A year is a long time in politics — particularly when you have had just 49 days of a government in it. As Delhi heads finally for elections, its three main parties are entering the polls transformed by 2014.
The humbled Aam Aadmi Party looks more like other parties, keener for power and the kind of politics it entails. And its Congress and BJP rivals are learning tricks from the junior they once dismissed, adopting AAP’s grassroots campaign and its crowd-funding strategies. All one had to do was drop in at the BJP headquarters on Friday as the party paraded its newest entrants Kiran Bedi and Shazia Ilmi to see how the wheels had come full circle.
For all the three parties, the battle is crucial. The BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi view Delhi as the icing on the cake after steamrolling through four state elections. Besides, any defeat would be projected by the Opposition as a sign of bursting of the BJP’s bubble, just in time for the next Parliament session. Bruised from resounding poll losses, the Congress hopes to emerge with some honour in a state where it ruled for three consecutive terms. As for AAP, having burnt its hands in the Lok Sabha elections, it needs a win for its very survival.
In the winter of 2013, it had been hard to miss the genesis of AAP. Gandhi-cap clad volunteers from across the country were knocking on doors of residents who had never had a political party approach them before.
Autorickshaws for the first time were proudly sporting a party’s advertisements and even bantering with passengers about AAP. And Arvind Kejriwal, fresh out of the Anna Hazare movement, was tapping into national discontent and prime-time TV as he railed against corruption and talked about Lokpal and swaraj at corner meetings and rallies.
However, few had predicted that AAP’s jhadoo would eventually mop up a tally of 28 in the 70-member House, cheating the BJP (32 seats) of power. The mighty Congress had been reduced to eight, with its incumbent chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s loss to Kejriwal compounding the party’s humiliation.
Even fewer could have foreseen what followed. After a long drama in which the Congress offered support and AAP scoffingly dismissed it, the latter did form a government with the former’s aid, only to resign within 49 days after hurtling through a series of misadventures.
February 7, when Delhi votes, will just be seven days short of the anniversary of that February 14, 2014, resignation. But February 14, 2015, by when the Capital may have a new government, will assuredly look very different.
Congress takes the protest route
When the December 4, 2013, elections had come around, the ruling Congress, with its uneasy eyes glued on the Narendra Modi-led BJP, was still unsure about how to deal with AAP. The strategy it adopted was to ignore the party, hoping that not talking about the “upstart” would make it go away faster. Dikshit, who wouldn’t even take AAP’s name, famously asked “Who is Kejriwal?” on polling day. She lost by 25,000 votes to him.
Having learnt its lesson, the Congress took a page from AAP, and the change in its politics in the city has been visible since at least October 2014. “AAP made news everyday with their disruptive form of politics. They jammed roads, they screamed till their voices were hoarse and Kejriwal never tired of vilifying Delhi’s established politicians. We have taken over this role of protests, dharnas and demonstrations,” a senior Congress leader says.
Even during the Lok Sabha elections in May, the Congress had slammed Kejriwal for his “disruptive” politics. But since the Delhi Assembly was dissolved in October 2014, it has itself organised at least five varied styles of protests across the national capital, spearheaded by party state unit chief Arvinder Singh Lovely and its Ballimaran MLA Haroon Yusuf.
It started with the Aakrosh rally. “We had people from nearby areas approach the protest site, beating drums and chanting slogans against the BJP and AAP. We would then hold a rally in a busy public space,” says former Congress MLA from Uttam Nagar Mukesh Sharma.
Next came Chetavani rally “against demolitions in the city”, the Bhanda Phod rally “to expose promises made by AAP and the BJP”, and the Sankalp rally involving “torching inflated power and water bills”.
The rallies, which drew fair crowds across Delhi, were meant to put the Congress back in contention. And they did.
“We have even started the Jan Jagran Abhiyan, which is essentially a door-to-door campaign in Delhi. This will help get us closer to the voter. Though this was a core component of the Congress once, we have not done it for years. It seems to have helped AAP immensely, so it was deemed important by the top party leadership,” admits a senior Delhi PCC functionary.
With the corruption charge hurting last time, the Congress also claims to have organised public donation drives now to raise money for its campaign — another trick from AAP’s bag. Though the drives have gained little traction, the Congress is trying to use these to present a cleaner image.
