Delhi referendum on PM Narendra Modi? Yes, no and maybe

  • DK Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Feb 10, 2015 18:44 IST

The Aam Admi Party’s landslide victory in Delhi on Tuesday fired up the ineluctable question floating around this election: Is it a referendum on Narendra Modi’s rule?

The answers varied depending on which side of the political divide they came from. Former Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar interpreted the Delhi poll results as a referendum on the Prime Minister as Delhi is the “heart of the country” and it “reflects the mood of the country”.

The BJP’s balloon has burst, said West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

The BJP refused to blame any single individual attributing it to “collective failure of the party”.

Opposition parties would obviously like to believe that Delhi has finally halted the Modi juggernaut. But the truth seems to lie somewhere in between, though.

The BJP projected Kiran Bedi as its chief-ministerial candidate, though it certainly wove its campaign narrative around Modi. It was evident from the domineering presence of the Prime Minister on the BJP’s posters and advertisements and even in senior leaders’ election speeches. When the party exhorted voters to choose between “anarchy” and “governance” or development, it was certainly not projecting Bedi’s track record as an IPS officer.

Yet, calling it a referendum on Modi could be fallacious, notwithstanding the BJP’s disastrous show. While Modi could be a catalytic agent, to use the cliché, local factors determine local elections. Could a political greenhorn like Bedi match the charismatic personality of Arvind Kejriwal? As several chief-ministerial aspirants ranged against her, even the deployment of party heavyweights by BJP chief Amit Shah to douse the fire in the state unit failed to mobilise the rank and file.

To the voters too, the two parties presented a contrasting picture: the AAP presenting a picture of unity and purpose and the BJP struggling to keep its house together.

The BJP ran a negative campaign — which came out so starkly in an advertisement featuring Kejriwal purportedly making false promises to his children — while the AAP’s canvass was positive and centred around Delhiites’ day-to-day concerns such as cheap electricity and water.

The BJP seemed confused as it sought to hedge its stand on statehood for Delhi. The party sought to make it a Modi versus Kejriwal contest and constantly targeted the latter. The AAP, on the other hand, kept its focus on local issues, refraining from attacking the Prime Minister.

As the results showed, there was a consolidation of anti-BJP votes giving a huge lead to the AAP.

News channel ticker scrolls, tweeters and Facebook friends couldn’t help question a premature waning of the hitherto-invincible “Modi wave”, drawing the Delhi verdict as the parameter. Whatever the cause, the blame obviously rests on the BJP.

The party was quick to attribute its superlative performance in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand to this wave, conveniently brushing aside the massive anti-incumbency and other local factors such as the disarray in ruling parties and coalitions in these states.

Delhi should serve as a lesson to the BJP, which may need to curb its penchant for riding the Modi wave ad infinitum.

Modi remains a towering personality in the contemporary political landscape but the party cannot expect the people to vote for the Prime Minister when they want a chief minister. The party’s decision to promote regional leaders in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan has paid rich dividends in the long run.

The BJP can ill-afford to abandon this approach and ride piggyback on Modi all the time.

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