Third force

Print edition : December 27, 2013

AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal addresses supporters from his office in New Delhi after the results were announced. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

BJP chief ministerial candidate Harsh Vardhan after winning in his constituency. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit addressing the media after her defeat. Photo: S. Subramanium

Supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party celebrate its performance outside the party office in New Delhi on December 8. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

This Assembly election will be a watershed in Indian politics because it was driven by issues. People voted across traditional caste and class lines for the AAP and against the Congress.

THE election to the Delhi Assembly was touted as a litmus test for both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), given the competition they faced from the new entrant, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). For the three-time Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, it was a test of her popularity and political skills. For the State BJP, it was a test of its organisational unity, often in trouble, and its ability to be seen as a positive alternative to the Congress. For the AAP, there was nothing at stake as its objective was only to challenge the existing corrupt political dynamics. With all the signs pointing to a hung Assembly at the time of writing, and no party in a position to form even a coalition government, the election held in Delhi on December 4 for its fifth Assembly term could, now, well be an important watershed in Indian politics.

Elections in Delhi have always been given an attention disproportionate to the National Capital Region’s size, but there are specifically three factors that made this election remarkable. Firstly, and most importantly, voters in Delhi came out in large numbers to vote for the AAP, belying the assumptions and scepticism of political pundits. The AAP, with its politics of pro-people idealism, emerged as the chief opposition party with 28 seats in the 70-member Assembly, a result that no one had expected. It challenged the corrupt political establishment, put the BJP and the Congress in the same bracket as parties of the rich practising cronyism, and advocated decentralisation of power to help build a system of swaraj (self-rule). With a single-point agenda of rooting out corruption, it became a party run purely by volunteers and ordinary people’s donations.

It is because of these factors that the AAP’s stupendous performance is seen as unprecedented. That people have come to believe in the party can be understood from the fact that its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, defeated Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit in her own stronghold—New Delhi constituency—by more than 25,000 votes. Not only did it win in middle-class and upper-class constituencies like Greater Kailash and Malviya Nagar, where its good performance was predicted, but it also won in many constituencies in outer and rural Delhi, like Burari and Ambedkar Nagar, where the majority of the population is poor. It is for the first time that slum-dwellers—a massive electoral group —voted against the Congress, and mostly in favour of the AAP. Even after the Emergency, when the general mood was against the Congress, slum-dwellers voted for the Congress.

Secondly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP+) emerged as the single largest group with 32 seats, falling short of a majority by four seats, but the party will only see it as a disappointing performance. Despite an overwhelming anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress, and with only the AAP as a serious contender, it could not win Delhi with even a simple majority. As in the 2008 election, the party cannot blame its loss on infighting as it put up a spirited fight under the leadership of Narendra Modi’s nominee Harsh Vardhan as the chief-ministerial candidate. It is clear that the “Modi effect”, which the BJP claims has had an impact in States like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, did not work in cosmopolitan Delhi. With 32 seats, it still might be able to form the government, but despite the miserable defeat of its chief opposition, the Congress, it has failed to emerge as a clear winner in the national capital and earn the people’s trust in its politics.

The result in Delhi shows that the BJP has benefited mostly from anti-Congress votes. Only a detailed analysis, however, will show if the BJP gained from its traditional voters. That people voted against dynasty politics is clear from the fact that even the sons of top BJP leaders lost to AAP candidates. For instance, Ajay Malhotra, the son of a powerful BJP politician, lost in the upmarket Greater Kailash.

Thirdly, the Congress party met with a stunning defeat and managed to win only eight seats. This means that the party has been reduced to a nondescript force in the Assembly it dominated for 15 years. The mandate is seen as a referendum against price rise and corruption. Almost everyone Frontline talked to on the streets of Delhi complained about price rise and said that they would vote for the AAP. Ironically, not many people had negative views on Sheila Dikshit’s government in Delhi. The defeat of the Congress in Delhi, therefore, can be understood as a manifestation of the anger against the Union government and its politics.

Another interesting feature of the results is the loss of student leaders from both the Congress and the BJP. Both the parties had given the ticket to many of their student leaders to counter the aggressive campaign of the AAP and the support it had among the youth. Ragini Nayak and Amit Kumar from the Congress and Nakul Bhardwaj and Amrita Dhawan from the BJP lost by massive margins. The trend is being read as a clear message to the political parties to desist from political tokenism.

Clearly, the AAP has raised hopes in Delhi. It is after a long time that the people have voted for a political party and its values rather than for individuals. Jhadoo (broom), which is the AAP’s election symbol, or kamal (lotus), the BJP’s symbol, became the talking points in the city as opposed to the profiles of candidates. This Assembly election could very well mark the beginning of issues driving politics instead of caste and religious dynamics.

In terms of vote shares, it is bad news for both the Congress and the BJP. The Congress lost a whopping 15 percentage points, polling only 25 per cent of the votes. The BJP, too, lost three percentage points, getting only 33 per cent.

In contrast, the AAP, in its very first elections, secured 30 per cent of the votes. While there is no positive takeaways for the Congress in this election, the only solace for the BJP is its performance among the Poorvanchalis—migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who form one-third of Delhi’s population. Most of the BJP candidates who were from Poorvanchal won from their respective constituencies. The BJP focussed on this section of the population in its political campaigns and also gave them adequate representation. Similarly, it also won in the Punjabi-dominated areas of West Delhi. Focussing on population groups as part of political strategy seems to have paid off, if only partially, for the BJP.

That the AAP managed a 30 per cent vote share points to four things. Firstly, people voted across traditional caste and class lines. It won in reserved constituencies as well as in migrant-dominated outer Delhi colonies. Even the BJP vote share owes more to an anti-Congress sentiment rather than to caste politics. Secondly, the response to the AAP symbolises people’s anger against existing political practices. It is clear that people have a low opinion of the kind of politics practised by both the BJP and the Congress. Thirdly, the AAP’s vote share also reflects overwhelming support for the decentralisation of power, which the AAP advocates. It emphasises again that local and regional issues influenced voting, in the absence of a popular political ideology. Fourthly, only 1 per cent of the electorate exercised the “None of the above” (NOTA) option. This means that people were energised into rediscovering their belief in the parliamentary system and constitutional values, which the AAP constantly invoked.

How many of these votes will remain with the AAP in the parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, when Narendra Modi, who has gained huge traction among middle-class youth, is a matter of conjecture. But right now, both the Congress and the BJP need to do some introspection on their losses. A 67 per cent voter turnout this time, an increase of 10 percentage points from the last election and the highest for any Delhi Assembly election, had a lot to do with the anti-incumbency factor. But it also showed that the city’s voters will come out to vote in large numbers if they are provided with a credible alternative. Delhi that way has led by example.

So the AAP can, of course, rejoice. It has gone on record saying that it will not support any party or accept support from any party to form the government in Delhi. It is prepared to face another election within six months. If that happens, its chances of winning will surely increase, considering the trend seen in this election.

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