No CM face, limits of polarisation hurt BJP
Armed with all seven seats, with a vote share of over 50%, and Narendra Modi appearing politically invincible, the party was confident that it would wrest the Capital away from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2020.Updated: Feb 12, 2020 02:35 IST
Over the past nine months, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went through three distinct phases in Delhi.
The first phase was in the weeks following the Lok Sabha verdict. Armed with all seven seats, with a vote share of over 50%, and Narendra Modi appearing politically invincible, the party was confident that it would wrest the Capital away from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2020.
The second phase was towards the end of last year. In Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, the party’s vote share dipped significantly from the Lok Sabha elections. Voters were exercising different choices in state and national elections. Suddenly, its prospects in Delhi began looking grim. The party’s local leadership was weak on one hand, and on the other hand, Arvind Kejriwal had already begun campaigning on a development platform.
The third phase began in mid-January. By then, Delhi had emerged as a key site of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA. Shaheen Bagh was witnessing a prolonged sit-in.
Now, Amit Shah took ownership of the campaign. He made it clear that the defining issue of this elections was whether Delhi wanted more Shaheen Baghs — or whether it wanted to get rid of Shaheen Bagh. The protests, he alleged, were backed by the AAP and the Congress, and was a hub of anti-nationals. Shah also instructed every party functionary to project confidence. Anyone who suggested that the party Congould lose was rebuked. The projected confidence suddenly began turning into real confidence.
Tuesday’s outcome has shown that the BJP’s assessment in the second phase, at the end of last year, was far closer to reality. It will be disappointed at the electoral loss, for it made it a prestige battle, deploying its entire party machine. It will also be disappointed because it staked the entire election on an ideological plank. At the same time, the party will have some reason to be relieved — its core vote of 2015 assembly elections has stayed with it, and even expanded.
Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at the Ashoka University, said, “ At the end of the day, a defeat in the polls is a defeat of the electoral strategy. The vote share bump that the BJP obtained could be attributed to a variety of factors, including the increased bipolarisation of the contest due to the absence of a third contender. But given that the BJP campaign was essentially defined by the aggressiveness of its tone and violence of its content, it may be tempted to think that this is the sole factor that led them to improve their score.”
In its defeat, there are three broad takeaways for the BJP.
The first is the importance of the local leadership. On the eve of the results, a senior BJP leader said, candidly, “We did not really have a chance because of the mess that is our Delhi unit. The organisation was defunct, and there was rampant factionalism.”
He added that state unit chief Manoj Tiwari could not match Arvind Kejriwal’s stature — a fact that the national leadership was well aware of, which is why he was not made the CM face; veterans such as Vijay Goel and Harsh Vardhan were nursing their own ambitions.
Indeed, the party has been unable to manage its leadership transition. At one point, through the 1960s and 1970s, Kidar Nath Sahni was the dominant figure in the party’s politics. He gave way to Madan Lal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma in the 1990s. But after the Khurana-Verma duo, all attempts by the party to anoint a leader have failed. Sushma Swaraj was sent as CM, but was needed more at the national level, Harsh Vardhan was tried once, even a Kiran Bedi was brought in, and this time, Tiwari was the state leader. None of it worked.
This is a broader, structural, problem the party now faces. It either has weak leaders who cannot be projected as CM — as in Delhi — or it has unpopular CMs as leaders who end up costing the party its support — as in Jharkhand most recently. This, paradoxically, is an outcome of the BJP’s own campaign style. It presidentialised the election at the national level, knowing no one else can match Modi. Smaller parties are presidentialising the election at the state level, knowing that BJP may not be able to match their leader.
“3 obvious lessons for BJP after Delhi: 1) Ideological issues must be supplemented by a solid governance agenda 2) There has to be a vibrant local unit with mohalla presence, & not merely during polls 3) A chief ministerial face is a must. Modi-Shah can’t be a substitute,” Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta tweeted.
Verniers, however, said that personalisation and the projection of strong leaders in state elections was an old phenomenon in India and the BJP represented an extension and an exacerbation of that phenomenon at the national level. “Since the 2019 general elections, the BJP has been challenged by different types of political figures and regional configurations, including the shifting of old political alliances. In Delhi, Kejriwal would not have won solely on the based of the image he has constructed of himself, but on the basis also of the achievements of its government and thanks to a campaign that resonated with voters’ demands.”
The second takeaway is that an electoral strategy that rests entirely on polarisation may work in securing the party’s core vote — but also has clear limitations. Generating a degree of fear about Muslims, linking political rivals to Pakistan, while projecting one’s own party as (explicitly) committed to national interests and (implicitly) committed to Hindu interests is a part of the BJP’s playbook in most elections, in varying degrees. It attempted the same in Delhi, though its reliance on this tool was extraordinarily high, and often descended to hate speech.
But the strategy works only if it is in conjunction with other elements. So Narendra Modi in 2019 played up India’s response to Pulwama — but he also had the government’s welfare schemes in addition as a vote catcher. In 2017, BJP leaders made inflammatory speeches in UP — but they were riding on a very strong anti-incumbency mood against the Akhilesh Yadav government. In Delhi, the party almost exclusively relied on this card. It also did not help the party that the incumbent, Arvind Kejriwal, played up his own Hindu and nationalist identity.
The third takeaway is that there is a degree of economic anxiety that is now finding a political outlet. AAP’s welfare schemes worked because they helped citizens save money — in particularly hard times. Delhi is an economic hub — home to both modern, cutting-edge companies, but also small informal, often illegal, industries. It is a hub of universities, with students who come in with dreams and aspirations for a better future.
To be sure, it is not possible to draw a neat, direct, causal link between the general economic slowdown and the outcome in Delhi. But it can be reasonably surmised that issues of unemployment and depleting incomes, with rising inflation, has caused anxiety. This also offsets the possible impact of the polarisation.
Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, “The thing we must not lose sight of is the role of the economy, although it is not always visible. In my view, the dynamics around CAA/National Register of Citizens are very different when growth is at 8% and inflation is at 4%, as opposed to the current situation – when growth is closer to 4% and inflation closer to 8%.”
It would be a mistake to read the Delhi defeat of the BJP as an indicator of the popular mood across the country. It would be a mistake to underestimate the salience of the substantial vote share the party did acquire in even a difficult election. And it would be a mistake to extrapolate this defeat as somehow a rejection of Narendra Modi and his ideological agenda, pushed over the past eight months.
But equally, it would be a mistake for the BJP to not look at the broader pattern that the Delhi election has reinforced. The party needs to go back to the drawing board and tackle the structural problems it confronts — of weak local leadership, of relying almost exclusively on a divisive agenda without additional governance supplements, and of growing economic anxiety. A smart party can take advantage of these weaknesses — and the AAP did precisely that.