The drives were initially meant to be held in all the 70 constituencies in Delhi, but the party managed success in just parts of West and Old Delhi.
Lately, the Congress has attempted to bolster its presence on social media, though the team set up for this purpose has remained a non-starter because of lack of money and resources and the inability to deal with trolls. Both the BJP and AAP are far ahead of the Congress in this.
BJP goes door-to-door
In the recently held Assembly elections, the Modi factor has been enough to take the BJP past the goalpost. But in Delhi, the party seems to believe it may not be enough. In the last week, the BJP has inducted former IPS officer and Kejriwal’s colleague from the Anna Hazare movement Kiran Bedi as well as former AAP leader Shazia Ilmi into the party fold. The hope obviously is to blunt some of AAP’s allegations against the BJP by showcasing its former leaders in the party camp.
Like the Congress, the BJP has also picked up door-to-door campaigning from AAP. “We have always been doing this, but after the success of AAP, we have upped the ante. Now municipal councillors and party workers, who form the crux of this strategy, wear visible identifiers like saffron scarves or caps to distinguish themselves,” says a senior BJP leader.
Even after national BJP president Amit Shah took over the campaign personally for the last crucial push recently, door-to-door canvassing remains crucial to the BJP’s strategy.
Another original AAP idea of public manifestos has been quickly absorbed by the BJP, though the Congress rejected it outrightly. In 2013, AAP had not only developed a comprehensive Delhi manifesto, but created one for each of Delhi’s 70 constituencies.
For four months now, Delhi BJP president Satish Upadhyay has been travelling among important electorates in the Capital — traders, Scheduled Castes, students — in a bid to develop independent manifestos.
Upadhyay kicked off the sessions on November 14 while inaugurating the BJP’s new website, another takeaway from AAP, which has an interactive website. “I appeal to the people of Delhi to use this opportunity to give their suggestions on the development and upkeep of Delhi. The party will consider the constructive ideas of Delhiites while constructing the manifesto,” Upadhyay had said.
The website itself was designed around “constructive idea sharing, a discussion forum, media section, and social media updates,” says BJP’s South Delhi MP Ramesh Bidhuri. All these features figure on the AAP website.
Some outcomes of the BJP manifesto meetings include a promise to confirm services of all Dalit employees, and provision of laptops to children of Dalit families pursuing postgraduate studies. After a meeting with voters from Delhi’s rural constituencies, the BJP promised colleges in rural areas, starting two shifts in colleges and a digital library.
AAP spots vote banks
Early into campaigning in 2013 was an incident the BJP won’t be able to live down for a long time. Then BJP president Vijay Goel had invited Kejriwal to join him for a protest at the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission. Kejriwal had acquiesced, joined Goel on stage, and taken the microphone to lambast the BJP and Congress over electricity and water bills in Delhi. Weeks later, Harsh Vardhan — who is now a Union minister — had replaced Goel as the party’s Delhi chief.
AAP had promised to cut power tariffs by half if elected to power and, in his short-lived tenure as CM, Kejriwal did that, albeit through a government subsidy. Kejriwal also delivered on a promise to supply 700 litres of free water per day to every Delhi resident.
Power and water continue to hold top priority for AAP in terms of election promises. However, the two other issues, over which Kejriwal stepped down — Lokpal and swaraj Bills — are in the backseat. Says a senior leader, “Lokpal and swaraj are still important issues for AAP, but we have realised that unless we are in power, there is little we can do about anything. There are better ways of implementing such things. Power and water are issues that appeal to everybody in Delhi and that can win us an election.”
Even rivals have noticed this change in tactics, and in a sign that it could be working, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself was deployed by the BJP to kick off its campaign in Delhi with a focus on these two issues.
Modi promised a “revolutionary” system in Delhi where consumers could choose their power companies. He also pointed to Haryana CM M L Khattar, who was on the stage with Modi, and said that a BJP government in Delhi would be able to sort out water issues with the party-ruled neighbouring state. Modi also devoted a sizeable portion of his speech to Delhi’s “gareeb” or urban poor. Incidentally, they form AAP’s biggest electorate in Delhi.
