Why you should care

Because first came the Arab Spring. Next, the Indian upheaval. Just how infectious is populism?

The author is the CEO of a data analytics firm.

A year after the biggest democratic elections in history, voters in India are already back at it. Last week, voters in the country’s most prosperous jurisdiction, New Delhi, turned out in a relatively new, populist cohort — the Aam Aadmi, or “Common Man,” Party. Many observers are still swept up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise to power last year. But the AAP’s Delhi sweep suggests something more complex at play: India’s leaders will be judged on their performance at the local level too.

AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax collector, captured the media’s fancy last year when he surged as a third-party candidate in the general election, even though the surge was short-lived — Modi would soundly beat him. The Delhi election confirms he has bounced back — and carries lessons for leaders across the world. Delhi, after all, is a kind of harbinger: With a population of 25 million and a per capita income nearing $4,000, the city represents “Rising” India better than any other. Its voters want change, and fast, and they want their city’s streets to match the country’s global reputation.

First, voters want competence. Modi captured Indians’ hearts and votes by pledging to bring back the acche din (“good days”). And his prior experience suggested he could do it — he’d turned around his home state of Gujarat and brought in prosperity. In contrast, Kejriwal presided over a disastrous 49 days as chief minister of Delhi last year and paid for it in the national elections.

But this year, Kejriwal made up for it, targeting local voters and delivering on a number of local fixes. To be sure, the comportment of his opponent, Kiran Bedi, was a huge assist. Many perceived her as opportunistic — she’d switched parties right before the election, and she stumbled along the campaign trail besides. Still, Kejriwal’s singular focus on clean water and air, electricity and efficient governance helped him win 67 of 70 seats in Delhi. Desires for good governance might be particularly urgent among middle-class Indian voters, but they’re hardly unique to India.

The vast “middle” voter isn’t driven by cultural issues. Good governance comes first.

Second, corruption can kill — so solve it fast. Modi swept in swearing to turn India into a paragon of clean government and, having led a largely corruption-free state government for more than a decade, had the cred to do it. But change has come slowly. At the national level, his government has been hamstrung by the challenge of, well, governing, and though Modi has run a clean government, there’s no end to so-called Black Money on the horizon. Kejriwal’s election suggests that voters are so hungry for an untainted leader, they’ll accept some blundering in exchange.

Third, the vast “middle” voter isn’t driven by cultural issues. Good governance comes first. Modi won by sticking to good governance and an open economy, but his Bharatiya Janata Party has lost some of that focus. Some associated with the party have descended into near-comical battles with Muslim leaders over, for instance, the number of children that women ought to have. (One group would urge women to have four children; the other group countered with five. At last count, we were up to 10.) Mainstream BJP leaders did nothing to distance themselves from this farce.

Sounds like something the GOP might want to remember.

Fourth, dynasty isn’t a get-into-office-free card. As American voters face the prospect of another Bush-Clinton matchup, Indian voters remind us that a fresh face sometimes plays better. After having a leader from the Gandhi clan (no relation to Mahatma) helming their country for most of the past 68 years, Indian voters were fed up. Both Modi and Kejriwal presented authentic, new voices and were rewarded for it.

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s foremost thinkers, wrote in The Indian Express, “Indian democracy now has the passion of a religion, the thrill of a mystery.” Decoding those mysteries will serve politicians everywhere well. While the Modi revolution continues, local leaders will need to shepherd it into existence too. Bring on the populist revolution — and a whole cadre of Joe the Plumbers.

Comment

OZYOpinion

Interviews, op-eds, and analysis to help you make sense of the news of the day and the news of the future.