Sharp swing

The AAP employed its own methods to convince the voters of its seriousness to form an honest and corruption-free government, and the campaign worked only too well.

Published : Feb 18, 2015 12:30 IST

Arvind Kejriwal addressing a rally at  Sanjay Colony in Bhati Mines area of New Delhi on January 23.

Arvind Kejriwal addressing a rally at Sanjay Colony in Bhati Mines area of New Delhi on January 23.

ON February 10, the people of the Union Territory of Delhi made the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) victory look like an electoral fantasy. It was a classic instance of a modern-day David taking on Goliath. The fledgling party, which contested its first Assembly elections on the same turf on December 4, 2013, with limited resources and a loose organisational structure, trounced the formidable and organisationally strong Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in style. In what pollsters consider an unprecedented majority, the AAP won 67 of the 70 seats and 54.3 per cent of the total votes polled, with the BJP winning only three seats and 32.2 per cent of the votes. The Congress got 9.7 per cent of the votes. While electoral pundits had predicted a win for the AAP in the sharply bipolar election, not even the party had expected such a spectacular performance.

The AAP’s victory is impressive considering that under the direct instructions of BJP party president and political micro-manager Amit Shah, the party had deployed all its Union Cabinet Ministers and 120 Members of Parliament to campaign in Delhi, a half-State. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, who have the reputation of winning 41 elections for the party, addressed almost 20 rallies in the national capital. Fresh from its electoral triumphs in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, and a solid performance in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP, with Modi as its mascot, encountered its first real challenge ever since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by it came to power with a clean majority in May 2014. Actually, Delhi expected a contest between a stronger and election savvy BJP, a lethargic Congress and a fractured three-year-old AAP. The AAP, which was in the fray on the sheer strength of its 30,000-odd volunteers, looked organised enough to halt the Modi juggernaut. Its highly energetic campaign with anti-corruption measures on top of its agenda, coupled with its pre-liberalisation ideas of governance, seems to have appealed the people’s emotional-ethical core.

The AAP’s regrouping as a Delhi-centric party after it suffered a huge defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it contested some 470 seats in several States, was deliberate and politically contextual. The BJP had campaigned effectively during the Lok Sabha elections, labelling the AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal a bhagoda (fugitive) for resigning as the Chief Minister of Delhi after serving in office for 49 days. A large section of Delhi’s electorate bought the BJP’s campaign that Kejriwal and his group of supporters were inefficient administrators and were only a bunch of ambitious political activists. The AAP’s below par performance in the Lok Sabha elections ruined its standing in comparison to the BJP’s rising fortunes in subsequent Assembly elections.

But the AAP started to respond to the crisis almost immediately after the Lok Sabha elections. The national executive of the party, during a series of discussions, realised that the political traction it had in Delhi should be strengthened and expanded for the party to emerge as a credible political alternative. And so Delhi became its focus once again.

The party started a campaign urging the Modi government to lift President’s Rule in Delhi and hold fresh elections. Simultaneously, it started two important programmes, the Delhi Dialogue and Mission Vistaar. Under the first programme, the AAP held meetings in each and every constituency of Delhi, seeking the people’s opinion and getting to know their problems. The Delhi Dialogue was an experiment in a participatory democratic model and connected the AAP with the people once again.

This platform was used to expand the party network and induct new volunteers under Mission Vistaar, a nationwide campaign to connect AAP volunteers. The focus in Delhi during the Assembly elections was on building the organisation right up to the polling booth level. Frontal organisations such as the AAP’s women’s wing and the Gramin Yuva Morcha were also started in Delhi in this period.

As the NDA government at the Centre was contemplating the best time to hold fresh elections to the Delhi Assembly, Kejriwal, through the Delhi Dialogue, launched a campaign against the Union government for deliberately delaying the holding of elections. Throughout this period, and in a politically novel way, Kejriwal visited every colony in the national capital and personally apologised for resigning without taking the people’s opinion. (Kejriwal had sought the people’s opinion, through a referendum in December 2013 on the formation of an AAP government with the support of the Congress.) At the same time, he also explained the logic behind his resignation, taking the sting out of the Congress’ and the BJP’s campaigns. Thereafter, it was only a one-way swing to victory.

