The resounding win of the Aam Aadmi Party in the elections to the Delhi Assembly has, quite predictably, attracted a great deal of comment. However, before exploring the significance of the verdict, it is necessary to be clear about what the election outcome does not signify.
First, it does not imply that the clear mandate for Narendra Modi in the 2019 general election has been dissipated. Increasingly, Indians are voting in different ways in national and state elections. This was clear in the recent Assembly elections in Haryana and Jharkhand. The pattern has been repeated in Delhi. Yet, the authoritative India Today Mood of the Nation Poll conducted in January this year clearly suggested that in the event of a snap general election, the BJP and its allies are likely to secure a renewed mandate, with only a small loss of Lok Sabha seats.
Second, despite the disproportionate attention on the protests by Muslim women in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, there is no evidence to suggest that the Delhi vote suggested public opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
On the contrary, the indications are that the aggressive pro-CAA campaign mounted by Home Minister Amit Shah in the final 10 days of the Delhi campaign led to the popular vote for the BJP going up by at least 10 per cent.
Despite its failure to win more than eight of the 70 seats, the popular votes for the BJP in the Delhi election was the highest since the Delhi Assembly was constituted in 1993. Amit Shah’s campaign energised a moribund party which, pre-campaign opinion polls had suggested was stuck at 30 per cent of the vote share, and boosted the NDA’s vote share to around 40 per cent.
Those who suggest that the aggressive campaign in favour of the CAA will not strike any chord in West Bengal where Assembly elections are due in May 2021 are completely missing the point.
In West Bengal, the CAA is less a national issue as it is a local issue. The beneficiaries of the CAA are concentrated in eastern India, particularly West Bengal, Assam and Bihar. In all these states, Assembly elections are due in the next year.
In Delhi, there was, however, a clear distinction between national and local issues. The BJP’s clear failure lay in its inability to evolve a counter-narrative to the AAP government’s welfare schemes. In the past five years, the AAP government had subsidised electricity charges, provided free water and improved the quality of schools run by the local government.
These were among its achievements and can be compared to the Ujjala scheme and the Kisan Samman programme that added to Modi’s appeal in the 2019 general election. Against the welfare schemes of the Kejriwal government, the Delhi BJP had little by way of either a critique or future promises.
The message is clear: any ideological thrust has to be complemented by close attention to local issues centred on governance. The BJP should do well to recall that while ideological and emotive issues played a big role in the final phase of the Gujarpat Assembly elections of 2002, 2007 and 2012 that Narendra Modi won so handsomely, they were always complemented by a solid record of achievements in the sphere of governance. This blend of local and ideological issues has been the hallmark of Modi’s electioneering.
An associated feature of the Modi model was the emphasis on local party organisation. The BJP has worked best when its election campaign has been built on the back of a solid party organisation that is visible all year, and not merely when elections are imminent. In Delhi, the party was too affected by local in-fighting and complacency after the big win in 2017.
The issue of the absence of a chief ministerial candidate to oppose Kejriwal has been mentioned. In the past, the BJP always fought the Delhi Assembly elections with a clear projected Chief Minister. There is no clear-cut evidence to suggest that a projected face would have made a decisive difference.
The evidence is mixed but normally it helps if the alternative is able to have a distinctive appeal. In the forthcoming Assembly elections, the BJP and its allies have clear leadership candidates in all states except West Bengal. This is an issue the central leadership will have to seriously consider.
Finally, there is the question of the tone of the campaign. While all election campaigns have their excesses, the BJP in Delhi was affected by the aggressive pronouncements of two MPs.
These attracted the censure of the Election Commission. Subsequently, after the outcome, Amit Shah expressed his disapproval of these remarks, but the damage had been done.
More than anything else, such comments appear to have affected the voting preferences of women voters. The exit polls indicated that 60 per cent of women voted for AAP and only 35 per cent for the BJP; the male voters were, however, split 49 per cent for AAP and 43 per cent for BJP. The lesson is clear: while aggression is in order, crossing the bounds of decency is not. This is a lesson that has a relevance beyond Delhi.
Every election outcome throws up important lessons. Political parties that imbibe these lessons are normally the ones that benefit in the future.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.