Delhi is a riddle wrapped in an enigma for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Everything about the city makes it a natural BJP territory — it is largely urban; it has a substantial middle class and upper caste population; many families trace their roots to pre-Partition Pakistan; and the education level and media exposure of the average Delhi voter is high. All these groups are more likely to vote for the BJP. Moreover, this is where the party got its first big electoral success in the form of running the municipal government under the leadership of LK Advani in the 1960s. The party also won the elections, and then, completed a five-year term in government when Delhi was accorded a legislative assembly in 1993. Yet, since then, while the party has done exceptionally well in the Lok Sabha elections (and in municipal elections), it has always fared poorly during the assembly polls.
Why do Delhi voters dodge the BJP in assembly elections? After the party’s rather infamous defeat over soaring onion prices in 1998, the then BJP chief minister Sushma Swaraj, who reluctantly took over the position two months before the election, returned to national politics. Since then, the BJP has never been able to develop a leader with a mass base in the city-state. The party may have leaders who represent their specific communities or their respective localities, but they do not have the stature of the late Sheila Dikshit or Arvind Kejriwal, who could simultaneously appeal to the affluent, the middle classes and the poor. The diversity of Delhi demands a charismatic leader who can connect with migrants, resonate with Delhi’s villages, and fulfil the aspirations of those living in upper class localities.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) must celebrate this much-deserved victory. The party had not won a single election since 2015 and, thus in many ways, this election was a do-or-die battle. The party had lost in the Punjab assembly elections in 2017, performed poorly in the Delhi municipal elections, and came third in five of the seven seats during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
It ran a positive campaign, highlighting its performance in improving the quality of government schools and mohalla clinics, providing subsidised water and electricity, and ensuring free public transport for women. It stayed clear of making this election a personality contest between Narendra Modi and Kejriwal, or challenging the ideological narrative set by the BJP leadership.
The BJP may take solace in the fact that it managed to increase its vote share, and, less significantly, its seat tally. However, it must realise the limits of a high-pitched campaign on the party’s ideological plank. This may keep the cadre enthused, but it is unlikely to bring middle-of-the-road voters into the party’s fold. This swing constituency seeks more — credible leadership, government performance, delivery of public services, and access to public servants. In the absence of this, ideologically-neutral and non-partisan voters will maximise their calculus and split their loyalties — vote Modi and the BJP for the Lok Sabha, and Kejriwal and the AAP for the assembly elections. This is the most pertinent electoral trend in post-2019 India.
Should the result be seen as a rejection of the BJP’s ideological platform? It is natural for the Opposition parties and civil society activists to paint the AAP’s overwhelming victory in Delhi as a negation of the BJP’s position on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act-National Register of Citizens-National Population Register issue, and its stand on protest sites like Shaheen Bagh. The BJP’s failure in this election should not be considered a referendum on these issues. The AAP did not campaign and challenge the BJP on its ideological platform. Neither did the AAP take on Modi’s leadership nor did it take firm positions on the unrest in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia, or Shaheen Bagh. The AAP may have been forced to adopt an electorally pragmatic posture, but in some ways, the party’s victory has moved the fulcrum of Indian politics further to the Centre-Right.
Recent opinion polls suggest that a significant number of voters who supported the AAP in this election endorse the BJP’s ideological viewpoint. The AAP won as it delivered on governance, offered more credible leadership to voters, and did not challenge the ideological worldview of the median voter in Delhi. A soft line on religion (endorsing the religious practices of the majority community), playing on the same nationalist pitch (a hawkish national security plank), with a heavy dose of populist welfarism, is likely to be the new normal in Indian politics. This certainly emerges as a strong template for non-BJP parties to mount an electoral challenge to the BJP in the states. Undoubtedly, each electoral setback will aggregate itself into a grand narrative against Modi and home minister Amit Shah. This will dent the perceived invincibility of the BJP, and raise questions about the effectiveness of the party’s organisational machine and resource advantage, and the agility of its leadership. The BJP now urgently needs a new script to win state elections.
Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi.
The views expressed are personal