The victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi assembly election was never doubted. In fact, it was far less excitement-inducing than the chapter of 2015. The prime reason for that was the predictability of the result. There are five factors, of which the first three were too obvious, that made me disinterested. There is a sixth one, but that does not make a difference while comparing the positions of the three contestants in the fray in the capital. It is the fact that Delhi was a much better place to live in till the 1980s when it had no legislative assembly.
1. NTR’s TDP to Kejri’s AAP: Populism sells
On the last day of the campaign for the 1994 assembly election in Andhra Pradesh, India’s economic liberator PV Narasimha Rao tried a desperate challenge to NT Rama Rao’s package of rice for Rs 2 a kg. He said in a large public meeting if the people did not complain later that the government was taking money away from them through taxes on other products, he was ready to offer rice for Re 1 a kilo. It was the last day of the campaign. It did not make much of a difference. The Indian National Congress (INC) lost the election to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), and that shocked the then prime minister so much that he halted any further capitalist measures.
Since the BJP lost power in the capital in 1998 for a reason of the economy — the price of onion — economics has increasingly dominated the politics of this place. It becomes confusing for the voter to choose between competing economic policies only when the contest is multipolar. When the choice is between one party pushing the average citizen’s ability to pay for services and the other two offering him essential goods and services free, with one of the two mutually freeloading-promoting parties in a state of decimation, Indians across the states would choose the socialist option.
The INC today occupies in Delhi the unenviable position that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPM] does in West Bengal. Once formidable powers, the INC and CPM exist in the respective states only to benefit the rival of the BJP. It is two forces versus one, where the latter stands no chance. The INC, which had been in power in Delhi for 15 consecutive years, could not get even one seat for two consecutive elections. Its vote-share is now reduced to half of the 2015 level. In the Lok Sabha election less than a year ago, it had managed to regain some of its slipping mass base in Delhi, reaching the No. 2 position and beating the AAP. But now, the INC that had got 9.7% votes in the 2015 assembly election is reduced to less than 5% votes. INC’s loss was AAP’s gain. The BJP managed to increase its vote-share by 6%, but it was insufficient. The AAP alone garnered 54%, managing to retain the vote-share of 2015, which resulted in a near repeat of its previous performance even in terms of seats.
This will continue until the people here get tired of a socialist rule as Uttar Pradesh finally did in 2017 after cycling the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alternately since the 1990s. As even an SP-BSP alliance could not save them in UP, one day the INC transferring votes to the AAP cannot save either when people observe nothing has changed in the way Delhi looks or works after prolonged INC and AAP rule.
But even to take advantage of that voter fatigue, the BJP needs a distinctive economic policy thrust, which it does not have, shows five years of Narendra Modi rule. It now looks hardly different from the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh rule except for the direct benefit transfer application on the same schemes (in some cases, under a different name) saving a lot of money that used to be lost in transmission earlier.
2. AAP had Kejriwal; rivals had none
However, even a distinct economic ideology needs a credible vehicle, which comes from the leadership. Remember how Rahul Gandhi could not succeed in the Lok Sabha election despite more doles in the INC manifesto. The absence of a local leader who could throw a formidable challenge at Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is the second of the major reasons for the BJP’s defeat in the assembly election. Kejriwal kept the entire campaign focussed on him and his governance. From the ad jingles of the AAP to the banners, posters and slogans, Kejriwal was ubiquitous in his party’s campaign.
Kejriwal was well aware that his opponents had no credible face to challenge him. He directly challenged Union Home Minister Amit Shah to declare BJP’s chief ministerial candidate. He kept insisting in almost every meeting that, in this democracy, the people, and not Amit Shah, would decide who would be the chief minister of Delhi.
BJP could not have had a chief ministerial candidate due to the mutually conflicting nature of two upper caste groups, only one of which has always occupied most positions of power in the local scheme of things at the expense of the other. In the pre-Modi era, Delhi BJP used to be dominated by Baniyas; it is now dominated by Brahmins. And never the twain shall meet! Kejriwal benefited from this.
Further, the BJP was so sure of its defeat — never mind what its leaders said for public consumption during the campaign — that it exploited the star power of Prime Minister Modi minimally, refusing to repeat the mistake of 2015, lest the tallest leader ruling at the Centre should have to bear the responsibility of an ignominious rout of his party in the polls. A visually important election saw Modi address a mere three public meetings. Shah is no doubt a determined and effective administrator, but scores of roadshows led by him were no match to Modi’s star attraction.
Fully aware of the respect the prime minister commands among the masses, Kejriwal desisted from attacking him in the campaign for this election. Gone were the curses like “psychopath” directed at Modi; the Delhi chief minister did not even take recourse to his usual refrain that the central government was not letting him work. Kejriwal even took on a Pakistani minister who wanted to ‘teach a lesson’ to the Prime Minister of India.
