What Delhi’s Local Polls Tell Us About India’s Upcoming Elections

A record turnout in the capital indicates that Indians are anxious for change

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Voters queue inside a polling station to cast their votes during the state assembly election in New Delhi on Dec. 4, 2013

Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Record numbers of New Delhi voters took part in state assembly elections on Dec. 4, challenging the Indian capital’s reputation for political apathy and fueling intrigue over the fate of the major parties in national polls next spring. Delhi-ites crowded well-guarded polling stations from Wednesday morning until late last night, when long lines of voters took advantage of extended polling hours to get their fingers inked.

The record turnout of over 66% comes after a tumultuous year in the nation’s capital, kicked off by mass protests over the death of the young woman who was gang-raped last December. The ensuing uproar over women’s safety, ongoing allegations of corruption in the highest levels of government and the struggling national economy have all set the stage for this week’s test fight between the ruling Congress Party, which has been in power in New Delhi for the last 15 years, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

While final results are not yet in, an exit poll by C fore, a marketing research group, indicated the incumbent Congress Party would take some 30% of the capital’s vote, the BJP 32%, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) 25%, and other parties 13%. This was also the first election in which Indian voters could express their dissatisfaction with all the candidates on offer by choosing “none of the above” on voting machines.

Exit polls have been wrong before, but this appears to be a powerful debut for the AAP, a party that entered the political scene last year as an offshoot of a long-running anti-corruption movement in the country. It is also a strong showing for the BJP, which may have outperformed Congress in three other recent local assembly polls — in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. If the BJP does as well as polls indicate, it will give a further boost to the national prospects of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s controversial prime ministerial candidate, who led the campaign ahead of the state polls.

Of course, the Delhi vote cannot presage what will happen in national elections. But it can’t be ignored, either. The AAP was founded on the principle of fighting high-level corruption that has allegedly dogged the administration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while Modi has spent much of his time at the podium attacking the ruling party for squandering India’s resources and potential since coming to power in 2004.

If Delhi’s voters do not re-elect the Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, party leaders will have to start thinking hard about how to play the remaining five to six months on the national stage. This week’s record voter participation, says Jagdeep Chhokar, a founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, is in effect a referendum on the country’s political system. “If [political parties] were doing a better job, people wouldn’t go and vote,” Chhokar says. “There would be no reason to go and change things.”