Inner-party democracy too has seen a churning since 2013 in AAP. “Then, the national executive and political affairs committee were decision-making bodies. Now all that matters is Kejriwal and his inner party core. Some of them are in the PAC but these bodies do no matter anymore,” says a source.
Incidentally, several AAP workers and candidates who have defected to other parties have blamed Kejriwal’s autocratic functioning for leaving.
What remains unchanged is AAP’s belief in door-to-door campaigns, or the “personalisation” of politics. “Our volunteers, identifiable by the ubiquitous caps that had Main Hoon Aam Aadmi written on them, played possibly the single most important role in our performance last time,” says party leader Manish Sisodia.
This has been taken further in 2015 with Delhi Dialogues.
At the same time, AAP realises there is a fatigue factor with its in-your-face kind of politics, particularly after its hasty decision to step down. Admits a party insider, “The middle-class and upper middle-class vote in Delhi is now split. We had swept this electorate in 2013, but now things are different. To make up, we have decided to strengthen our presence among the urban poor and Delhi’s rural seats.”
It is here that AAP seems to emulate its more mainstream political counterparts. AAP had failed to win a single rural seat in 2013. With that performance being blamed on wrong candidates, the party changed its ticket distribution this time.
“Then, in line with the party ideology, we had given tickets to fresh entrants in politics and refused to indulge in community politics,” says a source. There is no such discretion being shown now.
“Tickets have been given to people who are not only from another party but who clearly are from a powerful community in that particular constituency. For example, Kartar Singh Tanwar from Chhattarpur is a Gurjjar. It is the most powerful community of the area,” says a senior leader.
Of the 38 new faces to get tickets in AAP for the coming elections, at least 17 have contested at least one election under the banner of another party. Last time, there were two.
Criminal backgrounds, which to the AAP of 2013 was unforgivable, are now ‘open to interpretation’. As one leader said, “In many cases, our candidates have cases against them for taking up public causes. This is not a problem.”
When asked if this would hurt the party’s image, a senior leader says glibly, “How does image matter if we are not successful? What matters this time is winnability. Nothing else.”
The taste of power in Delhi seems to have shifted AAP’s prime directive — bringing about a revolution in politics. As a senior leader says, “We all got in this to change politics. Arvind Kejriwal wanted change. Now the party and him want power.”
Team Anna now almost Team BJP
By: Dipankar Ghose & Seema Chishti
Ashutosh of the Aam Aadmi Party on Friday called the BJP ‘AAP’s B Team’. While that is stretching matters a bit, there is no denying that from being deeply disdainful of electoral politics four years ago, the so-called Team Anna has done a complete U-turn with a majority of its stars now in the BJP fold.
In 2011, the motley ‘Team Anna’ had been carefully pieced together by its principal mover, Arvind Kejriwal. There was the Ralegan Siddhi-based fasting ‘Gandhian’ Anna Hazare as the showstopper; fellow Magsaysay-award winner and ex-cop Kiran Bedi who embodied the hopes of a middle class seeking a “tough” leader; yoga guru Baba Ramdev with his strong following among the lower- and middle-classes, especially in the suburbs and small towns; and former TV presenter Shazia Ilmi who was the articulate and modern ‘Muslim face’ of the movement.
Now those names are gone, and all that Kejriwal still has of that team are the father-son duo of Shanti and Prashant Bhushan.
In effusive praise for the BJP on Friday, Kiran Bedi explained her change of heart thus: “Life is change to which We Say YES! What comes before & after has many schools of thought! Been reading, listening & experiencing it afresh!”
Ilmi now praises Bedi’s administrative skills “to lead Delhi” and hails “the new samvaad (dialogue) and discourse Narendra Modi has created”, as opposed to “the negativity and araajaktaa (lawlessness)” of the AAP campaign.
Seeking to carry with her the nostalgia for the Anna Hazare campaign to the other side, Ilmi also referred to the “kamaal ka movement” where she learnt that “only politics could change things”.
Baba Ramdev had jumped ship before the Lok Sabha polls, and has been consistently praising Modi. This week, Ramdev was made brand ambassador of BJP-ruled Haryana and his associates say he will have a role in the Delhi campaign.