Delhi keeps faith in AAP, rebuffs BJP, ignores Congress
On Sunday, Arvind Kejriwal, supremo of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), took oath, for the third time in a row, as the chief minister of Delhi. It also brought the curtain down on what has been an extremely vitriolic and contentious election campaign. Nonetheless, the scale of AAP’s victory has been staggering; just stopping short of its unprecedented achievement in 2015 when it won all but three of the 70 seats in the assembly. Even more credible, since it did so by outsmarting the two national parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—who actually mounted a high-decibel rear guard action in the last fortnight.
It is amusing though to see the solace Congress and BJP are drawing from their consummate defeat. While the Congress, after suffering another humiliation by failing to win a single seat for the second straight election, is gloating at the defeat of its principal rival, the BJP is taking succour from the fact that it put up a fight and managed to improve on its record by netting nearly 40% vote share—indeed, the margin of AAP’s victory is considerably reduced and in fact, some seats were won with thin margins, but there is no denying that neither of the two national parties could come up with an appealing narrative of their own. This should be their biggest takeaway.
Indeed, this is the big message of the just concluded election: the AAP has very successfully mainstreamed into a regular political outfit even while it has successfully hung onto its original message of being a change agent. Going into the election, they had the best narrative, having made very visible contributions in two areas—health and education—that touch everyone; they topped it up with their promise of freebies and commitment on providing drinking water. In the process, it etched the dominant narrative, even while they refused to pull their punches in making their own saffron-light appeal to the electorate—to blunt the BJP’s hard-nosed campaign leveraging the angst against the ongoing Shaheen Bagh impasse.
This outcome should not be surprising, it actually fits a pattern. Whenever BJP, rather Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has set the narrative, the Opposition has struggled to measure up. Vice versa, BJP has almost inevitably struggled to play catch-up. This is exactly what transpired in the last two general elections and several rounds of state elections; Modi was seen as the best alternative and someone who was willing to challenge status quo. This messaging aligned perfectly with the aspirational electorate dominated by a very young India. In Delhi, on the other hand, the BJP’s campaign, no doubt compelling given its emotional appeal, was largely negative in tenor. The questions they were raising will no doubt have a national appeal, but clearly fell short in a local election campaign.
That said, AAP was visibly rattled by the late surge demonstrated by the BJP; but then, the Congress implosion, plumbing pathetic new lows, eventually allowed AAP to ride out the challenge. It will be interesting to see as to how AAP deals with the overwhelming mandate. Given the complicated administrative set-up in Delhi, AAP is only one episode away from going headlong into another confrontation with the Union government. No doubt it will have to tread a careful balance.
The electorate of course, as Kejriwal promised for the second campaign in a row, can’t wait for Delhi to metamorphose into London.
Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
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