As a clearer picture of the next Delhi assembly starts emerging by Tuesday afternoon, an ineluctable question that is set to dominate prime time debates will be: “Was it a referendum on Narendra Modi?”
Results will, of course, determine the answers from different quarters. On the eve of the results though, the truth seems to lie somewhere in-between.
Although the BJP projected Kiran Bedi as its chief ministerial candidate, the party 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.
And yet, calling it a referendum on Modi could be fallacious, notwithstanding the nature of the verdict. While Modi could be a catalytic agent, to use the cliché, local factors determine local elections. Could Bedi match the personality cult of Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi? Could her personality, even though endorsed by Modi, make up for the disunity in Delhi BJP? No wonder, the BJP sought to make it a Modi versus Kejriwal contest but AAP strategists swung into action to change the narrative.
The results would also show the failure or success of the BJP’s negative campaign strategy, which came out so starkly in an advertisement featuring Kejriwal purportedly making false promises to his children. AAP, on the other hand, ran a positive campaign centred around day-to-day concerns of Delhiites and without questioning Modi’s performance as PM.
Many AAP loyalists had voted for Modi in the Lok Sabha elections; a sizeable chunk of them were reported to have switched their loyalty back to the AAP in this election. Many among those who had voted for the Congress in the last Assembly elections, especially the Muslims, have reportedly done "tactical voting" this time and voted for the AAP. There were a host of other factors that determined the course of this election and results.
But if some analysts today seem keen to judge "Modi wave" by Delhi election results, it’s only the BJP that has to be blamed. The party was quick to attribute its superlative performance in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand elections to this wave, conveniently ignoring the massive anti-incumbency and other local factors like the disarray in ruling parties and coalitions in these states.
Regardless of its performance in Delhi, the BJP may need to curb its penchant for riding the so-called Modi wave ad infinitum. Modi remains a towering personality in today’s 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 states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan has paid it rich dividends in the long run. The BJP can ill-afford to abandon this approach and go for quick-fix strategies that may not always do justice to Modi’s popular appeal.