Eight months is a long time in politics. It was the span of time in which Narendra Modi changed the course of the Lok Sabha elections of April-May 2014. Now, it is all the time it took to overturn the fortunes, at least in the National Capital Territory, of a party that had seemed near invincible. The Delhi of 2015 looks very different from the Delhi of 2014.
For one party, the difference is not so perceptible — that is the Congress. Not much has changed for it since May 2014. If anything, this election further hastened the process of the Congress’s erosion. Electoral defeats are part of democratic politics.
But the Congress faces something deeper, something verging on political irrelevance. The Rajasthan assembly elections of 2013 first signalled it. But that was seen as a Rajasthan-specific phenomenon. Then the Lok Sabha elections highlighted the Congress’s descent into irrelevance. Given the massive defeat of May 2014, it was tough for the party to make a comeback. But the way it has conducted itself in the assembly elections shows that, no matter what the format of the competition and the nature of the players, the Congress is destined to lose its status as a political party. Its abysmal performance in Maharashtra probably best exemplifies its growing inability to fight back and remain politically relevant. The Congress seems incapable of recouping, in the near future, on three crucial counts — leadership, agenda and social base. One would imagine that the AAP’s stunning victory in Delhi would be revelatory, that many would start believing an alternative to the BJP is possible. But that may be far from true; the Congress’s inability to rise from the debris of defeat means that political competition in many states will continue to be one-sided and without oppositional forces.
In spite of this overall failure of the Congress, the outcome of the Delhi election has brought the BJP’s defeat into sharp focus. The BJP will be asking itself this question in the weeks to come: If it could win neighbouring Haryana so convincingly, why did the shrewd calculations of its party president go wrong in the national capital? But of course, the more critical question is: Where does the BJP go from here? An analysis of the AAP’s performance will throw light on the anatomy of the party’s victory. Meanwhile, much in the “Congress style”, the BJP is rushing to save its national-level leadership from the responsibility of defeat.
Like Congress party members, the BJP now lamely claims that this is not a mandate for or against Modi.
It may be argued that this is only one electoral loss for the BJP, after a spectacular streak of victories, with the Lok Sabha win followed by triumphs in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand (and in the Jammu region of J&K). It is also true that the issues and the nature of competition in assembly elections are different from those in national parliamentary elections. Equally, one electoral setback does not say much as far as the larger picture is concerned. In this context, there are no two ways about it, exaggerated readings of the outcome must be avoided.
Yet, a more moderate understanding of the Delhi outcome suggests that it will have two implications for the BJP. One, the climate for personality cults may be on its way out. This may sound paradoxical because voters in Delhi seem to be enamoured of Arvind Kejriwal. Consequently, the analysts also pronounced the verdict that Kejriwal had trumped Modi in the game of image-building. This may have an element of truth, but the politics of overemphasising personality will certainly take a beating, now that the limits of the “Modi factor” have been revealed. It is open to debate how much one person’s image contributed to the BJP’s victory last year, but the Delhi election results have seen the party rushing to cover for its top leader. The party seems to have sensed danger even before the campaign was halfway through, as it decided to project Kiran Bedi and then began to argue that this election would not be a verdict on Modi.
It was entertaining but also heartening to see the BJP de-emphasising the personality factor. Even more importantly, though the BJP brought Modi back into the campaign in the last leg, it did not pay, which shows that the politics of personality alone may not work for long. This augurs well for democracy in general because the BJP and its opponents will now have to return to talking issues. During the parliamentary elections, personality had overshadowed the question of what “development” meant. Afterwards, it overshadowed the question of performance and delivery. Now, debates about economic policy, governmental performance and the cultural identity of India can return to the political stage once again.
Second, this drubbing might actually be good for the BJP, because it could push it to being a “normal” party. Sudden victory had created a surreal atmosphere within the BJP. The party organisation had become too dependent on the top leadership; the plurality of leadership and natural political competition had disappeared. It had come to be believed that the party president had struck a magic formula for victory, and by mobilising RSS cadres and giving them booth-wise responsibilities, the complex and real politics of running a party could be dispensed with. The Delhi defeat will initially bring out grumbling voices, indirect attacks on Kiran Bedi etc.
Then it will most probably encourage party leaders who have been sidelined since the rise of Modi to take to factional politics. This would mean that the campaign and strategy for the Bihar assembly polls could be much more messy and plural. It might also force the BJP to make up its mind on whether it wants to sweep its Hindutva fringe under the carpet of developmental rhetoric or re-adopt Hindutva as an article of faith and weapon of social mobilisation.
With all these dilemmas and paradoxes, the defeat in Delhi might not signal the downfall of the BJP. It would be a mistake on the part of the BJP’s opponents to become complacent. In fact, the more “normal” the BJP becomes, the more likely it is to be entrenched in power. In that sense, if the party learns its lessons from this debacle, it could continue to be a major challenge to its opponents. In fact, the defeat will perhaps bring back “party-ness” to the BJP, something it has almost lost since last May. Hence, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the defeat of the BJP.
The writer teaches political science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University