The AAP’s political campaign was innovative and its anti-corruption campaign appealed to people’s ethical side. The party employed new methods such as flash mobs and nukkad-natak (street-corner skits) to canvass support. It refrained from holding extravagant public meetings, preferring road shows and door-to-door campaigns. The AAP’s small jan sabha s (people’s councils) in middle-class colonies and jhuggi-jhopri (slum) settlements were in continuum with its Delhi Dialogue meetings. The party election posters on autorickshaws and banners at important chauraha s (squares) requesting the voters to elect Kejriwal with a majority and ensure an honest government for five years had tremendous appeal against the BJP’s generic call for “development” under Modi’s leadership.

The voters were able to relate to the AAP’s idea of governance. The party’s 70-point manifesto talked about concrete issues such as access to drinking water, cheaper electricity, better sanitation in colonies, regularisation of contract workers, ensuring women’s safety, quality government-sponsored primary and higher education, better health care by improving the conditions of the existing hospitals and dispensaries and opening new hospitals, and Internet facilities at public places.

An important aspect of the AAP’s campaign was to remind people of its 49 days in government and the steps it took then. “People appreciated our government. They experienced substantive changes in their everyday lives. Our efforts to curb corruption and improve basic facilities were noticed. In the past nine months, people did not feel the same. The harassment they faced in their daily lives continued. We had a positive campaign about what we did and what we can do,” Atishi Marlena of the AAP told Frontline .

The AAP’s Jo Kaha so Kiya (What we said, we did) campaign and its posters comparing its 49-day rule with the Modi government’s performance worked. It reminded the people of the government’s responsibilities to ensure access to basic facilities, an aspect of governance the Congress and the BJP had ignored since the start of economic liberalisation.

Most importantly, the AAP was anchored by its large army of political volunteers, some of whom had left well-paid jobs or were working part-time as political activists to take the message of the AAP across to the people. People associated this aspect of the AAP with the values of sacrifice, honesty, idealism and selflessness. Young people in denims and casuals, carrying a broomstick (the party’s political symbol) and donning the “I am aam aadmi” cap, were seen campaigning in the streets of Delhi. Middle-aged and senior citizens were seen braving the Delhi winter to canvass in the gullies of unauthorised colonies.

At a time when the political class has lost much of its credibility, the AAP has emerged as an alternative.

By the time the BJP hit the campaign trail, the AAP had already set the agenda for the elections. As a consequence, the BJP had to respond to the issues raised by the AAP. And it did so with a largely negative and slanderous campaign. At the four rallies he addressed, Modi hit out at Kejriwal, calling him an urban naxalite and anarchist. Some BJP leaders called Kejriwal a “monkey” and a “thief”. Calling upon the people to walk with Modi in his “mission of development”, the BJP indulged in a slanderous campaign against Kejriwal, a factor that BJP State president Satish Upadhyay cited as one of the reasons for the BJP’s resounding drubbing.

The BJP was clearly caught off guard in Delhi. Instead of a positive campaign focussing on people’s issues, it did a formulaic, public relations-driven campaign, which had worked well in the parliamentary elections. In the past six months, the Sangh Parivar tried to rake up communally sensitive issues in several constituencies in an attempt to polarise votes. Hindu-Muslim riots, following a pattern witnessed in Muzaffarnagar (Uttar Pradesh), Trilokpuri and Bawana, are cases in point. Days ahead of the elections, a number of BJP candidates were reported to be trying to polarise Hindu votes on communal lines in many constituencies, especially in rural Delhi and in unauthorised colonies.

The BJP’s counterproductive and complacent strategies such as the last-minute para-dropping of Kiran Bedi as its chief ministerial candidate or poaching prominent leaders from other parties and giving them the ticket to contest did not go down well with party activists, resulting in dissent within the already fragmented State unit. Kiran Bedi’s naive political understanding and her lack of ability to interact with the electorate harmed the BJP’s prospects further. The AAP’s strategic refusal to get provoked by the BJP’s slanderous remarks upset the BJP’s prospects.

