What does Delhi tell us?
26 February 2015
The Aam Aadmi Party’s resounding victory in the Delhi elections reveals cracks in the BJP’s strategy.
The results of the recent Delhi Assembly elections raise a new set of questions regarding India’s changing electoral dynamics. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has seemingly become the victim of the same phenomenon that Congress fell to during the general elections in 2014 – higher and growing aspirations and expectations of the electorate. While aspirations were raised with the language of development used by Congress, these came to be appropriated by Narendra Modi and the BJP. Now it looks like the hype around the so-called ‘Gujarat model’ has caught up with Modi and his party as people sought change and wanted to see if the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) can do something more substantial than what BJP has demonstrated since coming to power.
In this moment of a new kind of conformist optimism, the electorate appears willing to play by the rules, but is stretching its expectations in order to put pressure on the parties to initially promise wonders and then punish them for not delivering on them once in power. In this play, the BJP failed to come up with anything dramatic that could capture the imagination of the electorate. Instead, it looked like a party that was playing a rather old tune that has long been unable to keep pace with the Indian voter.
For now, there is a break from the Modi-mania projected by the media and relief from the media’s manufactured consent.
The game of speaking the language of development and governance on the one hand, and actively polarising the electorate along religious lines on the other – as witnessed during the riots in east Delhi’s Trilokpuri area and premeditated attacks on churches – has become rather too overtly contradictory. Delhi is a city-state of settlers who have come essentially in search of livelihood and not out of some innate sense of belonging to the place or its culture. To sustain polarisation between communities, it is essential for locals to feel threatened by either the loss of culture or livelihood. Neither is the case in Delhi. Further, Delhi has remained a city free of communal carnage for more than two decades under the previous Congress government, and even during the BJP rule that had followed the ‘soft model’ of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Sudden occurrences of communal violence were too blatant to be believed and felt too unwarranted for people to be persuaded by the logic of their necessity. Additionally, Modi, who in his heydays of campaigning was boisterously critical of Manmohan Singh for his silence on key issues, appeared stoic to the electorate.
Overplaying their hand
The modalities of the campaign and the repeated attempts to create a premeditated impact to serve the appetite of the media have not gone down too well. The appointment of Kiran Bedi as a last minute attempt to bolster the BJP’s prospects was perceived primarily as an electoral strategy rather than a serious attempt to provide an effective leader. Bedi in any case is more of an administrator than a leader, and there was a more effective alternative in Harsh Vardhan, who was consciously sidelined by the party leadership – a move that brings to mind the Congress high command’s method of disallowing local popular leadership to emerge.
Moreover, the hackneyed formula of drawing in leaders with prior associations to other parties is increasingly met with disapproval from voters. Bringing candidates such as Shazia Ilmi (formerly of AAP) into the party fold was perceived as opportunism on the part of BJP rather than actually adding to the strength of the party. Much of BJP’s campaign looked and sounded rather cynical and negative, and did not fit with the ‘politics of hope’ that they had played on during their general elections campaign. It targeted AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal excessively, with commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman calling him a ‘thief’, and a campaign advertisement referring to his gotra (clan) as one that creates anarchy.
All this while, AAP was focusing on issues related to everyday problems faced by the people. Kejriwal looked more honest in his intent and accepting of his miscalculation in resigning after just 49 days of his initial stint as the chief minister. AAP has now emerged as the first ‘regional party’ of Delhi. From the mohalla sabhas (public meetings) they organised during the run up to elections in 2013, the party has cultivated a positive image among many urban poor. Taxi and auto drivers got relief, perhaps for the first time, from the culture of collecting haftas by the police. It is no surprise, then, that the urban poor – especially the taxi and auto drivers – were upset when AAP dissolved the government as they had benefited from reduced daily harassment with Kejriwal at the helm, but they did not seem to have second thoughts in giving him another chance. In contrast, Amit Shah’s strategy looked like a formula movie, and an attempt at cloning a strategy that he might have thought worked elsewhere. Lack of leadership and lack of local voices belonging to Delhi were clearly standout factors in the misadventure of BJP’s national leadership, which essentially derived its electoral strategy from its experience in Gujarat.
The more affluent sections also leaned towards the AAP, perhaps due to a disapproval of the ‘extremist agendas’ of the Hindu right, including the ghar wapsi reconversion programme, the ‘love jihad’ campaign targeting Muslim-Hindu relationships, and the call for putting up statues of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse. BJP and its allies have undermined the fact that Gandhi is still appropriated by the well-to-do sections of Indian society, and more of an enigma with the lower classes. Finally, the spectacle created around the visit by US President Barack Obama came across as shallow, not to mention the parting gift he delivered by raising the issue of growing intolerance, even as Modi made claims of a warm personal friendship with ‘Barack’. The BJP looks like a different party now, and Modi’s abilities appear more measured without the anti-Congress wave witnessed during the general elections. With Congress being a non-starter in this election, the vulnerability of the BJP’s electoral strategy was left exposed, allowing voters to focus on what had been delivered in the preceding months.
Charting a different path
In this cycle of growing expectations and the inability to deliver on them, it is Kejriwal’s turn to occupy a position (at least in Delhi) similar to what Modi had experienced earlier. The same questions will be asked of Kejriwal in just a few months. As the electorate seems more critical of Modi’s personality-centric politics – projected and accepted as showing decisiveness only a few months back – his appearance in a suit allegedly worth INR 10 lakh was more a confirmation of self-adulation than a larger-than-life personality. But Kejriwal appears to have driven the internal dynamics of AAP into a personality-centric mode without an effective second rung of leaders to follow up on his actions. What looks like a democratic tendency in picking new and unknown faces, as AAP did in this election, may soon be perceived as the party’s inability to nurture effective and strong leaders.
AAP will face the same dilemmas that BJP is dealing with today for having made contradictory promises. AAP has promised to regularise slums and make Delhi a real-estate haven, and a global city with sanitised urbanisation. Personality-centric politics is the starting point and a signpost of eclipsing these contradictory dynamics but, as the elections have repeatedly proved, its resonance does not last for too long, and the gestation period is shortening dramatically with each passing election. For now, there is a break from the Modi-mania projected by the media, and, in fact, relief from the media’s manufactured consent as the electorate seems to have read meanings of media images against the grain of what was being projected. Whether AAP is a game-changer in Indian democracy, however, remains to be seen.
~ Ajay Gudavarthy teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
~ G Vijay is an Assistant Professor at the School of Economics, University of Hyderabad.