Delhi’s Assembly election results are a comprehensive electoral setback for the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, which has faced a string of fails in state elections after its domination over last year’s general election. The party’s hate-filled, divisive and communal rhetoric failed to garner political legitimacy in Delhi and the Aam Aadmi Party’s inclusive civic agenda vanquished BJP’s toxic hyper-nationalism. The BJP wanted to turn the Delhi verdict into a quasi-referendum on Shaheen Bagh, a strategy that the AAP deflected, for now, by steering clear of the CAA narratives. Nevertheless, the Delhi win is tremendously valuable for those who are conscientiously battling on the Capital’s streets to protect the republic from the majoritarian establishment.
Chink in BJP’s Armour?
Delhi’s voters have drawn a clear distinction between state and national elections. This larger pattern is not peculiar to Delhi. The BJP’s vote-share has been declining in every Assembly election ever since the Lok Sabha poll. Figure1 shows the BJP’s falling vote share in Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Delhi. Even more stark is the decline of the BJP’s seat-share.
Also evident from recent Assembly election verdicts is the diminishing utility of hate-filled election campaigns. The BJP has consistently been led in its election campaigns by party heavyweights such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, but all of them combined could not deliver victories. From this, one can tentatively conclude that the Indian polity could even have averted the electoral template that emerged in Indian politics after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.
That aside, the credit for AAP’s spectacular victory goes equally to the rejection of hatred and polarisation by Delhiites and the BJP’s lack of a popular leader whom it could project as a chief minister in Delhi. Incumbent Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also played the “Delhi ki beta” and “Shravan Kumar” card shrewdly, undercutting environment minister Prakash Javadekar, who called him “terrorist”.
Critics say that Kejriwal went overboard with his personality transformation by reciting the Hanuman Chalisa and declaring himself a “kattar” (staunch) Hindu. Whether he had intended to reclaim Hinduism from its appropriation by exclusivist Hindutva—a laudable effort—or it was just a “me-too” tactic to get majoritarian sympathies is unclear.
More important is the question of what BJP’s decline in regional elections implies. Is it a symptom of voter preferences changing between state and national elections? Or does it reflect the electorate’s desperate voice against the BJP’s divisive politics—which they could not give voice to during the national polls because the Opposition at the Center was not strong enough? If it is the latter, then the BJP’s political opponents, including the Congress party (which has been decimated in Delhi) can see in the Delhi verdict an opportunity to regroup and arise from the ashes.
However, it is the former which is the more likely possibility. For, while AAP’s vote-share has remained almost constant in this election compared with the last, it is the BJP which has expanded its vote share by about 7% since the last Assembly election.
Compared with 2015, there was a dramatic fall of over 5% (from 67.47% to 62.59%) in voter turnout in the Delhi election. This decline has been on for a while now (see figure 2). It is hard to pinpoint which voters failed to exercise their franchise, but their profile likely fits that of a non-BJP voter, that is, the Muslims, the non-elite caste Hindus, the poor and migrants. This demographic is conventionally understood to be primarily a Congress voter. That would also explain why the voter turnout has been falling ever since 2015 in particular; that was the year the Congress was electorally decimated in Delhi.
It is important to keep in mind that these figures are percentages. In absolute terms the number of voters as compared to 2015 elections has gone up by 1.6 lakh.
The Delhi election offers a key insight into the politics of incumbency. Usually anti-incumbency in India is presumed to be a factor in itself which can explain a ruling regime failing to return to power. Political commentators are quick to blame “anti-incumbency” for the defeat of a party in power—as if this factor is beyond anyone’s control.
Rather, incumbency is only the result of a party’s governance record and its electoral strategies and campaigns. AAP campaigned on their work during the five years of their just-concluded regime. The result is that 40 of their sitting MLAs have been re-elected. Political pundits should realise that “incumbency wave” cannot be considered an external factor or a reason for good or bad election results. Verdicts, instead, are a direct outcome of work done and the campaign led by political outfits.
In Lok Sabha 2019, AAP came third in Delhi. It was beaten by both the BJP and the Congress. Therefore, INC’s vote share falling to only 4.26% and 63 of its contestants losing their deposit in Delhi 2020 is surprising. One conclusion to draw is that the INC took a calculated risk to not appear a serious third contender, so as to prevent the BJP’s rise in the state. It would be naïve to presume that leaders of the INC suddenly lost their ability to put up an electoral contest, had they set out to do so. As a bipolar contest between BJP and AAP necessarily benefits the latter, it remains to be seen whether the Congress adopted a wise course of action for its long-term strategy for Delhi.
The above analysis shows that the “liberal triumphalism” of a secular victory by AAP is probably being overstretched. The pragmatic campaign tactics of AAP helped it sidestep the narratives of Shaheen Bagh, anti-CAA protests, Article 370 and so on. While this might seem like a smart move to some, it certainly does not permit the interpretation that the electorate has rejected the BJP’s divisive agenda wholesale.
Therefore, the victory in Delhi will not be easy to extend to the national scale. If at all AAP sees itself as a national player in future, it will have to take a position on the identity issues that have brought the nation out on the streets to protest. AAP’s silence on these issues are a cause for concern for Delhi residents who sought to teach the sectarian forces a lesson through their vote. Fighting shy of confronting the divisive agenda gives ideological credence to the BJP. If AAP fails to act as a principled opponent, it also risks shrinking the space for dissent and resistance further.
A very thin line separates principled silence from convenient submission. The clear risk AAP is taking is of getting on to the slippery slope of ideological convenience. To sustain itself as a force to reckon with, AAP will need to differentiate between a strategy that prioritises governance while remaining apathetic towards the core political issues that will have pronounced impact on India’s future as a secular and democratic republic.
Prannv Dhawan is a third-year law student at National Law School of India University, Bangalore (India). Ishaan Bansal is a final year liberal arts student at the Ashoka University, Sonipat.