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Aam Aadmi Party India Election Impact Seen Greater Than Seats Won

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AAP seeks public views on government formation
AAP seeks public views on government formation

Though India’s upstart antigraft party is poised to snag just four seats in the general election, that number belies its outsize impact on the campaign.

The Aam Aadmi Party, just over a year old, campaigned heavily against government corruption and opacity, riding a wave of anti-incumbency sentiment that analysts say cost the left-leaning Indian National Congress Party the election and helped carry Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party closer to power.

The BJP appeared headed for a major victory by midday Friday, having secured more than the 272-seat minimum required to form a government on its own.

“The chief beneficiary of the Aam Aadmi Party’s focus on anticorruption was Modi,” said Pradip Kumar Datta, political science professor at Delhi University.

“Corruption became emblematic of Congress’s far-too-flexible governance, and of a larger set of issues, like unemployment and high food prices, that were seen as Congress’s failings,” he said.

The Aam Aadmi Party is poised to pick up all four of its seats in the affluent, agrarian, northern state of Punjab, where politics is run largely by a Congress party family dynasty whose government decisions appear to have favored family enterprises.

Congress may have suffered electoral losses even without the Aam Aadmi Party, analysts say, as voters have blamed the incumbent government for an underperforming Indian economy. Annual gross domestic product growth has slowed to less than 5%, and last August the rupee slumped to a record low near 69 to the dollar.

The Aam Aadmi Party gave this discontent a viable political outlet, Mr. Datta said. Led by activist Arvind Kejriwal, the party grew out of a populist antigraft movement that pushed for the creation of an independent body to investigate corruption cases. It was launched formally in November 2012.

The BJP benefited from the Aam Aadmi Party’s focus on corruption, an issue that notoriously marred Congress’s decade long tenure, said Congress spokesman Sanjay Jha.

“The anticorruption movement became more of an anti-Congress tirade,” Mr. Jha said. “The BJP seemed happy to exploit this anti-Congress sentiment. It was all politics.”

But when Arvind Kejriwal decided to run in the federal election, he chose to run against the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in India, prominently for Hindus, in the country’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. Leading up to the election, Aam Aadmi Party volunteers held several rallies in Varanasi, stealing some of Mr. Modi’s thunder. Under Indian law, a politician can run for election from up to two constituencies.

By Friday evening, Mr. Modi appeared likely to defeat Mr. Kejriwal by a margin of more than 300,000 votes. “The Aam Aadmi Party lost steam because they focused their efforts on questioning the BJP,” said Nirmala Sitharaman, a national spokeswoman for the BJP.

The Aam Aadmi Party likely took votes from both major national parties, said Aam Aadmi Party spokeswoman Atishi Marlena. But its largest impact was in “changing the discourse of the election,” she said.

Mr. Kejriwal’s party proved that an Indian political party could gain traction without pandering to a specific caste, ideology or religion, said Asha Sarangi, political science professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. It was an attractive message, bringing in thousands of volunteers and wooing several high-profile candidates.

“The Aam Aadmi Party signals a big shift in Indian politics,” Ms. Sarangi said. “They are a new kind of political formation that has gone beyond identity politics, dynasty politics, nationalism. They are a viable third force.”

Once seen as having no political future, the Aam Aadmi Party defied expectations in the 2013 Delhi election, winning 28 of 70 seats in the capital city largely by capitalizing on support from the middle class. The party formed a government with the support of Congress.

As part of the Aam Aadmi Party’s statewide reform, they secured subsidies for water and electricity, and encouraged citizens to report any corruption they observed. But Mr. Kejriwal resigned as chief minister less than two months later when his lawmakers in the state assembly blocked the passage of his signature anticorruption bill.

Although graft became a defining issue of India’s national election, many still cast ballots for candidates thought to be corrupt because they felt these candidates would offer their communities necessary infrastructure like roads or welfare programs.

In the southern state of Karnataka, for instance, voters on Friday elected to parliament BJP politician B.S. Yeddyurappa, who nearly three years ago was forced to step down as chief minister of his state and jailed over a series of corruption allegations.

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