As the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) again swept the Delhi Assembly polls, the mandate carried significant messages for the BJP, AAP and Congress. All three were important players in the 2020 elections, but the BJP was reduced to being a rump while the Congress drew a blank, as it did five years ago. At the end of an election marked by malice, libel and misrepresentations galore, the voter, remarkably, refused to be persuaded by a negative discourse and opted to be practical and straightforward.
Parsed, it meant that the BJP’s campaign centring round the Centre’s citizenship package, the protests it triggered and the use of the by-now familiar us-versus-them religious binary did not resonate with the voters of the Capital.
The BJP began with trying to punch holes in AAP’s governance record, signposted in the health and education reforms it brought about to make both affordable, accessible and most importantly, exemplary, although the last seemed to be a distant goal. With the legacy issues that the state-run-and-managed health and education sectors inherited, the opinion among the targeted beneficiaries was that the Delhi government did a reasonably good job. The BJP’s ‘exposes’ on both the scores yielded nothing tangible to put AAP and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on the mat.
Midway through the electioneering, the BJP restyled its narrative and went national. The anti-CAA protests — of which Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh was the most potent, unconventional and visible manifestation — became the centrepiece of its discourse and the sit-ins were contextualised as a replay of the Partition. While the protestors used genuinely nationalist symbols — the Tricolour and the National Anthem — and attracted a large presence of Sikhs and Hindus in the hub, underlining the non-religious character of the event, the BJP, aided and abetted by ‘friendly’ TV channels, painted the demonstrations as faith-exclusive and suggested that the non-Hindus ‘clamouring’ for ‘azadi’ should look for ways to leave India and relocate on more hospitable terrain.
If the citizenship law and policies had induced fear among Muslims about their bona fides as Indian nationals, statements from Central ministers insinuating that the ‘unfinished’ job of Partition must be completed intensified the anxiety. Yogi Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and a ‘star’ campaigner in Delhi, had no qualms in declaring that the protests must be answered with bullets and not the biryani fed to the women and children at Shaheen Bagh.The BJP had hoped to polarise the electorate along the religious divide. AAP, on the other hand, steadfastly avoided falling into the divisive trap, realising that even half a statement supporting the protests could spell its death. Manish Sisodia, Deputy CM and close political aide of Kejriwal, courted a major controversy when a TV anchor prodded him to reveal AAP’s stand on Shaheen Bagh. Sisodia said he was in solidarity with the protesters. The statement went viral and was played out today when the early trends from Sisodia's Patparganj Assembly seat projected a defeat for him. His support was correlated with Hindu anger against his statement. Finally, he got a lead over his BJP opponent and seemed on the way to keeping the seat. But the episode reinforced the perils of responding to the political Hindutva, even if under duress.
Kejriwal figured out the dangers inherent in the issue and stuck to plain old development, exemplified in his government’s empowerment schemes for the less privileged. His decision to make travel in public transport free of cost for women was trashed by the BJP as a last-time sop but welcomed by Delhi’s girls who were additionally happy with the security measures they would get with free travel. An election that turned presidential-style with Kejriwal as its face hurt the BJP even more because its faction-ridden Delhi unit, that had more leaders than workers, could not throw up a lead actor. In the 20 years that the BJP has been out of power, the central command made no attempt to zero in and nurture a leader, the last of whom was the late Madan Lal Khurana. It rested on the victories it secured on the back of the Narendra Modi wave in the Lok Sabha polls, and lulled itself into the belief that by picking up all the seven parliamentary seats, it had a good chance of getting most of the 65 Assembly seats that the Lok Sabha tally translated into.
What do the tidings portend? That it’s time the BJP drew a distinction between the ‘big’ and the ‘small’, between a Lok Sabha and an Assembly election and victory in one will not necessarily imply a similar showing in the other and voters’ expectations changed between the two.
A major reason why the Congress damaged itself was because its high command systematically destroyed its regional chieftains. The new BJP regime is walking the same path. A charismatic and credible state leader is perceived as a threat to the Delhi bosses and must be politically eliminated or brought to heel. To Kejriwal and AAP, the verdict brings onerous responsibilities. In his first and second tenure, he confronted challenges, first from the Congress as an ally and then the BJP at the Centre. The BJP’s hostility to AAP was pronounced because the rout in Delhi in 2015 was the first major reversal it faced after the dream run in 2014. The Centre scuttled every project of AAP and tried hard to limit the small elbow space the CM has in a quasi-state like Delhi where law and order management, among other areas, vests with the Centre.
Straightening out relations with the Centre would be Kejriwal’s top priority because another bout of conflict with Modi could have more damaging repercussions for his agenda of governance. On its part, the Centre will not make things easier for its bête noire in Delhi.
Kejriwal was instantly congratulated by the political line-up of powerful regional satraps. Will the Delhi win open a window of opportunity to the non-BJP, non-Congress spectrum to put together an Opposition front? There are no easy answers, but certainly, the debacle of the Congress minimises the chances of the grand old party to helm a broad anti-BJP coalition.
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