AT ITS CORE, THE RESOUNDING RETURN OF the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to power in the February 8 Delhi Assembly election was made possible by three factors. First, a definitive popular rejection of the communal and divisive politics aggressively pursued by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, which made blatant use of their special resources, including the money power at their disposal. Second, the widespread public appreciation and approval of the track record of the Kejriwal government, particularly the important initiatives taken by it in key sectors such as supply of electricity and water, public health and education, as well as the clutch of welfare-oriented measures, including free public transport for women. Third, the calculated realpolitik calibration of the AAP campaign, marked by a resolute and at times perplexing circumvention of sensitive, contentious and incendiary issues, especially the ones that could be exploited politically by the forces of Hindutva. This sidestepping was persistently backed up by the foregrounding of the AAP’s developmental and welfarism narrative, steering clear of sectarian discussions.
The cumulative effect of all this was such that Delhi’s electorate gave 62 of the 70 Assembly seats to the AAP, just five seats short of its 2015 record of 67 seats. The BJP improved its tally marginally from three seats in 2015 to eight. The Congress, which had ruled the State for three consecutive terms from 1998 to 2013, drew a blank, just as it did in the 2015 election.
Seen from the perspective of national politics, all the three factors that spurred the AAP to this emphatic return to power hold varying degrees of importance. However, factor number one, the decisive popular rejection of the communal politics of the BJP, has greater importance, especially in the national context that has emerged over the past nine months following the massive victory of the Narendra Modi-led BJP in the May 2019 Lok Sabha election, when the party returned to power with a bigger majority than what it got in 2014.
The period after that has been marked by the steady and jingoistic advancement of the Hindu Rashtra-oriented agenda, such as the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution in August, literally shutting down the State of Jammu and Kashmir and trampling it under the jackboot, as well as the enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in December, leading to widespread protests and unrest across the country. Of course, all these sectarian and fissiparous exercises had become instruments to divert public attention from the manifold problems of a nosediving national economy and the utterly confounding manner in which the Union government was dealing with it.
In this context, the singular effort of the BJP in the Delhi Assembly election, especially in the last phases of the campaign, was to take this Hindutva project forward aggressively and methodically by vitiating the communal situation in the National Capital Region by depicting the electoral battle as one between Hindus and Muslims. This ghastly campaign, which was led by Union Home Minister and former BJP president Amit Shah and sent a large number of Union Ministers and over 200 Members of Parliament into almost every street and mohalla of Delhi, even went to the extent of portraying the election as one where the choice for the people was between India and Pakistan. Central to this campaign was the vitriolic outpourings against anti-CAA protesters, especially the women and children at Shaheen Bagh in the Okhla area of the capital who had launched an indefinite sit-in in early December that attracted widespread attention and support from across the country, including from renowned intellectuals and artists.
Several leaders of the BJP, including Union Minister Anurag Thakur, exhorted audiences during the course of the campaign to shoot the anti-CAA protesters. Party MP Parvesh Verma warned that if the AAP won the election it would create a situation where Hindu women would get raped by those who had gathered at Shaheen Bagh. Drawing parallels with what he argued had happened elsewhere, he stated: “We all know what jehad is. Jehad is to convert all non-Muslims to Muslims. This is what they did in Kashmir. Wherever slogans of jehad will be raised, the outcome will be the same. What happened in Kashmir can happen in Delhi too.” His one-point solution to prevent this was to defeat the AAP and vote the BJP to power.
As the campaign drew to a close, the growing sentiment within the BJP leadership was that the divisive campaign had struck a chord in the Delhi electorate. A series of meetings Amit Shah had with diverse segments of the party as well as the Sangh Parivar two days before polling revolved around this single point: the traction and the acceleration that the party’s communal polarisation manoeuvres were gaining at the grass roots closer to the polling date. Amit Shah, reportedly, had made detailed presentations at every one of these meetings with projections about population and vote percentages.
These presentations delineated an electoral scene where the BJP was fast catching up and even overtaking the AAP, primarily on the combined strength of two factors: the demography of Delhi, comprising a whopping 81.68 per cent Hindus, and the virulent muscular nationalism campaign marked by the “ gaddaron ko goli maro” (shoot the traitors) slogans and the communal targeting of the anti-CAA protests of which the Shaheen Bagh sit-in had become a symbol. The vehemence generated by the campaign was such that it triggered actual shooting incidents against protesters by Hindutva desperadoes, and this development was assessed at these meetings as adding value to the BJP’s election prospects.
The image of Prime Minister Modi taking aim with an automatic gun at the Defence Expo in Lucknow had preceded these meetings, and this, too, was evaluated as sending out an appropriately aggressive but subtle message to the Delhi electorate. In short, the assessment was that the time was ripe to go for the “electoral” kill.
The figures presented by Amit Shah supplemented this understanding. According to these figures, the Delhi electorate had different yardsticks for Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, and hence there was no question of the BJP replicating the Lok Sabha vote percentage of 56.58 per cent. The estimation in the figures presented at the meetings was that the BJP started with a core vote base of approximately 32 per cent in the Assembly election. This was the vote share the party had in the 2015 Assembly election, too. However, it was pointed out that the aggressive Hindutva-oriented propaganda in the last week of the campaign had added about seven to eight percentage points. Amit Shah’s exhortation, at these meetings, to workers and leaders belonging to different echelons of the party and the Sangh Parivar was to add another five percentage points on the date of polling through booth management. The contention was that this would be good enough to upstage the AAP, whose vote share Amit Shah had pegged at 40 to 42 per cent. A three percentage-point advantage in vote share, he had apparently argued, would reflect in a substantive seat difference in the first-past-the post electoral system.
