A lacerating local triumph or a result of national significance? How should one view the victory of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi’s recent assembly elections?
The first thing, of course, is the scale of the AAP’s win: 67 out of 70 seats. Only in Sikkim have such verdicts been equalled or surpassed. Some of the great regional upstarts of the 1970s and ’80s — such as the AGP in Assam and the TDP in Andhra — never scaled such heights. The AAP’s victory is among the great rarities of post-1947 India.
Which groups voted for the AAP and which ones did not? The CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey allows us to answer this question, and some important results emerge. For historical reasons, two social categories have dominated India’s election analysis: caste and religion. Let us begin there. The AAP led the BJP in all caste categories except for two upper castes, the Brahmins (12 per cent of Delhi’s population) and the Vaishyas (6 per cent), and one that sociologist M.N. Srinivas would have called a dominant caste, the Jats (5 per cent). The AAP was beaten at the summit of the Hindu social order, but it handsomely won the middle or lower echelons.
What about religion? Among Delhi’s two largest non-Hindu minorities, 77 per cent of Muslims (12 per cent of the population) and 57 per cent of Sikhs (4 per cent of the population) voted AAP. Since December 2013, Muslim withdrawal from the Congress has grown by orders of magnitude. The AAP, in their view, will fight the BJP best.
The electoral choice of Sikhs invites intellectual curiosity. Sixty eight per cent of Delhi’s Sikhs had voted for the BJP in the 2014 elections; only 34 per cent did so in these elections. The huge migration of the Sikh vote from the BJP raises the question of whether the majoritarian excesses of the Hindu right — the RSS and the VHP — after the parliamentary elections also upset many Sikhs, not simply Muslims and Christians. Did a majority of Sikhs vote for the AAP for this reason, or did they trust the AAP’s governance promise more than the BJP’s? Perhaps both, but we need to investigate.
In terms of economic class, the higher the incomes or assets of households, the greater the vote for the BJP. One should, however, note that this result does not fully buttress the class-divide argument. Among the poor, the AAP’s lead over the BJP was undoubtedly massive (66 per cent versus 22 per cent), but the AAP’s share of the vote was higher than the BJP’s in each class category, including the middle class (51 per cent for the AAP; 31 per cent for the BJP) and upper class (47 per cent for the AAP; 43 per cent for the BJP). The poor did support the AAP over the BJP by a huge margin, but the privileged too voted more for the AAP, albeit by a smaller margin.
If we compare these results with the parliamentary elections of 2014, a mirror image of sorts emerges. For the Lok Sabha, with the exception of Muslims, the BJP was ahead of its archrival, the Congress, in all social and economic categories. For Delhi’s assembly, the AAP led its principal adversary, the BJP, in all categories, except for three higher or dominant Hindu castes. Delhi’s middle and upper class is, of course, bigger than the Brahmins, Vaishyas and Jats put together, or the class results would have mirrored caste results.
To be sure, this comparison is not exact, despite its suggestive political geometry. The BJP won nationally; the AAP has only won a state assembly. Had it not been the assembly of India’s capital, the political significance of these elections would clearly have been lower. However, precisely because Delhi is watched with such interest, it is also worth probing the larger implications of these elections. In doing so, we should think not only of future elections, but also of policies, movements, ideological and organisational twists, all of which are important parts of politics.
In this larger political perspective, it is hard not to read these results as Delhi’s rejection of the Hindu right ideology. In all those constituencies where communal tensions arose last year, the BJP lost. If the Hindu right’s purpose was to polarise Hindus and the minorities, thereby consolidating the Hindu vote, the strategy failed. Compared to December 2013, the BJP roughly maintained its voter support but relative to May 2014, it lost nearly 12 per cent of its vote. The party’s ideological voters, untroubled by the Hindu right, might have stayed loyal, but most of those who flocked to the BJP for growth and governance last year withdrew support. The Hindu right’s conduct is an obvious explanation for this, though other possibilities are also noted below.
Are these results also a negative verdict on Narendra Modi? The answer would have been simpler if Modi had left election rallies entirely to the BJP’s national or state-level president, the chief ministerial candidate and Delhi’s BJP MPs. But Modi campaigned, starting as early as January 10 at Ramlila Maidan. With trademark fieriness, he challenged the AAP, calling its leaders specialists of anarchy, and presented the BJP as a master of governance, promising cheaper 24-hour electricity and an attack on the corruption of street-level bureaucracy. The AAP also made these two promises. In the end, the voters trusted Arvind Kejriwal over Modi.
Further, the BJP today is so organisationally centralised that, with the exception of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where state-level leaders have a base of their own, it is hard to separate the party from Modi anywhere in India. Under centralisation, a party’s victory can be attributed to its leader. But the obverse is also true: when the party loses, the leader is inevitably implicated in the defeat.
As Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma wrote in this newspaper (‘Dear Narendra bhai’, IE, February 11), polls conducted by Cicero Associates show that even though a majority of Delhi’s voters endorsed Modi for his foreign policy and for energising the administration, the proportion of Delhi unhappy with Modi’s delivery of promises is large and rising. Many called the Clean India campaign, a programmatic centrepiece of the Modi government, “a show off”. One may decry Delhi’s voters for expecting too much too soon; equally, one can fault Modi for promising too much with excessive flourish. This might hold for India as well, though we need greater evidence.
Whether or not greater power-sharing takes place inside the Modi government, the Delhi results are likely to weaken centralisation within the party. If that leads to greater power for state-level units, it will, all else being equal, be a healthy development. However, if that entails a greater role for the RSS in the BJP’s decision-making, it will make the party even more undemocratic. The unelected RSS is typically more powerful when the BJP’s elected leader falters. In normal analytical parlance, Delhi’s elections might be a blow to the RSS, but the RSS will argue that it did not campaign hard enough for the party, for Modi picked an outsider like Kiran Bedi, not an organisational stalwart, as the chief ministerial candidate, and that is why the party lost. The RSS will say its cadres are critical for election victories, blaming Modi and Amit Shah for the defeat.
The national ramifications of the Delhi elections will undoubtedly depend on several factors, which need analysis. Among the most important is how the BJP will handle RSS arguments. Modi recently spoke against religious intolerance but this is a longer battle
The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.