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High win margins, fewer close contests make AAP win sweeter

By Gilles Verniers
PUBLISHED ON FEB 13, 2020 12:05 AM IST

Sweeping victories usually offer little scope for detailed interpretation as all data tends to point in the same direction. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s performance in this state election was remarkable for many reasons. First, AAP maintained an extremely high vote share as an incumbent, which is rare. Forty of its 43 re-running MLAs won their race, which is even rarer as voters tend to reject usually half of those they elected in the previous election.

The performance is also all the more remarkable when one compares it to its poor showing in the last general election. Barely eight months ago, the AAP scored less than 20% vote share, stood behind Congress and failed to win a single Delhi assembly segment. It now won 62 of those segments with a 35% vote share gain, which, once again, is highly unusual. It has now become a given that voters behave differently in general and state elections, but we haven’t been used to seeing these kinds of gaps before.

Performance indicators show that this was by no means a closely contested election. Only 13 candidates won with a victory margin smaller than 5% and only four with a margin below 2%. The AAP’s average winning margin is 17.5% against 8.2% for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The AAP’s vote share was markedly higher in reserved seats, at 58.4%, against 52.8% in general seats, with an average winning margin of 23%. In 2015, the AAP swept reserved seats with 60% of vote share. While we do not have information yet on how the AAP performed with first-time voters, it is safe to assume that it has maintained its previous electoral base while performing well among new voters as well. As such, the AAP does more than replacing the old dominant Congress in Delhi. Its vote base is wider and its appeal cuts across more sections than the Congress’s ever did.

The BJP, on the other hand, got its second worst seat share in Delhi with its second-best vote share. In 1993, when it came to power last in Delhi, BJP scored 42% of vote share and slid gradually from the mid-30s to the low 30s. They may take comfort in the six-point bump in Delhi, but it remains that eight months ago, they swept 65 assembly segments in the general election with 56.5% of the votes. Besides holding its bastion in Rohini, BJP’s performance is concentrated in Delhi North-East, a part of the city with a large migrant population from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

As far as the Congress is concerned, one is reluctant to shoot at an ambulance after it hit a tree. The party that ruled Delhi for 15 years between 1998 and 2013 failed to reach second position in any seat. Sixty-three of its 66 candidates even lost their deposits. The list of factors that explain the decimation is almost too long: weak local leadership, unpopular national leadership, half-hearted campaign, failure to recruit party workers, among other things. It takes comfort in saying that it campaigned against the BJP and the Prime Minister but in the process, it forgot to campaign for Delhi.

But it is not just data that makes the AAP’s victory unusual. When it burst on to the political scene in 2013, the AAP represented a strong alternative political force that bore the promise of transforming the way the business of politics is conducted in India. The party started its career as the United Progressive Alliance’s bête noire and persisted in that role, leading a vigorous frontal charge against the BJP. After a series of backlashes, notably a resounding defeat in the 2017 Delhi municipal elections the AAP toned down its confrontational posture to concentrate on its work in Delhi. In the process, the AAP completed its mutation from a political movement into a conventional political party. It shed some of its adopted self-righteousness and put aside its quest for national political purification for a humbler and more technocratic attitude focused on local governance and delivery. This transition also led the party’s leadership to push aside internal dissenters, to concentrate powers further in the hands of the Chief Minister, at the cost of internal party democracy. In terms of organisation, the AAP has gradually become a conventional political party, personalised, autocratic and pragmatist.

This, once again, makes the AAP’s victory remarkable and significant, as it succeeded in reinventing itself as a party without losing political ground or appeal. In 2015, the AAP came to power through a wave carried by many voters who wanted to support a party that did not abide by the usual rules of the electoral game, and was committed to transparency. While the AAP stepped back on many of these promises and aspirations, it offers something else that many Delhi voters find appealing, in the form of a no-nonsense technocratic approach to governance and public goods delivery.

While successful in Delhi, this model places the party in a conundrum, should it wish to export it to other states. The depoliticised technocratic approach adopted by the AAP may work in Delhi, a relatively affluent state, where questions of social identities are not too deeply entangled with people’s economic prospects. But in states where who you are has a greater bearing on what you get, the AAP’s reluctance to take strong positions on deeper political questions might come as a disadvantage. Besides, the AAP does not have the organisational capacity for expansion at the moment. Its local branches across the country remain largely composed of young volunteers and sympathisers who still look towards the AAP as the party it used to be five years ago. Perhaps other parties in power across the country will take their cue from the AAP and find inspiration from its success. But at the moment, the AAP’s victory does little to alter fundamental national political equations, in which the BJP remains unrivalled and unchallenged.

Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Ashoka University

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