With the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) aggressively pitching its anti-corruption campaign, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parachute-dropping a political novice, Kiran Bedi, as the chief ministerial candidate as an emergency measure, and the Congress desperately fighting to gain ground after the drubbing it received in the Lok Sabha election, the Assembly election in Delhi, scheduled for February 7, seems to have transformed into a prestige battle. A hung Assembly in 2013, a 49-day AAP government which ended with Kejriwal’s dramatic resignation as Chief Minister, a BJP sweep in the 2014 parliamentary elections thereafter, and Kejriwal’s persistent campaign to get President’s rule lifted over the last year had prepared the electorate of Delhi for an unprecedentedly high-decibel canvassing.
Both the BJP and the AAP fought the 2013 Assembly election on an anti-Congress plank. However, as the political context has changed after the victory of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the Lok Sabha elections, the contest in Delhi this time is focussed primarily on issues like governance and development. As the election draws nearer, the Congress, still carrying the burden of the harsh defeat, has been pushed to the sidelines except in a few constituencies where it may win or have an impact on the final result. As a result, the election looks like a straight contest between the BJP and the AAP. The campaign, too, reflects this trend. Though the BJP goes into the election with Kiran Bedi as its chief ministerial candidate, it is banking mostly on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity. The AAP, on the other hand, in a Herculean effort to overturn the Modi wave, has stirred up an energetic campaign.
Delhi has always been a slippery terrain for the BJP because of factional feuds and its inability to project a strong leader. It is because of these factors that the BJP has never been able to capture power in the last one and a half decades despite a strong and loyal support base, formidable cadre strength, and a thriving Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) network across the city. However, the party received a shot in the arm when it swept Delhi in the 2014 parliamentary elections, thanks to the exemplary public relations campaign of Narendra Modi. Modi’s campaign in Delhi revolved around the promise of “development” and “good governance”, which rested on efficient service-delivery mechanisms.
Wanting to make a dent in Modi’s popularity, the AAP seems to have co-opted these two aspects of the BJP’s campaign into its own agenda. In the last two months, the AAP has systematically employed a twofold strategy. Firstly, it has focussed on the achievements of its 49-day government. For instance, it has promised the people of Delhi that it will implement the free water and cheap electricity schemes that it had initiated then. It has been reminding people that these schemes were dropped as soon as Kejriwal resigned. Similarly, it has focussed on women’s security, which has great political traction across the city after the Nirbhaya gang-rape incident, by proposing concrete plans like having surveillance cameras installed all over Delhi, or employing volunteer squads to prevent eve-teasing. Second, it has raised its anti-corruption pitch, which was the party’s biggest attraction as it emerged from the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement. Its campaign focusses on how extortion by government agencies like the police had drastically reduced during its 49-day tenure. It also promises to have simplified service-delivery mechanisms, which have the potential to curb corruption. A comparative chart of the records of the AAP’s tenure in the capital and the BJP government at the Centre that the party has prepared has become a talking point.
The twofold strategy addresses the concerns of the poor and the marginalised in the city. In effect, the AAP’s electoral strategy addresses this segment of Delhi’s population which consists mostly of migrant labourers living in slums, low-income government servants, minorities and Dalits. In doing so, Kejriwal not only has attempted to project himself as a pro-poor administrator but has largely been successful in shedding his “just-an-activist” image that the BJP created when he resigned.
It can be said that the AAP has evolved as a full-fledged political party in this election and managed to break away from its image of being a mere offshoot of the anti-corruption movement. In order to be seen as a viable political alternative, the party has made alliances with power groups in different parts of the city, often inviting criticism from its initial support base. These new manoeuvres by the AAP have also led to many defections and public dissensions. The senior-most member of the AAP, Shanti Bhushan, publicly lambasting Kejriwal is a case in point.
A prominent leader of the AAP in Delhi justified these new strategies, “Yes, we have included influential people in various constituencies and we have considered the winnability and acceptability of the candidates in our ticket-distribution mechanism. But this does not mean that we have distanced ourselves from our core anti-corruption agenda. That is something we cannot compromise on. In fact, the same rigorous reviewing mechanisms have been employed for ticket distribution. We have expanded our base. Some of these influential candidates have been involved in various philanthropic and political activities. We have seen to it that our candidates have clean backgrounds. And we can go to the extent of withdrawing our candidates even on the last day of campaigning if we get to know of something wrong [about them]. For example, we withdrew our first candidate from Mundka constituency when we got to know about his involvement in a forgery case,” the leader said.
