A famous victory in Delhi

The Aam Aadmi Party’s victory and the manner in which the party consolidated its strengths in Delhi hold important lessons for mainstream political practice. The popular verdict has implications also for the Modi-Shah kind of politics.

Published : Feb 18, 2015 12:30 IST

Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP convener, taking the oath of office as Delhi's Chief Minister at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi on February 14.

Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP convener, taking the oath of office as Delhi's Chief Minister at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi on February 14.

THE POLITICAL ANALYST HARIRAJ SINGH TYAGI, who was a long-term associate of the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, used to recount a personal experience, citing it as the ultimate example of what he termed as the “democratic principle” that guides the Indian population. This was in early 1977, on the very day Prime Minister Indira Gandhi relaxed certain provisions of the state of emergency she had declared and announced general elections. On that day, the Socialist Party leadership summoned Tyagi, who was in Meerut, for consultations. He hired a cycle rickshaw to go to the Meerut railway station, and casually asked the rickshaw puller if he had heard the news. The rickshaw puller replied promptly: “ Chunav ghoshna ke baarey mein radio mein suna. ab maa bete ko kuch gantantra sikhaayenge” [Heard about the proclamation of elections in the radio. Now, will teach mother and son some democracy].” The mother and son referred to were of course Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, who was considered responsible for many of the atrocities committed during the Emergency. Tyagi used to say that this comment by a probably illiterate rickshaw puller made clear not only what the verdict of that election would be but also the intrinsic commitment Indians had for the democracy principle.

Tyagi passed away five years ago. But the Delhi Assembly elections of 2015 once again highlighted the “democracy principle” that this keen political analyst underscored time and again. Throughout the run-up to the campaign, one oft-repeated comment by people belonging to different strata of society was: “Har jage pe Narendra Modi theek nahi hain. Gujarat mein woh, Haryana mein woh, Jharkhand or Maharashtra mein woh. Dilli mein bhi unka raaj bahut zyaada ho jaayega.” (It is not right to have Narendra Modi everywhere. He is in Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. Having Modi rule in Delhi too would be way too much.) This writer heard this refrain for the first time during a conversation between a paan shop owner and a man who sold vegetables in a pushcart 10 days before the elections. With each passing day, similar remarks could be heard from across the national capital. The subtext of all the comments was to teach “some democracy” to the new power duo at the Centre, Prime Minister Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah, who trampled over the organisational and democratic rights of even party workers by foisting on them the candidature of Kiran Bedi. Clearly, the democratic principle was at its assertive best.

One of the central messages of the significant victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which reduced the BJP’s strength to three seats and the Congress’ to naught in the 70-member Assembly, is about this democracy principle. But this is not the only message that this verdict has thrown up. It is bound to influence the national polity in diverse ways, both at the level of politics, including realpolitik, and in terms of policy and ideological implications. While the assertion of the democracy principle is indeed a larger political phenomenon that has far-reaching value, its immediate ramifications relate to the performance of the nearly 10-month-old Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre.

The pollster and political analyst Mathew Vilayasseril put it succinctly: “The Delhi verdict is both a pro-AAP vote and an anti-Modi vote. BJP leaders may keep on saying that this result is no referendum on Modi and his government, but all that cannot diminish the relevance and prominence of this factor. Despite projecting Kiran Bedi as Chief Minister, the entire BJP campaign revolved around Modi. Even after the campaign ended officially, the BJP came out with full-page advertisements in almost all the newspapers of Delhi and the focus was on Modi. A huge picture of Modi was accompanied by text that highlighted the so-called achievements of the Modi government in the past nine months. The call was to replicate these in Delhi by electing a government that would facilitate the Modi regime at the Centre. On his part, in his campaign speeches Modi asked voters to elect a government that would listen to him. The electorate of Delhi rejected this outright and in absolutely unmistakable terms. Popular response during the run-up to the elections brought out the reasons for this rejection. The overwhelming strain in these responses was that in the Modi government there was too much talk and that action was not commensurate with the scale of talk.” At the same time, the run-up to the elections as well as the verdict signified a sort of nostalgia, especially among the less privileged sections of society, for the 49 days of AAP rule (story on page 14).

A cross section of Delhi voters this correspondent interacted with after the results were declared confirmed these observations with their own nuances. Harishankar Srivastava, who runs a small shop in South Delhi, said 10 months ago he rooted for Modi and the BJP but became an AAP supporter in the Delhi elections. His reasoning is simple. “During the Lok Sabha election campaign, Modi presented himself as a one-time chaiwalah [tea vendor] who understands the concerns and aspirations of the people. But once in power, Modi’s bearing changed. What we see is a leader who is fond of changing clothes at least five times a day and flying frequently across the globe only to hobnob with foreign leaders. This trend, which was visible right from the day he assumed power, rose to vulgar heights when he turned out in an expensive suit with his name embossed on it during the United States President’s visit. It was clear from all this that at heart Modi was no chaiwalah and that his concern for the poor was not as sincere as was made out to be,” Srivastava said, adding that several BJP supporters shied away from the party for exactly these reasons.

