Delhi polls 2020: AAP cements capital clout
In a way, the conversation sums up the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Kejriwal’s strategy for the elections — keep the focus sharply local, don’t get distracted, and maintain your own narrative instead of getting trapped in a narrative set by anyone else.Updated: Feb 12, 2020 05:34 IST
There is a revealing television interview of Arvind Kejriwal ahead of the Delhi elections. The anchor, towards the end of the conversation, asks him to comment on national politics — and he says that he is committed to Delhi’s development. The anchors tries again — and Kejriwal repeats himself, with a smile. The crowd laughs and applauds.
In a way, the conversation sums up the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Kejriwal’s strategy for the elections — keep the focus sharply local, don’t get distracted, and maintain your own narrative instead of getting trapped in a narrative set by anyone else.
It worked. The AAP won 62 seats, with 53.6% vote share, not far from the share it won in 2015 (and just four seats less). For context, just rewind to the Lok Sabha elections. The AAP won only 18% of the votes polled, coming third in five of the seven parliamentary constituencies. It has, therefore, seen a 35 percentage point jump within nine months. This is a remarkable political achievement by any standard.
When it first emerged on the political stage, winning 28 seats in the 2013 election, most political veterans of other parties were dismissive of AAP’s prospects — they saw it as a one-election wonder. Kejriwal proved them wrong, by winning 67 seats in the 2015 assembly elections. Political circles began taking him more seriously, but thought that the setback in Punjab in 2017 and the subsequent loss in municipal elections in Delhi marked the beginning of the end of the Kejriwal story. And then, the 2019 rout happened, reinforcing this hypothesis.
The big picture that emerges for AAP from Tuesday’s outcome is that it is now a stable, integral part of Indian political life. Just think about what would have happened if the party had lost. It would have struggled to survive; its organisation would have slowly melted away; and its leaders may have begun defecting. It would have had no power — and no way to return to power — for five more years, a period which would have been used by political rivals, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to further weaken it. The danger has passed for AAP. Less than a decade-old, it is here to stay.
Commenting on the significance of the verdict, Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “There are relatively few major regional parties who have taken the fight directly to the BJP and triumphed. The AAP has done so twice and with spectacular, historic results. Although it’s constrained by Delhi’s size, the AAP now has an enhanced ability to shape the opposition’s voice — a role that the Congress is quickly ceding.”
But how did it achieve this?
The first was a simple lesson absorbed from the BJP’s own campaigns built around Narendra Modi. Keeping the focus on local leadership, it asked a simple question to voters — we have Kejriwal, who does the BJP have? The BJP’s response revolved around how it had Modi. But AAP had a counter: Modi will not be Delhi’s CM, will he? And to this, BJP, struggling with a weak Delhi unit, had no answer.
If focusing on Kejriwal was one part of the story, the other was showcasing him as a leader who had delivered on local concerns. And this is where the AAP’s relentless narrative — through government advertisements, public interactions, radio messages, hoardings, corner meetings, endorsements by civil society activists and international agencies — about its work in education and health helped. This focus on government services was coupled with concessions to different demographic segments through subsidies on electricity and water or free public transport for women.
There was thus a leader, and there was a message — now came the hard part of sticking to the narrative.
The BJP attempted to change the script with its focus on the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act Shaheen Bagh protests. In line with his decision not to confront Narendra Modi directly, and even support the BJP government’s decisions which were widely seen as nationalist, Kejriwal first tried to stay away from commenting on the issue. But when it became a central plank, he made a simple point — wasn’t the responsibility of clearing protesters that of Delhi Police? And didn’t Delhi Police report to the Union home minister? How was it that such a powerful home minister was unable to clear protestors, he asked in an interview. In addition, to reinforce his own commitment to majority interests, Kejriwal asserted his own Hindu identity, by highlighting his devotion to Hanuman — a point he invoked in his victory speech on Tuesday.
Reacting to the assembly election results, BJP leader Prakash Javadekar said: “The BJP will keep providing a voice for the problems of the people as a creative opposition and keep doing its work.”
The formula of welfarism — coupled with a degree of conservative nationalism — worked well. Kejriwal and other AAP leaders ended the victory speech with slogans of Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Vande Mataram.
But where does AAP go from here?
It will confront the same challenge that it did last time. In the unique power sharing arrangement that makes up Delhi’s complex governance maze, there are a range of issues beyond AAP’s control — law and order and land being the most significant. Expect a continuous tussle with the Centre on these issues, even though Kejriwal, in an interview, suggested that the second term may be more harmonious.
The second is delivery. In the same interview, Kejriwal spoke of how tackling pollution, ensuring cleanliness and clean water would be his top priorities. These are all difficult challenges and none more than pollution, which has now become a serious public health crisis in the city. Given that Kejriwal has in the past put the blame on stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab, and other factors beyond his control, it will be interesting to see how he grapples with the challenge.
The third issue is political. Is Kejriwal going to remain focused on Delhi, or will he turn more sub-regional or national? AAP’s past two efforts in going national, when it contested Lok Sabha seats in 2014 or fought elections seriously in Punjab, failed. But with a renewed mandate, and a governance model that he takes pride in, Kejriwal may once again be tempted to play a larger role — especially at a time when there is a vacuum in the larger opposition space. But a more realistic possibility is of his deepened collaboration with a range of regional forces, from Trinamool Congress and Samajwadi Party, which supported him during the polls, to the Nationalist Congress Party and southern forces.
Vaishnav said: “The AAP has the potential to be a major part of an Opposition coalition but its politics don’t align neatly with other fronts. Its focus has been on public goods rather than straight patronage. Kejriwal has not directly confronted majoritarian nationalism, circumventing major battles of the day. And Kejriwal has also shown himself uneasy with alternative power centres.”
For now, Arvind Kejriwal has reinforced his reputation as a unique actor in Indian politics — who came out of civil society activism, who had a professional background, who introduced a new vocabulary of agitational politics but then successfully transformed into a man associated with governance, who turned around his party in quick time from setbacks, and who has beaten India’s most formidable election machine in the national capital. AAP has reason to smile.
Speaking about the AAP’s performance on Tuesday evening, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said: “Today, the people of Delhi have given birth to a new type of politics: the politics of work.”