The spectacular victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi assembly elections, winning 62 of 70 seats in vanquishing the BJP comprehensively and decimating the Congress marks a new chapter in voter empowerment. It is a grim reminder for the BJP rulers at the Centre that the voter cannot be taken for granted and that any pretence of invincibility is hogwash. Having mauled the BJP five years ago with a staggering 67 of 70 seats the AAP juggernaut has moved on unrelentingly, grounding to dust the central ruling party’s ambition of capturing the nation’s capital. The BJP seemed to have resurrected itself when it swept the Lok Sabha elections to seven seats from the capital only a few months ago after having won the municipal elections, but faced with a determined AAP that conducted its electoral campaign with aplomb the party stunned its rivals for the second time in a row. The secret of AAP’s crowning success was the overweening emphasis on bijli (power), pani (water), education and healthcare which together gave the Delhi-ites the impression that they were being ruled by a people’s government. Apart from reforming and making affordable these areas, there were other goodies too like free travel for women in buses which won over vulnerable sections.
The people at large contrasted these freebies and subsidies on power and water with the gloomy face of the country’s economy with growth in various key sectors declining or stagnant. That within a year of the impressive BJP showing in the Lok Sabha elections the party had lost out in six states － Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and now Delhi － should have goaded the party to introspect and find answers － but the party leadership was cocooned in complacency. This was despite the fact that there was no nationwide leader in the Opposition who had even half the acceptability level that Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoyed. As fate would have it, the BJP lost three vital Modi lieutenants － Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Manohar Parrikar － in the space of a few months and with the party unable to replace them with meritorious hands, there were gaping holes in the party.
While the party had managed to rein in the diehard Hindutva protagonists a few months ago, recent attempts at playing polarised politics queered the pitch again. The middle class started to drift away from the saffron outfit. Regional forces grew stronger in some states even as the BJP got obsessed with fulfilling its Hindutva agenda. The Citizenship Amendment Act afforded an opportunity to the anti-government forces to re-group and the media, given to sensationalism, fuelled the worst fears about the consequences of the Modi government’s actions. The state of the economy added to the apprehensions of the masses and those like Arvind Kejriwal, the founder of AAP, found a fertile ground to reap a rich harvest of voters aligned to the central anti-establishment line. The hyper nationalism of the BJP looked misplaced in such circumstances.
For the Kejriwal government in Delhi which is riding the crest of a wave, the future holds many challenges. Populist giveaways have serious limitations. By doling out goodies the government is indeed putting a strain on the resources of the State without adding to its coffers. Sooner than later, the State would have to look at ways to improve efficiency, increase productivity and harness its resources. Delhi would indeed need to attract new investment and to catalyse the economy rather than merely tinker with the taxpayer’s money. It would be natural for the resurgent AAP to look for expanding its reach. It would perhaps re-look at Punjab and perhaps later at Tamil Nadu and West Bengal and some other states to make a mark and then set its sights on the Central seat in Delhi. It is, however, too early to build castles in the air. At the Centre, the Modi-led BJP is still going strong and there is no incipient challenge to it from the ragtag combination of disparate forces. The Congress, which was the main challenger to the BJP in the past is now a pale shadow of its earlier self. On BJP’s part, it needs to shed its arrogance and look hard at its standpoint and policies. There is no reason why it can’t be in the driver’s seat in 2024 when the next Lok Sabha elections come. But it would need to re-orient itself to the evolving challenges.