Realpolitik consequence

This dimension of the public opinion on Modi and his government at the Centre has other short- and medium-term implications. One realpolitik consequence has already manifested itself in the comments of the BJP’s allies such as Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Roundly castigating Modi, Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray asserted that the Delhi debacle was Modi’s responsibility. He added that “the people of Delhi have shown that a tsunami is mightier than a wave”. An Akali Dal candidate in the Delhi elections, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, blamed the defeat, including his own, on the hard-line politics pursued by sections of the BJP and condoned by the top leadership, including Modi and Shah. Referring specifically to the ramzaadon vs haramzaadon remark of Union Minister of State Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, Sirsa said he was standing next to her when this comment was made and he knew at that very instant that the NDA had lost Delhi.

Commenting on all this, the political analyst Sudhir Panwar said “the meaning of all these voices is indeed that the unquestioned primacy that Modi enjoyed within the NDA will no longer be there”. Panwar added: “More voices will emerge as days go by and it remains to be seen how the Prime Minister will handle it. Especially given the fact that he has not suffered any major criticism in the past one and a half decades of his political career.”

The other negative realpolitik consequence will be in the inner-party equations within the BJP. But the general consensus among observers as well as BJP activists is that this may not manifest concretely in the near future though Ramesh Upadhyaya, brother of the BJP State president Satish Upadhyaya, termed the results a “defeat of the politics of arrogance”. “The allies will take the first opportunity to react to the Modi-Shah combine’s domineering style of politics. The fact that their leadership is their own masters will facilitate this kind of reaction. But that is not the situation in the BJP. At this point of time, no senior leader has the gumption to take on the Modi-Shah combine. Of course, L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari have serious issues with Modi and Shah, but at this point of time they have no resonance with the rank and file or the organisational network. One of them would have to emerge as a challenger both organisationally and politically, especially with some alternative policy orientation. There are no signs of such emergence now, though Gadkari and Rajnath Singh are better placed to adopt this role whenever they decide to take the plunge,” Panwar said. According to a senior BJP leader considered close to Rajnath Singh, “many things are brewing” in the party but a concrete shape to all that will emerge only if the party suffers a reversal in the Bihar Assembly elections later this year.

Thus, while the inner-party situation may remain quiet for some time, there is little doubt that the AAP juggernaut in Delhi has already inspired and energised non-Congress secular parties in different parts of the country. Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar, fighting with his back to the wall in Bihar following a revolt by his one-time protege Jitin Ram Manjhi, has characterised the Delhi verdict as a clear referendum on Modi. “The people of Delhi have seen the Modi form of governance in the past nine months and rejected it.”

Nitish Kumar, who had been opposing Manjhi’s decision to recommend dissolution of the Bihar Assembly to face fresh elections immediately, has been emboldened by the Delhi result to state that he and his allies are ready to face the elections any time. Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, said Delhi marked the first sign of the downslide of the BJP under Modi and added that this descent would reach its nadir when the BJP faced the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections two years hence. The energy and enthusiasm is bound to get reflected in the Budget session of Parliament. Undoubtedly, the Opposition, as a whole, including the Congress, will be more vocal in both Houses.

Positive agenda Beyond these short-term realpolitik implications, the AAP’s victory and the manner in which the party consolidated its strengths in Delhi raise important questions as well as possibilities in terms of mainstream political practice. It is evident now that the core political and organisational manoeuvre of the AAP right from its inception has been the consistent and creative connect and dialogue with the common people. In fact, the party took it to new heights in Delhi after its defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The “Delhi Dialogue” that it initiated across the 70 constituencies drew people from all strata of society. In meeting after meeting, people, especially those from the lowest strata of society, lauded the effort of the AAP leadership to understand and list their problems without coming up with unilateral and arbitrary prescriptions to solve them. It was from these interactions that the AAP evolved what it terms a “positive agenda” for each constituency and for Delhi as a whole.

Talking to Frontline , scores of people said this interactive experience was becoming increasingly rare in political parties. Barring a handful of leaders, all parties seemed to suffer from this lack of connect. It was this interaction, coupled with the sensible use of social media, that helped the AAP build up its influence in spite of the near-total rejection of the party by the traditional media, especially in the days following the Lok Sabha results.

Evidently, its people-oriented style of functioning has lessons for all mainstream political parties, particularly the smaller parties belonging to the non-Congress, non-BJP political grouping. The Delhi verdict shows that there is a way to adopt and follow even if they are limited by a lack of resources. But the moot question is whether the leaderships of these parties will be able to take it up creatively, mired as they are in their long-standing and ritualistic hierarchies and styles of functioning.

The response the AAP’s victory has evoked in different parts of the country makes it amply clear that this party and its political-organisational style pose a challenge to all established parties (see story on page 16). No State Assembly election verdict has been celebrated across the country, cutting across barriers of caste and communities. This by itself provides an opportunity for the party to strike roots and grow. Such an initiative by the party will primarily attract the erstwhile Congress support base of Dalits and to some extent Muslims as shown by the Delhi verdict. However, indications are that the party does not want to rush into a large-scale organisational effort at the moment. Senior AAP leader Prof. Anand Kumar said the party wanted to take it forward step by step, evolving positive agendas in each State and studying their respective characteristics closely through widespread interactions. “And, of course, our formulations on larger issues such as land reforms and globalisation will be stated in clearer terms though we have already given broad indications through our political actions.”

Although none of the top leaders of the AAP has stated so, the party’s next big electoral stop is the Punjab Assembly elections in 2017, although the party may contest the forthcoming municipal corporation elections in Bangalore and Mumbai. While this limited endeavour may not be in accordance with the hope and excitement generated across the country, the AAP leadership wants to project that as part of the new politics it is trying to advance.

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