This is an election that will be remembered for long. It is difficult to forget a campaign where a leader of the ruling party and a sitting chief minister threatens to use guns to kill the adversary. It is difficult to forget how many times communalism was evoked to attract voters and rake up deep seated prejudices. It is difficult to forget how hate speeches was the new normal. It is also difficult to forget how one of the youngest political parties of India spent five years working on an agenda to improve education, health services and create a new style of urban governance. It is difficult to forget how the Aam Aadmi Party routed the most powerful political party in India that had swept the parliamentary elections only a few months ago.
Anti-incumbency is a factor every ruling party dreads before election results are declared. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had no such fear as he knew that his government’s initiatives that heavily invested in education, health, drinking water, electricity, transport facilities for women and so on, would pay dividends.
It did. AAP won 62 of the 70 seats in the Delhi assembly elections allowing BJP to only win the remaining eight. There has been no similar example in independent India of a party that has won two consecutive elections with such landslide victories.
Home Minister Amit Shah had claimed that the BJP would win 45 seats and form the government. The only consolation that the party can now have is that they bettered their tally from three seats to eight.
Political analyst Yogendra Yadav, who is now the national president of Swaraj India, said that AAP had won because it diligently focused on welfare schemes and then used it for electoral gains. “This election result will change the way politics is done in India,” he said.
This was an election that sent out a profound message: Dividing society by using hatred as a tool may have worked once, but it is not going to be the leitmotif for India. The BJP campaign dripped of hate messages and threats. This will go down as one of the filthiest election campaigns ever seen. This is a fact that no one will ever contest. What does it say of a new political culture in India?
Voters were told that if they did not vote the BJP, those who were protesting on the streets braving the bitter winter at Shaheen Bagh would enter their houses and rape their women.
Leaders like Yogi Adityanath threatened that bullets would fly. Others also joined him mouthing the same threat as if that is the way elections are now going to be fought. As if on cue, two gun wielding men carried out the threat firing randomly at those sitting on protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. A day after the election result, Naresh Yadav, an AAP MLA who had won was shot at. He escaped but a worker next to him was killed.
Despite all this, the AAP recorded its highest victory in Okhla constituency that includes both Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh. Its candidate, Amanatullah Khan, won by a whopping margin. He polled 1,30,367 votes while Braham Singh, his BJP rival polled 58,540 votes.
When the BJP saw the carpet from under its feet slipping away and the AAP gaining a strong foothold among the Delhi electorate, it communalized the campaign pitching Hindus versus Muslims. The ploy was to polarise the electorate and sway the majority population in their favour.
The BJP used all it had to win. It held over 7,000 nukkad sabhas. Modi was pulled in to campaign though it was an election for a city-state that had just 70 seats. Home Minister Amit Shah took part in 53 meetings and road shows and even went from house to house in certain areas. BJP president J P Nadda took part in 54 meetings and road shows. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath addressed 12 rallies with his signature toxic style. BJP’s Delhi president Manoj Tiwari held 40 meetings. The BJP did not name him as a chief ministerial candidate but hoped that he would sway voters in 25 constituencies that had Purvanchalis. He did not.
Was it really that difficult to see which way the wind was blowing?
Anyone with even basic political sense would have seen that the five years of AAP rule resulted in better schools, better hospitals, and better health services in pockets where the poor lived, cheaper medicine and transparent governance. This is what people want, not slogans of divisiveness among the two major communities.
Voters also did not lose sight of the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi ensured that his government did not allow the erstwhile AAP government to function and carry out tasks or policies they wanted as they were tied up with all kinds of hurdles. In fact, for the first time, we saw how a chief minister and his deputy chief minister had to protest in an unconventional way outside the office of the lieutenant governor of Delhi who ostensibly on the orders of the BJP high command was throwing all kinds of hurdles to stop the AAP government from functioning the way they wanted.
According to the CVoter exit poll, 22.4 percent of voters opted for AAP as they were enamored with the leadership of Kejriwal while 24 percent of the BJP voters were impressed with the leadership of Modi. So, it is not just local issues. Leadership matters. A study of the CVoter polls indicates that the BJP was able to woo the upper castes while AAP swept the backward castes, Muslims and Punjabis. It said that AAP got nearly 75 percent of the Muslim vote. Muslims constitute 13 percent of the Delhi population.
