The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s strategic mix of developmental agenda with Hindu assertion proved to be an effective model of resistance to politics of polarisation as the party swept the Delhi assembly elections to complete a hat-trick of wins.
Capping a vicious contest, which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pushing all its might to whip up communal frenzy branding a section of Indian citizens as “traitor” who needed to be “shot down” or at least have current coursed through them, the AAP got 62 seats in the 70-member Delhi assembly as against 8 managed by the saffron party.
The Congress repeated its ‘performance’ of 2015, drawing a blank again in the state which it once ruled consecutively for three terms from 1998 to 2013.
Campaign for the prestige-battle of Delhi heated up since early January, immediately after the BJP got a drubbing in Jharkhand and failed to hold on to power in Maharashtra.
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Amid nationwide protests over the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the BJP went into the campaigning, mobilising its own workers and battle-hardened RSS functionaries across the state, to paint those opposed to the new law as anti-national. All the non-BJP parties stood by the protesters and accused the BJP of trying to divide the country on communal line. All the while, the AAP, led by IITian Arvind Kejriwal, assiduously maintained a middle path.
Even in the face of extreme provocations, like when Kejriwal was dubbed a terrorist by senior BJP leaders, the AAP did not bite the bait to counter BJP’s Hindutva and hyper nationalist narratives. Instead, in the last leg of campaigning, Kejriwal tried to position himself as a more “authentic Hindu”, eloquently reciting Hanuman Chalisa and proclaiming “I am a Hanuman bhakt.”
Other AAP candidates too were not hesitant to assert their Hindu identity. The party candidate from Greater Kailash Saurabh Bharadwaj harped on his Brahmin identity and never missed an opportunity to show the pious thread wrapped in his wrist, denying the BJP the sole claim over the religion of majority voters.
Almost all AAP leaders also avoided being seen as a big sympathizer of anti-CAA protests staged across Delhi. When the party found itself being too often in the cross hairs of the BJP for the traffic disruption at Shaheen Bagh due to the anti-CAA protest, the Delhi chief minister did not even hesitate to say he would not come in the way if the home ministry, which oversees the law and order in the capital city, removed the squatters.
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It was a big calculated gamble as it could estrange Muslim voters, who constitute 13 per cent of Delhi’s population largely concentrated in five constituencies. But Kejriwal shrewdly visualised that in near absence of the Congress and other strong “secular” forces in the fray, the minority voters had no viable alternative to the AAP.
His calculation ultimately paid off, as the results showed the AAP did extremely well in the Muslim dominated areas, pocketing lion share of the minority votes.
Interestingly, Kejriwal’s lieutenant and state’s education minister Manish Sisodia, the only AAP leader who had openly voiced his support for the Shaheen Bagh protest, had a tough race with BJP’s Ravinder Singh Negi in Patparganj in East Delhi, the only pocket where the lotus relatively had a better flush. The East Delhi incidentally faced the brunt of the anti-CAA protest mostly due to blockade of Kalindi Kunj-Shaheen Bagh stretch of the road.
Development, the game changer
The game changers for the AAP, however, were its social welfare schemes, be it free water, electricity, bus ride for women and students, better healthcare and education. The AAP broadly centered its campaign on the works the party-led government has done in healthcare and education. It helped the party to by and large retain the same share of vote it had polled in 2015 assembly elections and almost repeat the spectacular performance of 2015, bucking anti-incumbency.
True, the AAP could not fulfil all its development-related promises. But it did bring about some positive changes and was confident enough to approach voters to seek votes based on its performance. What possibly impressed the voters was its intention to bring the core issues of ‘bijli, pani, dawa, padai’ (electricity, water, medicines, education) to the centre stage of elections, setting aside the emotive agenda.
“The AAP victory has proved that issues of development and social welfare could still sway voters in Indian politics, which is a big positive amid the growing trend of negativity,” observed Dr. Anil Kumar Thakur, who teaches political science at Delhi University. “It should serve as a lesson to the political parties that negative politics does not work for a long time. It has a short shelf life,” he added.
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Another big advantage for the AAP in this election was to have a credible face in Kejriwal. In the bipolar contest, the BJP, despite holding on to its core vote base, could not translate that to a better seat tally as it failed to erode the AAP’s support base.
It has been a trend in the recent assembly elections across the country that BJP, unlike in the Lok Sabha elections, is failing to get the extra momentum which enables it to sweep the parliamentary elections, in the absence of Narendra Modi factor.
“The fact that we did not have a leader with Kejriwal’s persona, who is seen as a mini-Modi in Delhi, worked against the BJP in this elections despite us having a better organizational presence,” opined senior BJP leader Lalitha Kumaramangalam at a TV talk show.