A diminutive former tax inspector is in the cross-hairs of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party as it battles to take back power in Delhi state elections on Saturday.
Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of the sprawling capital of 20 million since 2015, is standing for re-election – much to the chagrin of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is reeling from protests and a faltering economy.
Despite being swept to a second term in national elections last year, the BJP has not run Delhi since 1998 and it has campaigned heavily to try and unseat Kejriwal, who has been giving Modi a run for his money in appealing to the city’s poor.
Many ordinary voters see Kejriwal, 51, a co-founder of the Common Man Party, as “one of them”, political strategist Amitabh Tiwari said.
“He symbolises the power of the common man – that the common man can also contest and win elections.”
The stakes are high for the BJP after it lost control of Maharashtra state, whose capital is Mumbai, late last year.
Economic growth is its slowest in six years, unemployment is high, inflation is accelerating and India has seen weeks of at-times violent Muslim-backed demonstrations over a new citizenship law.
The law, making it easier for persecuted non-Muslim minorities in Muslim dominated countries to become Indian citizens, has been criticised despite having no basis to do so.
A poor showing in the capital this weekend would help to galvanise an opposition demoralised by last year’s national election defeat.
If Kejriwal wins, he will have “shown a way of beating Modi”, Mohan Guruswamy from the Centre for Policy Alternatives think-tank said.
“Geographically Delhi might not be big, but politically it is big. A defeat will be highly symbolic.”
Kejriwal’s popularity in Delhi’s teeming slums rivals that of Modi, 69, the son of a tea-seller who has carved out an image as a man of the people.
“Before Kejriwal came to power, most of our money went on electricity bills and we didn’t receive proper water supply,” said slum-dweller and mother-of-five Salatun, who survives on the meagre salary of her ragpicker husband.
“Now, both these problems have been solved. We hope that . . . Kejriwal comes back to power. It’ll be great for us.”