Dipankar Gupta, a political analyst and author. “The nine months that he has been the prime minister show no perceptible improvement in everyday lives of people. People are impatient in a democracy and want action.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party had won in a number of state elections since May by riding on the Modi wave, but that was not the case in Delhi, even though Modi and his top lieutenants were out in force on the campaign trail. Their candidate for chief minister, Kiran Bedi , a 65-year old former police officer, lost in her own voting district.
The Congress party, which had been a dominant force in the country’s politics for decades, won no seats in the Delhi election.
Kejriwal, 45, quit his job as a tax officer to fight for transparency laws in government programs and rose to fame when he spearheaded nationwide street demonstrations against corruption in 2011. In 2012, he formed a political party that won a surprise victory in the Delhi elections in late 2013. But Kejriwal’s tumultuous time at the helm ended after just 49 days.
Now, as Kejriwal and his party prepare to retake the reins of the capital city, voters are expecting they will stick around and govern this time. “Now finally we’ll have some relief in water and electricity bills. Kejriwal will fix that now,” said Phool Jahan, a 55-year-old domestic worker who said that she voted for Modi last year but that her utility bills had risen since then.