The BJP, which got 56% votes in Delhi in the Lok Sabha election last year, was reduced to 38-39% in this assembly election, showing that many people who had voted for PM Modi then voted for CM Kejriwal now. Meanwhile, the BJP giving preference to Manoj Tiwari in the election campaign to influence the Purabiya voter failed as a strategy because the singer-turned-Samajwadi-turned-BJP politician could never quite look capable enough to carry the whole of Delhi.
And then, the death of Sheila Dikshit had rendered the Delhi INC leaderless, pushing even more votes to the AAP.
3. BJP’s fights AAP-INC-media combo
If not since the virtual abrogation of Article 370 or making triple talaq a punishable offence, the media took up cudgels on behalf of the opposition since the day the bill to amend the 1955 law for citizenship was tabled in Sansad. It romanticised the ‘revolution’ brought in by the communist students of JNU as much as it hailed Shaheen Bagh. While it questions every minor misdemeanour of even an otherwise small-time BJP politician, it failed to condemn Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia for alleging that Delhi Police was setting buses on fire or that he stood with the squatting protesters in the Jamia area.
Worse, an AAP pamphlet circulated via newspapers in Muslim-dominated areas of Delhi claimed Kejriwal was a “messiah of Muslims“, and not one ’eminent’ journalist called the Delhi chief minister a “polarising” or “divisive” figure, the terms they have reserved for Prime Minister Modi!
Absolutely no effort was made to educate the readers of newspapers and viewers of television channels on the need for the amendment of the citizenship law. The media shamelessly refused to explain even the fact that preparing the National Population Register was a decennial exercise conducted before every census and that it was not a BJP idea.
In a city that was until 15 odd years ago hardly interested in politics, not everybody attended the three Modi rallies. And Indian television is hardly educative while a few right-wing websites have dug themselves into such holes that only hardcore Sangh supporters now subscribe to them. In this scenario, the largest circulated newspapers alone could have enlightened the masses. They were too taken in by activism to discharge the duty of driving sense into the people. Rather, they made the Modi dispensation come across as arrogant, not ready to negotiate terms with the Shaheen Bagh protest organisers. While Delhi is far from being Muslim-dominated or communism-oriented, unlike Bengal, the Hindu voter is a sensitive animal that reacts adversely to what is conveyed to him as an act of arrogance.
4. Effective marketing by Kejriwal, Sisodia
The AAP government drilled into the minds of the people at large that it had transformed the education and health sectors in Delhi. While the claim could be as vacuous as Lalu Prasad Yadav asserting in UPA 1 that he had turned Indian Railways profitable, that can be known only when a government in the future replaces Kejriwal. If it was a Goebelssian truth, the harping worked. But even if it was a real truth, why should a Delhi that hardly sends children to government schools or gets treated in a government hospital have cared? It did because people love the image of a philanthropist even when the social service of one does not benefit them directly.
No doubt, the AAP government has some better school buildings to exhibit, but education was never about the concrete structures. There is no international agency certifying that the quality of education in Delhi has improved. Rather the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) says that the Delhi government has failed on several parameters set for quality education.
In fact, by shutting down unrecognised private schools, the AAP administration closed one of the alternatives in affordable education. Further, by imposing Sections 18 and 19 of the Right to Education Act for a clampdown on fees charged by bigger private schools, the local government has ensured that schools cannot experiment with new, world-class tools of pedagogy, which come at a considerable cost.
But then, in the rotten system of formal education the British left India with, Indians now hardly care about the quality of training imparted by teachers. Even activists dedicated to education speak the language of buildings, toilets and, at best, teachers’ attendance. The killing of alternative ideas in education was, therefore, never a vote killer for the AAP.
5. Intemperate remarks by BJP leaders
BJP made the same mistake against Arvind Kejriwal that the opponents of Modi make against the prime minister. Personal attacks. No doubt, Shaheen Bagh-type activism was worth condemning, but the situation did not warrant calling the chief minister a “terrorist”. Kejriwal succeeded in turning personal attacks against him to his advantage, as on the previous occasion. BJP’s Delhi election in-charge and Union Minister Prakash Javadekar and MP Pravesh should have exercised restraint.
Tiwari’s barb at Kejriwal’s visit to Hanuman temple looked laboured if not as insulting as branding the chief minister as a terrorist. Kejriwal asked people repeatedly in election meetings whether the “son of Delhi” was a terrorist and traitor, impressing upon them how offensive the charge was.
The five factors above have been arranged in the decreasing order of their relevance. The first three are going to be constant for a few more Delhi elections in the foreseeable future, as the BJP does not have what it takes to fill the void.