The elections in Delhi witnessed one of the fiercest and acerbic state electoral competitions between the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and its main challenger the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was a high stake electoral contest for both the parties, as AAP after decimating a mandate for alternative politics was facing an existential threat, while the saffron party after major setbacks in state elections was desperate in arresting its dissipating political hegemony. AAP contested the elections on its public governance patronizing policies paradigm, while the BJP’s electoral discourse was a heady mix of national and local issues like construction of Ram temple, abrogation of Article 370, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and legalizing unauthorized colonies in the national capital region. The Congress poll plank focused on the development story of Delhi during Sheila Dixit’s tenure with the promise of bringing it back to its path of growth and glory.
The opinion polls conducted before the promulgation of CAA indicated that AAP was in a pole position, but the anti-CAA flashpoints in Delhi provided the BJP a political optic to stop Kejriwal’s juggernaut. The election results reveal that AAP’s governance record triumphed over BJP’s nationalism pitch, as it received yet another landslide mandate. The AAP broomed the Delhi elections by winning 63 out of 70 seats with six out of ten Delhi citizens reposing faith in the party. The BJP, despite using its parliamentarians and leaders in the campaign, could only improve its seat tally from 3 in 2015 elections to 7 with an increase in its vote share. The Congress' quest for regaining Delhi proved to be a damp squib as it once again scored a nought with its votes share dipping below the 5% mark.
The main reasons for AAP winning a resounding victory despite a stiff opposition from the BJP include: one the humiliating defeat of AAP in 2019 General Elections was a turning point as it pulled its socks and went all out to complete its poll promises made in 2015 elections like upscaling of school infrastructure, opening Mohalla clinics, installation of CCTVs and free wifi for citizens. It also rolled out new freebies like free bus rides for women, pilgrimages for senior citizens, which combined with free electricity and water made it the party of first choice in Delhi. Two, AAP succeeded in creating a poll narrative as an election referendum on Kejriwal’s charismatic leadership and performance. The party’s strategy of ‘Kejriwal versus Who’ binary clicked and the failure of BJP and the Congress in not naming a CM face drove non-committed voters into AAP’s fold. The factionalism and lack of credible leadership in the local units of the saffron party and the Congress further bolstered the cause of AAP. Third the polemical tirades against anti-CAA and Shaheen Bagh protestors in Delhi by young guns of the saffron party to polarize the electorate on religious fault lines severely backfired as it caused counter polarization among the Muslim community. Finally, the low decibel and self defeatist poll propaganda by the Congress was electorally beneficial for the AAP. The grand old party seems to have tactically retreated from the contest midway through the poll campaign to avoid splitting of anti-BJP votes.
The Delhi election verdict sends out a loud and clear message to all the three political dispensations about their political future. The spectacular victory of AAP provides it a breathing space and a second chance to recalibrate itself as an alternative force in Indian politics. It needs to broaden its leadership base and expand its political wings or else it would be restricted to Delhi and become a standalone regional party like several others in India. The election exposed the limitations of BJP’s polarization politics, lack of second rung leaders with political appeal and absence of local leadership. The absence of Modi from Delhi elections is a testimony that the saffron party banks on his charismatic persona to win or lose elections graciously. The failure of the Congress to open its account in Delhi reveals that the party is still in a comatose and the victories in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were more by default than political design.
The result will have a limited impact on national politics as assembly election in Delhi is symbolic, as it is does not fully mirror the all-India opinion. The Delhi election was a referendum on Kejriwals’ freebies model of governance. The overwhelming endorsement of AAP template of governance maybe replicated by other states in India, but more freebies would give a fillip to in-migration in Delhi, already choking due on population boom and infrastructure woes.
The author is a Political Analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.