South Asian Insider
How the AAP won, with some help from the BJP
Despite a patchy track record, the AAP captured the narrative. The Delhi BJP?had nothing to offer voters
Delhi's outsized influence on the national polity upsets people outside the city. Arvind Kejriwal's emphatic victory is seen by many political analysts as yet another opportunity for him to emerge on the national scene, even though Delhi has only 14 million voters and seven members of Parliament. Whether Kejriwal does emerge as a serious challenger to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s virtually hegemonistic control over the national polity is anybody's guess, but his success in defending his fortress in Delhi needs to be understood, even if a binary election has the effect of exaggerating the winning margin.
Kejriwal's stupendous success is somewhat surprising if one looks at his party's performance in the last two elections in Delhi, the municipal elections in 2017 and the Lok Sabha elections in mid-2019. In both, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) performed miserably and the BJP had a clean sweep, with even greater margins than before.
The AAP's victory, therefore, goes against the grain. It can be argued that though the BJP had, similarly, swept the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Delhi, winning not just the seven seats, but also leading in 60 assembly segments, the AAP swept the assembly elections held just nine months later. There are, however, differences between the two situations.
One, though it led in only 10 assembly segments in the 2014 elections, the AAP polled almost 33% of the votes while the BJP polled 46%. The gap widened substantially in 2019, with the AAP's vote share falling to just 18%, while that of the BJP ballooning to 54%, a substantial lead. Even the Congress did better with over 22% of the votes in 2019, coming second in five of the seven seats. What was particularly worrying for the AAP was that it came in second only in two constituencies, with three of its candidates losing their deposits.
The second important change was that in 2015, the AAP was the challenger, untested but full of enthusiasm, while, this time around, it was the incumbent, being tested on its promise of good governance. And it is this which has yielded rich dividends for Kejriwal. By concentrating on only a few areas - electricity pricing, free water, schools and health issues, the AAP has come out looking much better than its challengers.
Objectively speaking, the performance in these spheres is both patchy and at the cost of long-term growth, but its approach seems to hit the right notes with the electorate. The fact that the vast majority of students who fail in Class 9 are now thrown out of the system means that the pass percentage at the board levels has gone up, though at the cost of the poor, first-generation learner. But a number of the better-performing government schools have been spruced up and exposed to improved pedagogies, which has added to the image of improved school performance.Similarly, in health, the numbers of mohalla clinics set up in three years is less than the target set in the first year, and their performance is often substandard. Similarly, major government hospitals have seen shortages that prevented operation theatres from functioning for long periods, but the overall image was of innovation and sincerity. What has helped Kejriwal is that with the effective privatisation of health and school education, large segments of vocal and active voters are not users of government facilities, and have not seen the changes themselves, but go along with the prevailing narrative. Kejriwal's ability to reach out to the people directly, bypassing the role of the bureaucracy, has also endeared him to the voters.
More important, his success in minimising the effect of national issues by going along with the Modi government on Article 370 and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act meant that charges of indulging the "anti-nationals" did not cut any ice with the voters.
This stance of AAP also enabled the BJP voters to plumb for Kejriwal without feeling that they were compromising on their nationalist ideology. The AAP's equivocal stance on Shaheen Bagh, and other issues seen as close to the Muslims, did not hurt it with the minorities. During the parliamentary elections, the AAP was not seen as viable opposition to the BJP, and, so, the Muslims voted for the Congress in substantial numbers. This time around, they recognised that it was the AAP which could stop the BJP, not the moribund Congress.
The Delhi BJP, on the other hand, has nothing to offer the voters of Delhi. It has not seen power at the state-level since 1998, and the performance of the three municipal bodies that it runs is unsatisfactory. In fact, its credibility is so low that in the last municipal election, the BJP replaced all sitting councillors. Unfortunately for them, this did not lead to better performance with the municipal bodies still seen as corrupt and ineffective. What worked against the BJP is also the attitude of the Delhi voter who trusts Modi, as shown in 2014 and 2019, but who feels that Kejriwal is a better bet locally.
The challenge before Kejriwal will be how to sustain this subsidy culture in the absence of capital investments in health, education and infrastructure, something Sheila Dikshit could do so well for 10 years (2003-2013) because she could save ~20,000 crores in subsidy payments due to the privatisation of electricity supply. This cushion is no more available.
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