From Social Movements to Electoral Politics: The Rise of the Populist Party in India

  On December 8, 2022, the results of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly (state-level parliament) election in India were announced, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was re-elected with a huge advantage. It is worth noting that the AAP Party (AAP), which participated in the state election for the second time, successfully won five seats with nearly 13% of the votes, achieving a breakthrough in the state, which is considered to be Modi’s “political stronghold”.
  The Populist Party is a new political party that was established in 2012. In the past ten years, it has defeated the Indian Party overwhelmingly in the National Capital Territory of Delhi and Punjab to gain the ruling position, and won multiple seats in the Legislative Council of Goa and Gujarat. . According to the party classification criteria of the Election Commission of India, the Populist Party has become a national political party with the same status as the Indian Party and the Indian National Congress Party (National Congress Party). In India, where Modi is currently in power and the BJP is “one-party dominant”, there are few political parties that resist the BJP’s election machine like the Populist Party.
From anti-corruption social movement to local ruling party

  The origin of the Populist Party can be traced back to the anti-corruption campaign that took place in the capital New Delhi in 2011. In April of that year, Indian social activist Anna Hazare launched a massive hunger strike in the center of New Delhi, demanding that the government revise the “Draft Citizen Supervision Law” based on social opinions. Although the anti-corruption campaign that lasted for several months has gained broad social support in major cities in India, the “Draft Citizens’ Supervision Law” finally fell through. Arvind Kejriwal, who is also the initiator of this movement, believes after reflection that only by forming a political party to win the ruling position can the existing political environment be fundamentally improved. Thus, in November 2012, the People’s Party was formally established.
  In 2013, the Populist Party participated in the Delhi Legislative Council election for the first time, and became the second largest party in the Legislative Council after the BJP. As the BJP refused to form a government for the National Capital Territory, the Populist Party formed a minority government with the external support of the Congress Party. Kejriwal became the chief minister of the jurisdiction, but after only 49 days in power, he resigned voluntarily because he could not push the anti-corruption bill, forcing the Delhi Legislative Assembly to hold another election in February 2015. The BJP, which had won the 2014 national election, has made full preparations for this election, and Modi even personally promoted the election platform. Surprisingly, the Populist Party defeated the BJP in a landslide, winning 67 of 70 seats. Kejriwal served as chief minister for the second time and successfully completed his five-year term. In 2020, the Populist Party once again defeated the Bharatiya Party by a huge margin in the Delhi Legislative Council election and has continued to be in power.
  At the same time, the Populist Party is also actively expanding party organizations in various states in India, and is developing towards becoming a national political party. In 2017, the Populist Party won 20 of the 117 seats in the Punjab Legislative Council election, its first breakthrough in a local election outside Delhi. In February 2022, the Populist Party won 92 seats in the state election, making the party the only political party in the current Indian political arena that has won more than half of the seats in multiple state-level administrative units besides the Indian Party and the Congress Party.
The Evolution of Indian Populism

  Compared with the traditional Indian populism – local populist parties that rely on ethnic groups and geographical mobilization, and the BJP that relies on Modi’s personal appeal and anti-elite narrative, the Populist Party is closer to the same time in terms of ruling philosophy and narrative. Populist parties in southern Europe such as Spain’s “We Can” and Italy’s “Five-Star Movement” emerged in the early days. These political parties were all born out of the large-scale social movements that emerged after the stagnation of economic development. They all used issues such as anti-corruption, education, employment, and medical security as the entry point for political mobilization, and used issues of social justice to break down traditional barriers between regions, ethnic groups, and classes. This is to unite the “general public” who are exploited by the “corrupt elite”.
  Like other emerging populist parties, the Populist party’s name and its distinctive broomstick logo send a clear anti-elite signal. But in fact, the core members of the populist party at the beginning of its establishment were mainly intellectual elites, and the experience accumulated by these members in social movements was no less than that of experienced traditional politicians. Kejriwal graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), a well-known institution in the country, and worked in the Indian tax department for many years. He had become a well-known social activist before joining the anti-corruption movement. Other founding members include Yogendra Yadav, a well-known Indian political scientist, and Shanti Bhushan, a former Minister of Justice.
  Thanks to the extensive participation of senior social activists, the People’s Party was able to introduce an attractive and operable policy agenda in the elections in the early days of its establishment, completing the transformation from a social force to a local ruling party. Under the Populist Party, education spending topped the Delhi government budget for five consecutive years. Kejriwal also vigorously promoted the “Mohala” community clinic system to alleviate the problem of medical run-out by providing basic free medical care to the grassroots. Although the implementation and sustainability of the above-mentioned measures have been strongly questioned by the BJP, the “Delhi Model” of the Populist Party, which focuses on public services such as education, medical care, water and electricity supply, is of great significance to voters in India where privatization is rampant. Great attraction.
  However, in the process of deepening party politics, the populist party has gradually revealed the common faults of populist parties in India. The party’s political philosophy of bottom-up participatory governance is incompatible with the expansion of Kejriwal’s personal power, which forced a group of founding members with social influence to quit the party. In pursuit of votes, the Populist Party has become more and more speculative in ideology. It even echoes the Hindu nationalist ideology of the BJP and recruits members with sectarian tendencies into the party, diluting the cohesion within the party.
BJP’s longtime rival?

  At the local political level, the success of the Populist Party has certain peculiarities. Since there is no very clear caste and ethnic group voting base in the capital area, the populist party can use the issues of anti-corruption and social welfare to leverage the original political structure without touching sensitive issues such as sects and castes. In addition, the citizens of the capital pay far more attention to social movements than other big cities, which will help the Populist Party maximize the social attention accumulated in the early stage into election dividends. In Punjab, the biggest competitor of the Populist Party is the Congress Party rather than the BJP, which has basically lost its influence in the state due to the Modi government’s forced agricultural reform bill in 2020. In contrast, the expansion of the BJP in Gujarat, Goa and other areas where the BJP has a strong foundation is much slower, and it is difficult to pose a major challenge to the BJP for the time being.
  At the national political level, if the Populist Party wants to become the leader of the third force besides the BJP and the Congress Party in the 2024 general election, as the Indian media expects, it still needs to significantly increase its number of seats in the Lok Sabha. The Populist Party does not yet have the ability to propose alternatives to the BJP in economics, security, foreign affairs and other national affairs. Especially in the context of Modi’s habit of manipulating the political narrative of the general election with security issues, the Populist Party can only echo Modi in foreign and security affairs, and condone Hindu nationalist ideology on issues involving sectarian conflicts. In addition, it remains to be seen for a long time whether the party can use anti-corruption and people’s livelihood issues to leverage the existing political structure in vast areas of India where conflicts between caste and ethnic groups prevail.
  But despite this, the Populist Party is still one of the most threatening competitors of the BJP. As an emerging political party that originated from a social movement, the Populist Party has the ability to manipulate discourse that rivals the BJP. The participation of a large number of senior media professionals has enabled the Populist Party to gain a voice on social media that far exceeds its actual political influence. Kejriwal is the most popular chief minister of Indian local states on Twitter, and has been selected as the most popular prime minister candidate in addition to the BJP and Congress party in polls many times. In addition, the concept of bottom-up participatory governance of the Populist Party facilitates its absorption of social movement forces across India, and then transforms it into social networks and organizations of the party in various parts of India, which is not inferior to the “matrix organization” of the BJP in terms of organizational efficiency National Volunteer Service Corps (RSS). As an emerging political party with strong plasticity and still in a period of rapid rise, the Populist Party is enough to become a long-term opponent worthy of the BJP’s serious response.