The electoral verdict, therefore, should be seen as a juxtaposition of a positive sentiment towards the AAP and an element of negativity towards the BJP. In 30 of the 31 seats the BJP won in 2013, the party lost by huge margins this time. One of its candidates lost by almost 50,000 votes, five of them lost by more than 40,000 votes, seven lost by more than 30,000, and another seven lost by more than 20,000 votes. That the people of Delhi rejected all forms of communal politics is mirrored in the results of Trilokpuri and Bawana. In Bawana, of the 1,88,660 votes polled, the AAP candidate, Ved Prakash, got 1,09,259 votes (almost 60 per cent of the total votes, and one of the highest votes polled by an AAP candidate), leaving the BJP candidate a distant second with 59,236 votes. Similarly, in Trilokpuri, the AAP candidate, Raju Dhingan, polled around 75,000 votes and came out as one of the top performers for the party.

In most constituencies, the verdict showed the contest to be one-sided, with the people clearly in favour of Kejriwal as their Chief Minister and refusing to get trapped in the Modi parade. It also reflected a complete rejection of the Congress, whose candidates lost their deposits in more than 60 constituencies, and the BJP, which was perceived as anti-people. The AAP was clearly the better alternative because it revived a long-forgotten political language of welfare and rekindled people’s hope in the political class.

Many perceived the jhadoo (broom) as the AAP’s symbolic weapon. During this correspondent’s interaction with the people of the R.K. Puram slum cluster, a resident, Ajay Kumar, said he perceived the jhadoo as a symbol of security. “[Kiran] Bedi in her speeches says that if she becomes the Chief Minister, she will turn Delhi into a world-class city where there will be no jhuggi-jhopri s. What does she mean? We have seen how the Congress government razed our dwellings during the Commonwealth Games. We will not allow this to happen again. We are not living here by choice but because we have nowhere else to go,” Ajay Kumar said.

In most constituencies, there was a strong class divide in party preferences. While the rich and a large section of the upper middle class favoured the BJP, the poor and the lower middle class supported the AAP. Some political observers called this election an exercise in urban, democratic class war. This analysis may not be off the mark as the traditional caste and community equations, crucial in Delhi’s elections, did not work this time. The AAP’s 54.3 per cent vote share, almost a 22-point gain since the Lok Sabha elections, shows that it received votes from all castes and communities. The dominant caste votes, which include Jats, Punjabi Khatris, Sikhs and Banias—a major chunk of the traditional vote bank of the BJP—were divided for the first time on the lines of class. Muslims saw the AAP as the most credible party to take on the BJP. According to a post-election survey by the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), almost 77 per cent of Muslims voted for the AAP. The BJP’s vote share of 32.3 per cent comprised mostly the rich and upper-middle classes and a wide network of people associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. The BJP’s vote share has always hovered around this figure except in the last Lok Sabha elections when Modi’s popularity helped its vote share rise to almost 44 per cent. The BJP won all the seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi. It was able to maintain the status quo because of a redistribution of the votes according to class considerations and not on the basis of a traditional support base.

Sanjay Kumar of the CSDS validates this point: “The election data show that the lead of the AAP over the BJP among the poor, if compared with the last election, is more than 41 per cent. Despite the fact the AAP polled votes from all sections of society, this gap narrows down as you move upwards on the class ladder. The poor and the lower middle class were staunchly with the AAP.” The Delhi elections definitely saw a paradigmatic shift in the way elections have come to be fought in the post-liberalisation era. That new-age corruption is a result of crony capitalism was something people were aware of. The AAP’s success lies in the fact that it conveyed this understanding to the people better than most other parties in recent times. Its massive victory is definitely a resurrection of the powerless in India’s polity. In this victory, the poor saw their unguarded slums winning, lowly paid workers saw their small aspirations winning, and young idealists saw their ethics winning. The AAP’s victory belongs to these hopes whom it encouraged.

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