This understanding manifested in very many ways after the polling. Interacting informally with D. Raja, general secretary of the Communist Party of India, in the Central Hall of Parliament barely 20 hours before the counting of votes was to begin on February 11, Meenakshi Lekhi, BJP Lok Sabha member from the New Delhi parliamentary constituency, asserted that the AAP’s victory projected by the exit polls was a pipe dream and that the BJP was set to form the government with at least 43 seats. Manoj Tiwari, the BJP’s Delhi unit president, went one step further and stated a couple of hours before the counting was to begin that he would not be surprised even if the BJP won 55 seats. But all these calculations went for a toss when the final outcome came. The BJP ended up with a 38.52 per cent vote share, an increase of approximately six percentage points from its estimated 32 per cent core vote. The AAP, on its part, garnered 53.61 per cent of the votes, signifying a marginal drop from its 2015 share of 54.3 per cent. Clearly, a huge majority of Hindus had preferred the AAP, which was sought to be painted as pro-Pakistan and anti-Hindu by the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar.
The slogans that rang out at the AAP headquarters after the victory repeatedly underscored this aspect of the election results. Hundreds of AAP supporters asserted that secularism was at the core of the party and that its volunteers had successfully defeated vile attempts to divide the people on communal lines. And every one of them could be heard arguing that it was the “development agenda of Kejriwal” that had helped the party achieve this. The unanimous popular view on this development agenda was that apart from the well-known and tangible initiatives such as reducing electricity charges, providing free water to vast segments of the population, enhancing school infrastructure and improving public health systems, the significant reduction in corruption at the level of the State administration, too, was a factor that impelled the electorate to resolutely stave off the communal and divisive politics of the BJP.
Throughout the campaign, AAP leaders and volunteers consistently highlighted the details of the “politics of development”, reaching out to almost every household with details of the government initiatives.
Talking to Frontline , senior AAP leader Sanjay Singh highlighted some of the features of the campaign material, which included details such as the comparison between State and Central economic parameters. It stated that the annual average gross domestic State product of Delhi was 8.92 per cent over the period between 2015-16 and 2018-19, while during the same four-year period India’s average annual gross domestic product growth rate was 7.35 per cent. Delhi’s per capita income at Rs.2,79,601 in 2018-19 was higher than the national average of Rs.91,921 for the same period. The fiscal deficit of Delhi was at 0.40 per cent, considerably lower than the overall national rate for States, which stood at 2.59 per cent. Budgetary allocations in areas such as education, health, transport and water supply had consistently been higher throughout the AAP tenure, and in the 2019-20 Budget measured up to approximately 56 per cent of the total allocation.
Of this, education as a percentage of total expenditure was at 27.8 per cent in 2019-20. In comparison, the national average for 27 States was far behind, at 15.9 per cent. The budgetary allocation for major subsidies such as the Delhi Transport Corporation’s concessional passes and below poverty line water consumers were also highlighted in the campaign. Sanjay Singh pointed out that when Kejriwal said after the results that the politics of Delhi and the country had changed, he meant this new attention to detail that had become part of the political campaign as well as the electorate’s informed understanding of the same.
AAP’s silence on vital issues
Notwithstanding such positives, the deafening silence of the AAP, especially Kejriwal, on a number of vital issues has come in for questioning by political leaders and social activists. The most conspicuous one was on the CAA and the attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia. Even after JNU students were attacked, Kejriwal did not visit the university or the hospital where the injured were admitted. It is also pointed out that the party sided with many controversial decisions taken by the BJP government at the Centre, including the abrogation of Article 370. The party also kept quiet on the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya verdict for the construction of a Ram temple. These have led to criticism that the AAP was essentially playing Centre-Right politics and, hence, the Delhi results do not signify a win for the values of secularism or communal harmony.
On their part, the AAP leadership argued that responding to these questions would have been tantamount to falling into the trap of the BJP as it would have accentuated the communal narrative in the campaign. “What we made possible was a great, almost impossible, realpolitik manoeuvre. And everybody should see the net result. The so-called Chanakya of Indian politics has been humbled by a party that is only a few years old. In the long run, this result will change the way politics is played out in this country,” a close associate of Kejriwal told Frontline .
Responses from other opposition parties such as the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Telugu Desam Party and the Trinamool Congress have focussed on the importance of the defeat of the BJP and the AAP’s development record. At the larger level, the Delhi defeat marks yet another in the series of electoral reverses suffered by the BJP in State Assembly elections. Starting with Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh before the Lok Sabha election in May 2019 and followed by Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand elections, the BJP has faced reverses despite all these being Hindu-majority States.
The big question is whether the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar will understand that majoritarian Hindutva polarisation by unleashing the divisive politics of hatred, Islamophobia and muscular nationalism will not be a permanent winning ploy. As for the AAP, it also faces the big question of whether it will be ultimately defined as a postmodern political phenomenon that is completely bereft of ideological orientation as well as commitment to the values enshrined in the Constitution despite the substantive value it brings, especially in electoral terms, to the fight against authoritarian tendencies and in bolstering secularism.
Even as these larger questions beg for an answer, the short- and medium-term importance of the AAP victory in Delhi remains. More than anything else, it has proved, once again, that in regional electoral battles if there is a credible political organisation with a well-oiled party machinery founded on a sense of realism, people will be ready to vote against the BJP.
In 2015, when the BJP lost in Delhi, many political observers saw the AAP’s victory as a political fluke impelled by enthusiastic and idealistic youngsters. But in 2020, with the BJP having already suffered reverses in October 2019 in Jharkhand, Haryana and Maharashtra, the mighty blow in Delhi can well be seen as the latest sign of an emerging trend.