The meaning of AAP’s capital success | HT Editorial
Arvind Kejriwal did in 2020 what the BJP had done in 2019.Updated: Feb 11, 2020 20:57 IST
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) retained power in Delhi after a bitterly fought election, but quite easily in the end, becoming a rare incumbent to hold its vote share from one landslide election (the party’s share in 2015 was 54.3% and it is around 53.5% this time) to the next. Indeed, the most recent parallel would perhaps be the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) performance in the 2019 national elections, where it bettered its 2014 vote share of 31% by around six percentage points. Sure, the BJP also managed to increase its seat share, while the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won 62 of the 70 seats in the Delhi assembly this time, as compared to 67 last time. This minor fall can be attributed more to the nature of the contests — multipolar but with one hegemonic pole in the national election, and strongly bipolar in Delhi — than anything else.
And much like the BJP won 2019 on the back of Narendra Modi’s larger-than-life image and charisma, and its welfare programmes, the AAP won 2020 on the strength of Arvind Kejriwal’s personality — none of the other parties even put up chief ministerial candidates — and its own welfare schemes. In 2019, the fact that national elections are not state elections worked for Mr Modi and the BJP. And in 2020, the fact that state elections are not national elections has worked for Mr Kejriwal and the AAP.
There are four broad takeaways from the outcome and Mr Kejriwal’s return to power. The first two are what the win isn’t.
One, over the past few years, it has become the norm to see any BJP loss as a template on how the party can be defeated nationally. It has been clear for some time that the BJP is vulnerable at the state level. It should also, by now, be equally clear that defeating the party at the national level will take something else — something that none of the parties or combinations seem to possess at this point. Interestingly, if there is any learning here, it is actually for the BJP. Just like its opponents have discovered that national elections are not state elections, the BJP is discovering that state elections are not national elections. And just as its opponents have to draft a national narrative that captures the electorate’s imagination, the BJP needs to come up with local narratives, and, importantly, partnerships, that work. In the case of elections in states such as Delhi — where the party is not in power — that includes finding and reposing faith in strong local leaders who can be presented as viable alternatives.
Two, no one should make the mistake of seeing this as a vote against the BJP’s policies and laws, including the Jammu and Kashmir reorganisation law, or the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA. If the BJP’s effort to nationalise, and polarise, the elections worked only to a limited extent — the party’s vote share increased from 32.3% to 38.5% — then so did the liberal narrative of presenting this election as one about two very divergent ideas of India. Mr Kejriwal, in particular, steered clear of being drawn into a debate on contentious issues such as the anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh. His approach was centrist.
And this is the third point. The Indian electorate loves centrists, who lean towards the side of welfare. Unfortunately, there are few centrist parties at the national level. The Congress’s continued decline — evident again in this election where its vote share slipped from 9.7% to 4.3% — has created a vacuum at the national level. The Congress’s own situation is a corollary of this (that it isn’t a separate point by itself is perhaps a reflection of how low the party has fallen). Still, the party has it easy in some ways because its choices are clear — zero seats in 2015 and zero again in 2020 means the party can safely change everything (and everybody) without worrying about things becoming worse.
Finally, the AAP’s victory in Delhi means that the BJP’s geographic footprint continues to be limited to 13 states and about 40% of India’s population. The elections are a win for the AAP for taking on the might of the BJP, but they are also a win for the people of Delhi, and, by extension, the people of India. Delhi’s voters have refused to become polarised and have voted for a government which, they believe, will do the right thing by them and their city. Equally, though, it is a win for India’s electoral process — despite unfounded fears of electronic voting machines being compromised in some way — and even for the BJP, because any reiteration of the country’s democratic credentials will only serve to establish the commitment of the country’s hegemonic political force, often accused of using power and money to swing elections its way, to democracy.