Others bite the dust as AAP sweeps Delhi again - Hindustan Times

Others bite the dust as AAP sweeps Delhi again

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Feb 12, 2020 01:31 AM IST

Kejriwal’s victory sparked celebrations among non-BJP regional parties, many of which are competing with the BJP in their own states.

“Bharat Mata ki Jai, Inquilab Zindabad, Vande Mataram.”

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal(Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal(Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, chanted these slogans on Tuesday afternoon — with the crowd outside the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) office in Delhi cheering him on — to mark his party’s spectacular victory in the assembly elections, and capturing the essence of his political campaign. The first and the third slogan are often heard in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rallies, the second in protest rallies against the regime.

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Kejriwal walked a fine line between the two, and it paid off.

For the second time in a row, Delhi voted overwhelmingly for the AAP, giving it 62 seats in the 70-member assembly. In 2015, the AAP won 67 seats. The AAP also garnered 53.5% of the vote share, just around a percentage point less than its 2015 vote share. For an incumbent to win over half the votes polled for a second time, when faced with a strong opposition in the form of the BJP, is a huge success.

And that is why Kejriwal, at the same victory gathering on Tuesday, told the citizens of Delhi, “I love you”, and thanked them profusely for their support. It’s a love that will get statutory recognition when the AAP government is sworn in on February 14, Valentine’s Day, the same day it was sworn in on in 2015.

Kejriwal’s victory sparked celebrations among non-BJP regional parties, many of which are competing with the BJP in their own states.

The BJP, which mounted an aggressive campaign primarily centred around the issue of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, faced its second consecutive assembly loss — and a huge setback only nine months after it swept all of Delhi’s seven parliamentary constituencies with a vote share of over 50% in the last general elections. The BJP won eight seats, up from three in 2015, and 38.5% of the vote share, up from 32.3% in 2015. To be sure, the party contested only 67 seats with its allies contesting three. Last time, it contested all 70 seats. While it increased both the seat tally and the vote share, the BJP fell far short from mounting a challenge to the AAP, raising questions about its strategy in state elections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Kejriwal on Twitter, “Congratulations to AAP and Shri @ArvindKejriwal Ji for the victory in the Delhi Assembly Elections. Wishing them the very best in fulfilling the aspirations of the people of Delhi.”

Kejriwal responded minutes later: “Thank u so much sir. I look forward to working closely wid Centre to make our capital city into a truly world class city.”

The third force in Delhi’s politics, the Congress, which governed the city for 15 years from 1998 to 2013, failed to win a single seat in the assembly polls and crashed to its lowest vote share of 4.26%. The loss represents the fifth consecutive defeat for the Congress in Delhi — after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the 2015 assembly polls, the 2017 municipal polls, and then the 2019 Lok Sabha polls — and sparked questions about its lack of credible national or state leaders, and the collapse of its social base in the Capital. Late on Tuesday evening, the Congress’s state unit president for Delhi, Subhash Chopra, offered to quit.

The AAP’s victory came on the back of a clever campaign that leveraged Kejriwal’s leadership, delivery of public goods and concessions to various demographic segments, and assertion of both religiosity and nationalism in order to prevent the BJP from monopolising these issues.

A key campaign theme for the AAP was that it had a CM who had delivered. Just like the BJP in 2019 asked the Opposition, “We have Modi, who do you have?”, to capitalise on the absence of a national face against the PM, the AAP asked, in this election, “We have Kejriwal, who do you have?”. The absence of a CM face, who could match Kejriwal’s stature, hurt the BJP. It relied exclusively on Narendra Modi’s name — but as recent state elections in Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand have shown, voters make a distinction between national and state polls, and many of those who voted for Modi in 2019 in Delhi, and may still do so if Lok Sabha polls are held, shifted to a strong CM face in the state. Kejriwal was also careful not to take on Modi directly, in order to win over precisely this support base and kept his focus local.

But the AAP’s most significant campaign platform was its record of delivery. By focusing on improving government schools — infrastructure has improved, pass percentages have shot up, students are being introduced to new styles of teaching, teachers have undergone training in best practices — the AAP delivered on an often-neglected sphere. Political scientist Manisha Priyam said, “It increased its education spending to over one-fourth of its gross budgetary spend (26%). There is a learning revolution among the underclass akin to no other example I have seen around the world. The investments in education, the changed school culture, and better outcomes speak of an ethic of care.”

