The battle for the crown in Delhi | Analysis
It is this fundamentally bipolar but possibly triangular battle, through the web of local and national issues, in a contest which will assume the contours of a Kejriwal versus Modi frame, that Delhi’s voters will exercise their choice next month. The results will have national significanceUpdated: Jan 04, 2020 16:55 IST
When Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, spoke at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit last month, he spoke of his government’s achievements. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he claimed, may fight elections on the issue of identity in other places, but in Delhi, it had to compete with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on issues of development.
A month is a long time in politics. And if the developments in Delhi are an indication, Kejriwal may have reviewed his own analysis of the nature of the upcoming assembly election.
But first, why is the Delhi election significant? The city sends only seven members to the Lok Sabha. The assembly also just has 70 constituencies. The government itself has limited powers because of a somewhat unique arrangement where the Centre exercises power over law and order and land.
Yet, the symbolism of Delhi is hard to miss. By virtue of it being the capital, it carries disproportionate political weight. By virtue of the city being home to what is considered the national media, it occupies greater attention in the public imagination. The very nature of Delhi’s politics has also lent it particular significance. It was here that the India Against Corruption movement transformed into the AAP, which then went on to first win 28 seats in 2013, and then swept the 2015 assembly polls with 67 of the 70 seats. Delhi thus became the symbol of a new experiment in Indian politics. It also gave India an early glimpse into how voters have begun distinguishing between state and national elections. It was here that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won all seven seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, only to be reduced to a mere three assembly seats eight months later in the state polls. As one of India’s pre-eminent urban centres, which is home to migrants of all regions, and citizens of all classes, the city also is a microcosm of a larger India.
The 2020 election will thus give a sense of many trends in Indian politics. Was the AAP an aberration or can a relatively new force institutionalise itself as an establishment party? Will national parties make a comeback? Will voters again make a distinction between state and national polls? Are voters exercising their choice based on their regional and caste origins or is there a more secular language of politics that they associate with? And what will be the impact of the recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the subsequent protests on India’s electoral landscape?
To understand the fluidity of the political landscape in Delhi, just go back eight months.
The BJP won over 50% of the vote share in Lok Sabha polls in 2019, comfortably bagging all seven seats. Despite much hype, prominent AAP candidates lost, with the party coming third in five of the seven seats. The buzz was that this would get replicated in the assembly polls, for even a united AAP-Congress coalition would not be able to defeat the BJP.
But within months, the narrative changed. Kejriwal decided to adopt a new strategy. He toned down his criticism of Narendra Modi for he did not want the Delhi polls to be a Kejriwal versus Modi contest. He stayed away from national issues. On themes which he thought could alienate Hindu voters — from Kashmir to Ayodhya — he decided to be supportive of the government. And instead, he made the election as local as possibly, focusing only on two questions — local leadership in Delhi and the local governance record of the AAP.
The leadership matrix was simple. The AAP had Kejriwal; who did the BJP have? Was it Manoj Tiwari, the state unit president, or was it Vijay Goel, a veteran city leader harbouring ambitions, or was it Harshvardhan, the health minister with roots in Delhi politics? The BJP did not have a clear answer. On governance, the AAP publicised its admittedly good work in education through the revamp of government schools and in public health through mohalla clinics. It also cited free and uninterrupted supply of electricity, free or subsidised water, and free public transport for women.
This, then, was the supposed mix meant to ensure Kejriwal’s re-election.
But over the past month, two developments have taken place. The first is the CAA and protests against it in Delhi’s universities, and Muslim-dominated areas — from Shaheen Bagh and Seelampur to Jama Masjid and Daryaganj. The electoral impact of this is not clear. While the BJP may have alienated a section of the student vote, as well as possibly a section of the middle class disturbed by the discriminatory nature of the law, party strategists believe that the legislation and backlash against it may actually help them. It has the potential to polarise the electorate and make it an “H-M”, or a Hindu-Muslim election. The BJP calculates that an overwhelming number of silent Hindus support the law — and are upset with the protests. While the AAP has criticised the CAA and the government crackdown on universities like Jamia, it is aware of this potential polarisation — and has also sought to keep a distance from the protests.
The second development is the Centre’s decision to grant ownership papers to residents of unauthorised colonies, which it claims will benefit four million families. While the BJP has said that it has fulfilled the long held expectation that such colonies will be regularised, the AAP makes the point that regularisation has not happened — and it is the city government, in fact, which provided access to various facilities, from electricity to water supply, legally to these colonies and residents. But in the battle of perceptions on the issue, the BJP appears to have the edge.
There is one other variable in the election — the Congress. While there is a consensus that the Congress will come third, the question is the vote share it commands. If the Congress is able to retain a large share of the Muslim vote in the city, and get over 15% of the vote, the AAP will be worried, for it will mean a straight division of anti-BJP votes. But if Muslims decide to en masse vote for the AAP, and the Congress’ vote share remains in lower single digits, it becomes a straight face-off between the AAP and the BJP, which may well suit the former.
It is this fundamentally bipolar but possibly triangular battle, through the web of local and national issues, in a contest which will assume the contours of a Kejriwal versus Modi frame, that Delhi’s voters will exercise their choice next month. The results will have national significance.