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After Delhi victory, can Kejriwal’s AAP take on Modi at the national level?

Arvind Kejriwal, New Delhi’s chief minister, was quick to lead a parade to a temple of the Hindu deity Hanuman in the city centre within hours of his resounding election victory on Tuesday in the Indian capital.

The 51-year old copiously thanked “Hanumanji” for his third term in office – which has given him special status among many who see him as keeping Delhi out of the grasp of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In more ways than one, Kejriwal’s gesture towards Hanuman is emblematic of the victory of his young political outfit Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, or the Common Man’s Party) against Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Just days ahead of the polling, a journalist dared Kejriwal to recite the Hanuman Chalisa, a set of hymns praising the deity, to prove his Hindu bona fides. His successful rendition of the hymns, which are vastly popular across India’s Hindi-speaking heartland, went viral on social media and was shown on television channels around the country.

Kejriwal, who won the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay award for his anti-corruption work before entering politics, has proved a dab hand with this sort of pragmatic, soft approach to Hindutva – the predominant form of Hindu nationalist ideology in India.

Not only has this kept him apart from the BJP’s muscular take on Hindutva, it has allowed him to carve a political niche for himself without directly confronting Modi on controversial policies such as the prime minister’s implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act or the removal of Kashmir’s special status.

Against this backdrop, the AAP swept the Delhi polls, clinching 62 of the 70 assembly seats. The BJP won the remaining eight, with the Congress drawing a blank.

While both the AAP and BJP have benefited from the intense anti-corruption fervour that gripped India in the past decade, thanks to a string of large-scale graft allegations which troubled the then-ruling Congress before it was deposed by Modi’s BJP in 2014, the latest success of Kejriwal’s party is no mean feat.

The fledgling party, founded seven years ago, fought against the BJP’s battle-hardened election machinery – which included the full might of Home Minister Amit Shah, a close Modi aide and a masterful political strategist; a vitriolic political campaign; rallies that saw 275 BJP parliamentarians go door to door in a bid to drum up votes; and BJP’s war chest, which is said to be substantially larger than that of the AAP’s.

The AAP’s new five-year mandate was won on the back of its impressive governance record and an array of socialist welfare measures such as free water and power, education reforms and better health services.

For instance, the Kejriwal administration added more than 20,000 new classrooms to over 200 Delhi government schools in its first full term – compared with 17,000 classrooms built by all the previous administrations combined over several decades.

Despite its people-friendly and pro-poor services, the Delhi government retains a budget surplus. Last October, the AAP announced free travel for all women on state-run buses – which analysts say is partly why women, a significant vote bank, sided with the AAP in large numbers.

Even Kejriwal’s opponents agree that his policies resonated with Delhi’s 30 million people. BJP national spokesman Bizay Shastri told This Week in Asi a that the AAP’s “freebies” proved to be effective against his party’s promises.

“Free electricity and free water supply were definitely having a good impact,” Shastri said. “But we’ve increased our total vote share from 32 per cent to 41 per cent in five years. The Congress has colluded with the AAP this time to strategically pocket anti-BJP votes.”

The Delhi election took place amid deadly anti-government protests in multiple Indian states over the CAA, which critics say discriminates against Muslims. But it remains to be seen whether the AAP’s latest electoral triumph is the start of a credible political movement against Modi, or if the techniques adopted by Kejriwal are scalable enough to defeat the BJP on the federal front, particularly as the AAP’s aspirations beyond Delhi’s borders have thus far borne no fruit.

“Kejriwal maintained a fine balance between being empathetic to the Hindu voter and being sympathetic to minorities. Yet he ensured that the AAP was not being seen as overtly pro-Muslim,” said Uday Bhaskar, director of the Delhi-based think tank Society for Policy Studies.

 “Each [Indian] state has its own political dynamic and the AAP-Delhi template could be refined to blunt the BJP electoral offensive – which essentially comprises the Modi charisma and the ideology of Hindutva and its divisive anti-Muslim orientation.”

Others concur but caution that there is a long way to go before the BJP’s adversaries can exploit Modi’s vulnerabilities, unless a coherent plan of action is put in place.

“[Scaling up or replicating the AAP’s model] will be very difficult simply because the genealogy of the AAP has that code written in its very evolution. Other parties, whose trajectories of evolution are very different, will find it difficult for their political economies to accommodate this style,” said Madhavan Raghavendran, a professor of sociology at the SASTRA University who is familiar with Delhi’s political currents.

“We have to remember that some of the larger states will find it unviable to pursue this style. Organisational structures, power distribution within the party, and individual states’ distinctive economies will make it even more difficult,” he added.

“The BJP certainly has been made to blush at the defeat, but I reckon it is nothing more than that. Unless a coherent economic policy distinctive from that of the BJP is projected, it looks difficult to dislodge the BJP from the central position of India’s political matrix.”