This was coupled with its focus on public health — mohalla or neighbourhood clinics have been upgraded, patients are given quick care, the government has unveiled free schemes for medicines, diagnostics and even surgeries, which clearly resonated with a segment of the population, particularly the poor.

The AAP supplemented this focus on education and health with the provision of electricity and water at rates low enough, and free quotas so generous that many people do not pay anything for the two utilities. These were key issues when Kejriwal first began campaigning against the Congress government in Delhi. And the beneficiaries have included demographic groups across classes.

Free public transport to women, offered last year, has also had an impact, with many women employees — particularly those in the informal sector — availing of the benefits. Savita, a household support staff who works in Defence Colony and commutes from Badarpur, said on the day of voting: “I voted for the AAP because it has helped us save money. I convinced my husband to vote for them too. And when my brother-in-law was mocking me for voting for them in return for free rides, I told him, we run the household and we know how much easier it has become to manage our expenses with AAP in power.”

But the AAP’s campaign faced its strongest challenge when BJP leader and Union home minister, Amit Shah, made the protests against the CAA at Shaheen Bagh a poll issue, terming it a hub of anti-nationals, and alleged that the AAP was backing it, based on a statement by deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia. Kejriwal was quick to place the onus back on Shah to clear the protests, and in order to prevent a communal division on the issue, played up his own religious identity as a devout Hindu. AAP candidates visited local temples: Kejriwal recited the Hanuman Chalisa in a television interview; and he took a strong stand against a Pakistani leader who commented on the Delhi elections. On the day of victory too, Kejriwal invoked Hanuman and said his blessings had helped.

This approach helped neutralise the BJP’s aggressive campaign, which hoped to offset its weaknesses at the local level with a sharply ideological campaign which could polarise the Delhi electorate on religious lines.

The BJP, however, faced three challenges, which, eventually proved insurmountable. The first was the absence at the local level — Manoj Tiwari, the party chief in Delhi, is not seen as a chief ministerial candidate capable of taking on Kejriwal; there was also internal factionalism. As a BJP leader on the eve of the counting day said on condition of anonymity since he was not authorised to speak on the issue, “Our organisational cadre was thoroughly demotivated in Delhi. Each Delhi leader saw himself as a CM-aspirant and was more busy undercutting other party rivals than challenging Kejriwal.”

The second was its inability to counter the AAP’s welfare politics. While Modi’s own welfare schemes have been praised, the state unit did not have a manifesto which could provide a clear framework on how it would improve on public goods and service delivery. And the third was its almost exclusive reliance on a strategy of religious polarisation. This may have helped the party secure its own vote base, and even expand it beyond the 2015 level, but it was not sufficient to win.

Swapan Dasgupta, Rajya Sabha MP and a political commentator aligned with the BJP, tweeted that there were three obvious challenges to the party. “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.”

Commenting on the BJP’s increase in vote share, Ashutosh Varshney, professor of political science at the Brown University in the United States, said, “Vote share matters a lot to small parties, not to big parties — who not only want to increase share but also win. That is what the BJP wanted. Moreover, in political analysis, vote shares are critical in systems based on proportional representation, where seat shares critically depend on vote shares. In the first past the post system, winning is the real issue, not vote shares.”

The Congress failed to open its account in Delhi yet again, grappling with an unprecedented crisis, and turning the contest bipolar from triangular. This was the first election fought after the death of late former chief minister, Sheila Dikshit; it was also held in the backdrop of a weak campaign by the national leadership; and an inability to articulate its agenda or preserve various social groups which have supported it in the past. Pawan Khera, Congress spokesperson and a close aide of Dikshit who worked in the Delhi government, said, “For a party that got over 22% votes under Dikshit in the Lok Sabha elections, this result is shocking. All organisations depend on a towering personality. With her passing away, the party is struggling to find its feet.” It must, however, be added that even when Dikshit was present, the party’s decline in the city had begun.

The AAP now heads to another renewed term of five years, with a set of newer, younger leaders having won their first assembly election — these include names such as Raghav Chadha and Atishi Marlena, who are expected to find space in the government. In the next term, as Kejriwal told HT in an interview this month, the focus of the government will be on clean water, cleanliness, and tackling pollution.

Watch an interesting conversation with Indian politician & former Union Minister of State, Milind Deora. HT’s senior journalist Kumkum Chadha talks to him about his life in politics & beyond. Watch Now!
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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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