What Delhi election result means for PM Modi, Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi
Modi remains popular but state-level setbacks will hurt. With Arvind Kejriwal, win secures regional footing, opens door to national politics.Updated: Feb 12, 2020 09:49 IST
Modi remains popular but state-level setbacks will hurt
The BJP made Narendra Modi its face in this election, in the absence of a strong local face who could be projected as chief minister. Modi also addressed two rallies. But this was not an election where voters had to choose or reject Modi. Delhi had made that choice last May, when the BJP bagged over 50% of the vote share. It was an element of this very base that shifted to the AAP in the assembly election, for they decided to choose Arvind Kejriwal as CM.
The fact that Kejriwal was careful not to attack the PM, and he made it not a contest between him and Modi but between him and the BJP’s Delhi unit meant that Modi was not the central issue in the election.
This means that while the polls represent a setback, to read it as a rejection of Modi — or his policy approach of the last nine months — may be an error. The fact that the BJP did better than last time also shows that citizens continue to have a high degree of faith in the PM even when he is not directly in the battle. But Modi still has reason to worry.
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The worse-than-expected performance in Haryana, the loss of power in Maharashtra, the loss in Jharkhand polls, and now, the inability to challenge the AAP in Delhi, shows the BJP is losing its electoral touch at the state level.
This will have implications for governance at the national level, for state governments are crucial in implementation of key schemes. So while Modi remains India’s most popular leader, his overall political challenge intensifies after Delhi.
Win secures regional footing, opens door to national politics
The Delhi chief minister has had a difficult five years — with a running battle with the Centre on governance issues, the exit of key party leaders, setbacks to any national expansion plans (especially after the 2017 loss in Punjab), and then the rout in the Lok Sabha elections. Yet, Kejriwal has consistently learnt lessons and evolved.
From being seen as a disruptor, he transformed his image to that of a leader focused on meeting basic needs and aspirations of citizens — improving schools, public health facilities, and providing electricity and water at subsidised rates. He also toned down his opposition to Narendra Modi, and decided to support the BJP on contentious national issues, from the nullification of Article 370 to the judicial order on the construction of Ram Temple. He stayed away from JNU and Shaheen Bagh to prevent the BJP from getting any additional room to score political points.
All of this helped. The AAP was fighting a battle for survival — a loss would have raised questions about its very future. The win re-establishes Kejriwal’s dominance in Delhi politics; it consolidates the AAP’s position as a key regional party; and it potentially opens the door for national expansion. Becoming chief minister for the third time will ensure
Kejriwal has led AAP’s transformation from a start-up to an established player in India’s political marketplace. He will now have to make hard choices — priorities in the next term, whether he wants to move beyond Delhi, and if he wants to take an aggressive position against the BJP or stick to his non-confrontational approach.
Gandhi must look for ways to reclaim space lost to AAP
It may be difficult to remember this now, but the Congress governed Delhi for three straight terms — until 2013.
The erosion in the party’s strength — it lost all seven seats in both 2014 and 2019 elections, failed to win a single seat in the 2015 assembly polls, and has failed to do so yet again — is a classic case study of how once dominant political forces can witness a sharp decline in the absence of a local leader, depleted social base, and failure to articulate an agenda that appeals to citizens.
Rahul Gandhi, who is admittedly no longer the party president but remains its key leader, campaigned in the last lap of the Delhi polls. It did not yield any success, which will once again raise questions about his connect with the electorate. Any recent success the Congress has had has not been due to the Gandhi family.
In Haryana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda put up a credible performance; in Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party led the charge; in Jharkhand, it was Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s Hemant Soren who was the face of the alliance. Put it together, and the Delhi election reinforces the pattern of Gandhi’s limited impact and appeal, and the continued crisis of the Congress.
It may be happy at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) defeat, but it should worry that it has ceded space to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Capital — a party that may once again seek to displace Congress from states where it is in direct contest with the BJP.
Vote gain aside, loss shows limits of Shah’s campaign
From the BJP, this was a campaign that was shepherded entirely by Union home minister Amit Shah. The party’s improved performance — it only got three seats in the last assembly election — is being attributed to Shah’s aggressive campaign, which made Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the AAP’s alleged support for it as a central issue. This was meant to polarise the election on both ideological and communal lines.
The BJP did gain, and it managed to retain not only in 2015 assembly vote share but exceeded that by around five percentage points, is primarily due to Shah’s forceful campaign. But it was not enough to offset the absence of local leaders and factionalism, and the perception that Kejriwal had delivered.
With the poll outcome, Shah has once again reinforced his reputation as a leader who does not give up, and who fights every election with all the intensity possible. But it also raises legitimate questions about the BJP’s shrill campaign — when many of its leaders made provocative statements and were penalised by the Election Commission.
The party did not win — make no mistake, in an election, victory is what matters — and it came across as divisive. The larger pattern of the party facing state-level setbacks is also an issue that Shah and party chief JP Nadda will have to work on.
AAP’s key face will remain vital to governance matrix
Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia had emerged as a key governance face of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government over the last five years. As education minister, his role in improving public schools was a key poll plank for the party in the campaign. Sisodia’s open support for Shaheen Bagh did create a degree of nervousness in the party— and he became the prime target of the BJP in its campaign.
Kejriwal had been careful to stay away from the issue, and subsequently, took charge of the messaging on it. Sisodia had a difficult Tuesday morning, for he was trailing in his constituency, causing moments of anxiety for the AAP. However, he did manage to recover ground and won his seat by 3,207 votes.
He will remain an important figure in AAP’s internal functioning, as well as in the larger governance matrix. It is to be seen which portfolios he gets this time around, for that will also be a sign of the party’s priorities in the next term. The AAP has a set of new leaders which it may seek to accommodate in the next cabinet, from Atishi Marlena to Raghav Chadha.
This may mean a certain reallocation in duties. But irrespective of that, Sisodia will remain the clear number two in the party. If Kejriwal decides to expand nationally, Sisodia will become even more crucial for the party in managing Delhi.
After loss of Purvanchali vote, Tiwari may lose ground
The Delhi BJP state unit chief, Manoj Tiwari, was not appointed the party’s chief ministerial face in the election. This, itself, indicated that he did not have the requisite appeal or stature to take on Kejriwal. Tiwari also had to manage internal factionalism, with senior leaders such as Vijay Goel, Harsh Vardhan, and its different parliamentarians having their independent bases.
Tiwari’s calling card was his Purvanchali identity, and the party hoped that it would expand its base from its traditional Punjabi and Bania communities to migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But this was clearly not enough, as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has managed to win a substantial segment of the Purvanchali vote.
Tiwari, as a member of Parliament, will remain a figure in the city’s politics. But his position does become vulnerable as the party’s chief — for there will be questions about the weaknesses of the local unit and demand for accountability. In his media interviews, Tiwari, through the campaign, came across as a likeable leader, but who was out of touch with policy issues. The problem for the party however remains that it still has not been able to develop a strong enough local leader who can be given an opportunity to take on Kejriwal next time around.