Statistics and data apart, even a cursory study of the Delhi Assembly election will show that a key factor behind the sweeping victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) itself, an irony since the BJP’s main aim was to somehow unseat Arvind Kejriwal.
The BJP would have in all probability lost the battle for the 70-member House anyway. But its violently shrill and communally-laced campaign against AAP and Kejriwal put off tens of thousands who may have been otherwise sympathetic to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Even before the voting on February 8, random conversations with friends, neighbours and others showed that most people had made up their mind to vote for AAP, partly because of Kejriwal’s governance and partly as they were not ready to buy the BJP’s rhetoric that the Delhi election was being waged between a “terrorist” (Kejriwal) and nationalists (BJP). The propaganda did take its toll on AAP but the overwhelming majority of the young, salaried and retired class, housewives, most of lower middle-class, many businessmen as well as a section of even the conservative Hindu society did not buy it. The result was AAP winning an astounding 62 of the 70 seats, a remarkable showing after five years in power when it was often in conflict with the Modi government.
The factors that contributed to the BJP’s humiliating rout in Delhi – it won eight seats, just five seats more than in 2015 – were both economic and political. There is widespread anger in the poor and middle-class over declining returns from savings, concern over privatisation of state-run units, rising prices of food items, lack of employment and a general slackening of business. The police attacks on Jamia Millia and JNU students did not go down well with the younger population, barring those committed to the Hindutva ideology.
Getting it Wrong
Kejriwal proved to be a greater political strategist than many in the BJP. He refused to let AAP fall into the high-octane traitor-versus-nationalist battleground. The message was given out to all AAP candidates that they must stick to the “development agenda” – highlight the Delhi government’s successes on various issues and not comment about the CAA (Kejriwal did support scrapping of Article 370). In 2015, Modi called Kejriwal a “naxalite” and paid the price for it (BJP won just three seats then) and this time Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath branded Kejriwal a “terrorist” while Home Minister Amit Shah accused him of having biryani with Muslim women protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) at Shaheen Bagh.
The BJP got it all wrong. It took the silence of the voter as approval of its politics. Instead of focusing on issues concerning people’s day-to-day life (AAP did that), a huge army of BJP leaders who railed against Kejriwal constantly spoke about the CAA, “traitors”, Pakistan, and how Delhi needed to turn “patriotic” by voting for the saffron party. Amit Shah, who led the campaign, described the Delhi electoral battle as one between India and Pakistan. The “India” was here supposed to be the BJP and, of course, Kejriwal stood for “Pakistan”. Taking a cue from him, his juniors in the party spoke about shooting down (“goli maro”) perceived traitors. A ruling party is supposed to contribute a sense of safety and well-being; here thuggery was encouraged. Ordinary families do not approve of violence on the streets because it hits them badly.
The BJP needs to draw appropriate lessons from the Delhi outcome. Why did a party that won all seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi last year not get more than eight Assembly seats less than a year later? Although Delhi is a half-State where the Chief Minister doesn’t even control Delhi Police, the psychological impact of such a sweeping win for AAP at the cost of the BJP cannot be discounted. This is the city where Modi and Amit Shah now live as the head of a central government but they missed the popular mood. What went wrong?
The politics of Hindu nationalism may have many takers but it will begin to give diminishing returns if people get the feeling that society will always have to be in ferment over some issue or the other to promote Hindutva. After all, this is not why people voted for Modi in 2014 and later too. Quietly shunning the “sabka saath, sabka vikas” appeal, the BJP for all practical purposes seems determined to crush the Muslim community while claiming that this is not true. At least, this is the message most people are beginning to get. Starting from “ghar vapsi” and “love jihad”, decisions have now been taken on the Ayodhya and the “triple talaq” issues.
And despite the fiasco on who is the foreigner in Assam, the country is now threatened with a costly nationwide exercise to prove who can stay on in India, all the time giving the message that no one needs to fear except Muslims. The BJP has to ask itself: will it continue on this path? On top of all this, the economy is hardly looking well – and the possibility of successful public sector companies going private angers most people since the private sector has been seen to be generally exploitive.
This is where Kejriwal’s welfare politics had a strong appeal. Even private school teachers across Delhi admit that AAP has turned around the city’s once shabby government schools in a manner unthinkable in the past. A series of steps taken on the health front, including the hugely popular Mohalla Clinics (where consultation with doctors and medicines are free), is another winner. These, along with cheap electricity and near free water supply, help scores of families to save anywhere between Rs 800 and Rs 2,000 a month – a welcome relief in these hard times.
The pilgrimage scheme for senior citizens, again free of cost, is so popular that there is a huge waiting line, much like what one used to see in an earlier era for telephones and Bajaj scooters!
Does the Delhi result mean that all those who voted for AAP (53%) will vote against the BJP in a parliamentary election? That may not happen. But the more the BJP keeps on pursuing intransigent Hindutva politics while at the same letting the economy just drift, the anger against the BJP-led Central government will rise. The BJP must thank its stars that Modi’s individual popularity (although he is part and parcel of all the good and the bad in governance) remains high compared with his party. If that were not the case, the BJP would be staring at a dark future.
(The author is a senior journalist based in Delhi)