For voters, the party of a candidate matters. Alka Lamba who won the 2015 Delhi elections by over 18,000 votes as an AAP candidate, switched over to the Congress last year. This time, as a Congress candidate, she polled just 1,234 votes. Nothing could underline the decimation of the Congress in Delhi other than the fact that over 60 of its 70 candidates lost their deposits. How times change! Before the spectacular win of AAP in 2015 when it won 67 out of the 70 seats, the Congress had reigned supreme in Delhi for 15 years.
BJP tried to instigate Kejriwal into backing the Shaheen Bagh protests so that it could reinforce the Hindu-Muslim narrative and polarise, but he was too smart and did not fall into that trap. He kept away signaling that Shaheen Bagh and the protests outside Jamia was not of his making but had been triggered off by the unwarranted police action on Jamia students and the lack of dialogue on the Citizenship Amendment Act which the Modi government just wanted to push through.
The last five years of AAP has not been easy. The BJP thought that if they made him look powerless and helpless, the electorate would pump for the BJP hoping that it would then get all the cooperation of the central government. But an educated electorate can read between the lines.
The BJP may now say that Delhi is hardly an indicator of national politics or the mood of the nation. Delhi is not even a full-fledged state and Kejriwal has been constantly underlining that he cannot do what he wants unless it becomes one and vests complete responsibility on the elected government. No government wants to do that. It wants to control Delhi as it is a prestigious seat of power and symbolically, it is important to be in power there as the world watches the way the capital is talking.
What is important in this election is to see how a party with meagre resources and little support from the media managed to trump a national party that has the resources no party in India has. AAP even found it difficult to get donations this time as its erstwhile donors were harassed with Income Tax notices. As it wanted to be transparent, AAP put the names of its donors on its website. The donors asked for their names to be removed when they were slapped with tax notices.
LESSONS FOR THE BJP
Lesson One for the BJP:
Just having muscle power cannot win an election. It needs to have a local narrative that is strong enough. In this election, the BJP harped on the anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh. It talked of Pakistan as a threat. It called Arvind Kejriwal a terrorist. Also, that he was a supporter of Muslims who were anti-national. None of these rubbed off on the voters. The BJP hoped this would change the voting pattern. In fact, AAP held on to its vote share. In 2015, its vote share was 54.3 percent. In 2020, it was around 53.5 percent. BJP failed as it concentrated just on its Hindutva narrative with toxic statements whipping up hatred. In fact, the BJP completely exposed itself by its hate-laced campaign showing that it had nothing to showcase in terms of policy or vision.
Slogans are not working anymore. There has to be work on the ground to show. Kejriwal had schools, hospitals, electricity, water, close circuit TV, free bus rides for women and other welfare schemes to show. The BJP on the other hand had a very aggressive high voltage campaign which was really dirty. Voters could make an easy choice.
Just two leaders at the top cannot be designing electoral campaigns. They need to encourage local leaders and empower them. BJP did not even have a face to showcase as who would be the chief minister. It helps to be humble and transparent.
Kejriwal has a lot of work lined up. If he has to keep up his promises, he has to provide piped drinking water, round the clock water supply, clean the Yamuna river, reduce pollution levels, appoint marshals and install more CCTVs to ensure the safety of women. It is a credible governance agenda and can work. It will also set a new parameter for urban governance that can be replicated.
But, all this will require the help of the central government. This will be the most difficult thing to do as the centre will again try and stop him from doing what he wants as it will further strengthen AAPs credibility.
A lot now depends on how Kejriwal is going to play out his second innings. He has mellowed a lot and has learnt that being an activist is different from being a politician. A lot of good leaders like Yogendra Yadav, Ashutosh and Kumar Vishwas who could have contributed to building AAP left due to differences with Kejriwal. No attempt was made to woo them back.
Will he rope in Atishi Marlena who has done a lot of good work in designing the way schools work in Delhi? She is a mind that can work more wonders for students in Delhi. Raghav Chadha is another person he can draw in as he has a lot of energy, credibility and is also a good communicator. But, will he or just stick to the old team?
Will Kejriwal create a new narrative in Indian politics? Can the AAP trigger off transformative politics in India which is badly needed? It all depends on the strategy he adopts. He has a great opportunity to signal the way governance is executed and how elections are won.(Published on 17th February 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 08)