This tactic seems to be working. In 2013, the AAP won only one out of the 15 constituencies in outer and rural Delhi areas where it has now forged tactical alliances with power groups. A senior political observer based in New Delhi told Frontline that the dissension in and defections from the AAP can be seen as an ideological warfare between two different ideas of a political movement within the party. “One is a very puritanical, non-tactical line, often criticised as elitist. And the other one, which is contextual, is moulding itself according to political necessities but not outside its political philosophy. One must remember how Kanshiram consolidated Dalits first through organisations like the All India Backward (S.C., S.T., OBC) and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) and the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samithi (DS4) but adopted social and political engineering as tools to expand the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Such tendencies are part and parcel of any expanding political movement, and are often useful if handled well,” he said.
The AAP has managed to balance its anti-corruption agenda while forging tactical alliances on the ground based on caste and community equations. Consequently, there seems to be a larger consolidation of S.C./OBC/Muslim voters in favour of the AAP. These communities were divided between the AAP and the Congress in the last Assembly and parliamentary elections. The AAP’s original anti-corruption agenda highlighting the nexus between the political and the corporate classes has now been coupled with the dialogue of efficient administration which, it believes, people saw for themselves during its 49-day tenure. Such has been the energy of its campaign that the BJP, despite Modi’s popularity, was forced to rope in another leader of the anti-corruption movement, Kiran Bedi, as a last resort to counter the AAP.
Despite an effervescent campaign, the task ahead remains a staggering one for the AAP. In the last parliamentary election, the BJP had a lead in 60 out of the 70 Assembly constituencies, with a 46.4 per cent vote share. The AAP was a distant second with 33 per cent. In addition, Kejriwal’s image suffered a huge blow after his sudden resignation, which cost him much of his middle-class voter base. Over 10 minor communal riots in the last one year have nudged the Valmiki community, a substantial section of Delhi’s population, in the BJP’s favour. The BSP’s decision to contest all the 70 seats may also cut into the AAP’s Dalit support base.
Government employees, who form a substantial section of the voters, supported Modi in the parliamentary election and it will be an uphill task for the AAP to get them on its side. It is for this reason that the AAP has been highlighting the BJP-led Haryana government’s lowering of the age of retirement from 60 to 58 years.
The BJP had a clear advantage just a month ago, but the AAP’s brisk campaign has neutralised it to a great extent. The induction of Kiran Bedi, a political novice who cannot match Kejriwal’s charisma, does not seem to be helping the BJP much, which is why BJP president Amit Shah has involved many of the party’s Union Ministers in the campaign. Influential leaders of the BJP have been appointed to work in various caste and community strongholds. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, too, had to be called in at the last minute to micromanage the BJP’s campaign. Clearly, a victory in Delhi is crucial and prestigious for the BJP and will help the party consolidate itself further in north India.
However, the AAP is not making things easier for the BJP. Talking about the similarities between him and Kiran Bedi as both emerged as leaders from the anti-corruption movement, Kejriwal said in a recent interview: “Yes, there are similarities, but people are not going to decide their support based on this. People will compare the AAP’s 49 days with the BJP’s seven months of misrule in the capital. People are feeling that she has changed. She herself had said once that voters should not vote for a party that does not encourage transparency in funding. Has the BJP made its funding transparent? She had said that people should not vote for a party that appointed people accused of rape as Ministers. The BJP’s Central Minister is accused of rape. Why did she join them? She spoke of the CBI’s [Central Bureau of Investigation] independence. Is it independent now? Is the BJP not misusing the CBI?”
Despite this kind of daily duel between Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi, Delhi, in the most tightly contested election ever, will have to choose between two opposing political positions. One of the AAP, which concentrates on providing basic services for survival and creating equal opportunities for the people, and the other of the BJP, which promises to turn Delhi into “a world-class city”, the main point in Kiran Bedi’s speeches. Between an idea of a “Bharat” where the poor are the majority and the government works for them, and another, of an India where people are secondary in the development discourse. It is anyone’s guess which one of these contrasting political imaginations will win the voters over.