The AAP effect

Print edition : May 16, 2014

AAP supporters protesting at Rajghat on April 8 after their leader, Arvind Kejriwal, was slapped by an attacker during his election campaign in New Delhi. Photo: Tsering Topgyal/AP

THE rout of the Sheila Dikshit-led Congress party in the Assembly elections last December suddenly exposed the elephant in the room. After having tasted victories in three successive Assembly elections and emerging as the leading party in the last two parliamentary elections, the Congress party seemed to have not only strengthened its organisational base in Delhi but also managed to decimate the morale of the principal opposition party—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, when it won only eight of the 70 Assembly constituencies, many problems within the Congress party came to the fore.

Sheila Dikshit openly accused the other leaders of the State unit of not supporting her in the campaign. For a long time, she had a bittersweet relationship with leaders such as J.P. Agarwal and Chaudhary Prem Singh, who had been generally perceived to command a great following within the State unit. Sheila Dikshit, despite being viewed as an “outsider”, rose to the top with the support of the party high command. Three successive victories made her all the more indispensable. Everything seemed fine and internal dissensions were swept under the carpet until the party faced a humiliating defeat.

Undoubtedly, Sheila Dikshit had become the face of the Congress in Delhi in the last 15 years. But the Congress’ lacklustre campaign, in the Assembly elections as well as the recently concluded parliamentary elections, suggested an unprecedented level of diffidence in the State unit. “During canvassing, most of our campaigners felt burdened with a barrage of questions related to scandals that broke out at the Centre. People did not complain about the performance of the Delhi government but this time they had already decided to not vote for us,” said a regional Congress leader.

A similar public mood against the Congress was perceptible in the campaign ahead of the parliamentary elections. A persistent and aggressive campaign by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) over the last two years has made matters worse for the Congress party as scandals relating to 2G spectrum and coal block allocations became fodder for public discussions. Ever-increasing electricity and water tariffs were also turned into electoral issues by the AAP.

AAP factor

The State BJP unit, which was nurturing hopes of capitalising on the rising resentment against the ruling dispensation, gained and lost at once from the AAP’s emergence. The AAP’s successful campaign against the Congress and its limitation of being a new entrant in electoral politics led to the BJP being perceived as a credible alternative in Delhi, a perception it could not have managed on its own. For long, serious infighting within the State BJP unit, the lack of a strong regional leader, and its failure to be seen as a modern right-wing party in the ever-growing urban space of Delhi kept it out of the contest.

Leaders such as Vijay Goel, Vijendra Gupta and Vijay Malhotra articulate their views openly against one another. Consecutive defeats in the last 15 years had demoralised the party in Delhi. With a view to cashing in on the rising anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress, the BJP high command promoted Harsh Vardhan, perceived to be a leader above factionalism, as the president and the chief ministerial nominee of the party. The idea was to neutralise dissensions. Throughout this phase of rejuvenation, the party made sure that its prime ministerial nominee, Narendra Modi, emerged as the only face of the party. The BJP saw to it that none of its factions within the State unit got more prominence than required. Even Harsh Vardhan was projected as a leader who enjoyed Modi’s support. The BJP, in its desperation, exhorted the people to vote for Modi and not for individual candidates.

BJP’s loss

However, the AAP’s emergence forced people to think beyond the bipolar politics of Delhi. The AAP polled more than 28 per cent votes in the Assembly elections and the BJP, despite a much better performance in terms of seats, recorded its lowest vote share at only 33 per cent, a loss of at least three percentage points. Clearly, the AAP spoiled the BJP’s party.

Though no Modi wave was perceptible in the Assembly elections, the BJP’s campaign focussed wholeheartedly on “Modi Sarkar” for the parliamentary elections. Hoardings and banners extolling Modi were put all over the State. The State unit made a long list of the “development works” in Gujarat under Modi and tried to woo middle-class voters. “The BJP clearly is making the parliamentary election sound like a referendum on Modi. And this seems to be working at some level among particular castes and classes,” noted psephologist Sanjay Kumar of Lokniti-CSDS told Frontline.

Many surveys showed that in the period following the Assembly elections and following Arvind Kejriwal’s resignation from the Chief Minister’s post, the AAP has lost some ground. The BJP made Kejriwal’s resignation a political issue and asked people to vote for a “stable government”. While the AAP still retains its support in the jhuggi-jhopri clusters, the BJP has campaigned intensively among a significant urban aspirational population in the national capital. It is for this reason that both the AAP and the Congress tried to debunk the “Gujarat Model” in their canvassing by putting forward counter-factual narratives.

Congress relies on old base

A wary Congress, on the other hand, is relying on consolidating its traditional vote base of Dalits, Muslims, and the urban poor. Kejriwal’s resignation has also helped both the Congress and the BJP polarise voters on communal lines. “We have asked Muslims to vote for us to counter Modi. Secular people know that voting for the AAP in the parliamentary elections will only help the BJP in this election,” said the Congress leader.

A significant number of Muslims expressed their support to the AAP after the Assembly elections. However, in the months that followed, the Muslim votes (11 per cent) looked divided between the Congress and the AAP, which was evident from this correspondent’s interaction with Muslims. The two constituencies—Chandni Chowk and East Delhi—where the Muslim votes can influence the result also showed this trend.

Taking into account the apolitical nature of a large section of Delhi’s urban electorate, the BJP did not work on consolidating its support on communal lines. It relied on exhorting people to vote for it on the basis of Modi’s brand of development. However, despite such aggressive campaigning, there is no perceptible Modi wave. An informal survey of all constituencies suggests that people have voted for what they thought was the “best candidate” in this tripartite struggle.

In the Assembly elections, it was clear that the AAP had replaced the Congress in most constituencies and regions. With a dull campaign, the Congress is relying upon its candidates, all of them sitting MPs, and hoping to consolidate its support on caste and religious lines.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

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