There are several takeaways from the overwhelming repeat mandate for the AAP in Delhi. Before we analyse them, a recap of the election campaign, possibly the nastiest in independent India’s history, is in order.
The Aam Aadmi Party of Arvind Kejriwal had a clear edge to begin with. A month or thereabouts prior to the big day, the election seemed a cakewalk for it what with robust performance on the ground and strong grassroots connect to flaunt. It jettisoned controversial issues such as Shaheen Bagh and developments at JNU from its strategy and choose to make education and health its big campaign talking points instead. Never ever in the country these two subjects had gained such prominence during elections and it clearly caught rivals the BJP and the Congress on the wrong foot.
Adding more firepower to the AAP’s campaign were free power and electricity to the poor, and a conscious image makeover by Kejriwal from rebel without a pause to the genial, affable, well-meaning and dutiful ‘eldest son’ of the big family that is Delhi.
The chief contender BJP, smarting from a spate of electoral defeats in states across the country, sought to turn it into a prestige battle. For a party which treats elections as nothing short of war, it was a difficult task though. Its state unit was a hopelessly divided house, the leadership was uninspiring and the track record of municipal corporations run by it offered little to talk about. Alarmed by the clear lead AAP had gained, it decided to resort to its stock option: communalising the campaign. What followed was a highly toxic campaign frontloaded with hate and threats of violence. The party chose to make the anti-CAA protest at Shaheen Bagh led by Muslim women as the pivot of its campaign. The pet themes of Hindutva and nationalism were at play with ugliness hitherto unknown in the country.
Two weeks to the polling, it appeared that the BJP was closing the gap. The Congress, either as a deliberate move or out of sheer incompetence or a combination of both was nowhere in competition. Its primary target was never the AAP but the BJP. Since it shares a common vote bank with Kejriwal’s party, it ran a lacklustre, low-key campaign to ensure the common votes didn’t get divided to the benefit of the saffron party.
As the results reflect, the divisive campaign had few takers. The BJP had a six per cent jump in vote share (38.51 per cent) but that was hardly good enough to beat AAP’s 55 per cent plus. The Congress lost its deposit – some would say desevingly – in 63 out of 70 seats.
Now coming back to takeaways from this election, there are three major ones. In fact, a new pattern in voter conduct is discernable over the last few elections.
One, voters are making a clear distinction between elections at the state and the national levels. Parties raising bread and butter issues pertaining to the state are more likely to attract interest in state elections than those raising matters of national import. The BJP expected revocation of Article 370 to pay rich dividends in Jharkhand polls; it didn’t. Likewise, it expected CAA to work in its favour in Delhi. It didn’t. Pakistan-bashing may have lost steam to be an effective vote-catcher.
Two, the returns from divisive campaign are diminishing. The Hindu-Muslim card has been played far too often and it is obvious from the results that fatigue has set in. The voter has already responded emotively to the matter in the previous elections and would like to move on. This is particularly true of states where Muslims are not large in numbers. The more the hype of them being a threat to the country, the more is the chance of the claim being perceived as a lie.
Three, people expect performance from governments. The higher the public perception of performance, the better the chance of incumbent governments returning to power. Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi are cases in point. Curiously, the BJP has stopped talking good governance and performance after it came back to power in 2019 with an impressive mandate. With the economy in choppy waters and job situation gloomy, it perhaps does not have much to talk about. Without drastic improvement on both fronts, it is likely to suffer reverses in upcoming elections too.
Four, leadership is critical to success in state elections. The BJP. appears to be paying the price for not grooming and projecting a strong leader in the states. This is intriguing since it redefined the concept of leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was expected to replicate the model in states. In Delhi it had no leader to project, while Kejriwal was the clear choice for the AAP.
To conclude, the voter has evolved and turned wiser. The political parties must keep pace or perish.