On May 16, India installed Narendra Modi on Delhi’s throne. Eight months later, “little Delhi”, often referred to as half a state, a melting pot, more cosmopolitan in character than any other part of the country, has given a runaway victory to a two-year-old party and its leader Arvind Kejriwal. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on Tuesday won 67 out of 70 assembly seats, virtually eliminating the resurgent BJP from the Delhi scene, with its implications for the march of the Modi juggernaut which has been on a winning spree since May 2014.
The enormity of the rout raises serious questions that cannot be wished away. How did the BJP get it so wrong? Only eight months ago, it had won all seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi, winning in 60 assembly segments. Normally parties do not slump so dramatically in less than a year, and that too a party led by someone like Narendra Modi who won a historic mandate in 2014. Even in December 2013, the Harsh Vardhan-led BJP was ahead of AAP by four seats. The BJP has lost despite being a well oiled, cadre-based, RSS’ karyakarta-driven party, backed in Delhi by the might of the central government: The prime minister, 22 Union ministers and 120 MPs campaigned in this election. Then there was Amit Shah’s legendary micro-planning right down to the booth panna pramukh levels. But all this came to naught.
If there is one theme that runs through the litany of mistakes that the BJP made in the Delhi elections, it is this: The party got everything wrong while its opponent Arvind Kejriwal got everything right and its arrogance of power — or “over confidence” — came through its statements and actions, and it is this that the voters did not like.
This was reflected in the decision to parachute Kiran Bedi into the party 19 days before polling day and project her as its chief ministerial candidate, expecting the party cadre and established leaders to support this decision. Bedi’s defeat in the BJP stronghold of Krishna Nagar, despite the support given to her by five-time winner Harsh Vardhan, was proof of the distaste with which the voter viewed the Bedi imposition on them by the BJP’s top leadership.
The BJP’s arrogance was also reflected in the “negative” campaign the party ran, calling Kejriwal names, as also in the executive decisions like resorting to the ordinance route for several important Bills, with the land ordinance angering farmers in the rural Delhi seats that Kejriwal targeted.
The more the BJP attacked Kejriwal, the more it created sympathy for a mellower, savvier chief of AAP who did not resort to attacking Modi or Bedi. As it is, the under classes were with him and the Hindutva agenda articulated by the BJP’s extreme elements — ghar wapsi, love jihad — had created a reaction among the minorities, and they turned to AAP — not the Congress — as the alternative to the BJP.
Kejriwal’s apology for exiting as chief minister after 49 days softened the people, including the middle-class he had alienated. The landslide of the kind that Delhi has witnessed would not have been possible without an emotional connect being made by Kejriwal with the people of Delhi, cutting across castes and communities. They began to say, “Let us give him another chance. We have tried both the Congress and the BJP.”
The Delhi verdict has made Modi look less invincible and dented the aura he had managed to create that he may well remain in the saddle for the next 10 years. It may chasten electoral wizard Amit Shah who is credited with winning all the elections he has conducted. There may now be more voices in the party and in the RSS for wider consultations to be built into the party’s decision-making processes.
It will be tempting for the BJP to look for scapegoats such as Bedi. There may be those in the Sangh parivar who may urge the party brass to play what they consider the “tried-and-tested” card of polarising communities to win elections, in Bihar and other state polls coming up in 2016 and 2017.
To say that the Delhi verdict is a referendum on the eight-month rule of Modi may be an over-reading the of situation. But it would equally be a mistake to hold local factors responsible for what went wrong. The verdict is a commentary against the centralised style of functioning of the BJP at the Centre that led to mistakes after mistake being committed. People during the campaign spoke about the need “to rein in the BJP”.
In what is clearly a warning, the people of Delhi have sent a ‘don’t-take-us-for-granted’ signal to the BJP. This is something that Kejriwal would also do well not to forget, particularly with the opposition wiped out in the Delhi assembly.
The AAP victory is a manifestation of a growing political consciousness, particularly in the middle class: The Anna movement against corruption created the ground for it and there is a growing impatience for delivery on the ground. Long honeymoon periods may become a thing of the past. So may the traditional ways of doing politics. There is a rapidity with which changes are coming about. In the past, it took politicians decades to rise through the ranks (unless you belonged to a political family). Four years ago, few would have heard of Kejriwal’s name; today he is a household name — and an icon for many — all over India. The Delhi victory will impart new impulses and energies to AAP’s mobilisation all over the country. Kejriwal, who knows he has to first prove himself in Delhi to acquire credibility elsewhere in the country may now set his eyes on winning Punjab next, which goes to the polls in 2017.
In the short run, AAP’s victory will embolden the BJP’s allies (like the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal) and opponents alike. It is bound to give new heart to forces opposed to the BJP in the states and to their moves for unity, like in Bihar. While the BJP’s voteshare of 2013 dropped by 1%, an important reason for the AAP’s runaway success is the “rest” gravitating to it as the alternative. That also is the message of the Delhi verdict.
Neerja Chowdhury is a senior journalist and political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal