A first reaction to the Delhi outcome is simply that of relief — voters chose to treat this as just an assembly election and not as an India-Pakistan confrontation. They refused to equate the BJP with India. Relief also because the crowds chanting “goli maro saalonko” were probably not representative of the aam voter. Elections often have a tendency of bringing out the worst in irresponsible politicians, confident that they can make the voters match their own malice and vice. Delhi has probably ducked the issue of responding to this tendency. But has it really negated that tendency?
To be able to put the outcome of Delhi elections in perspective, three things need to be noted. One, that this was not an election on which the fate of national politics hinged — after all, it was an election to the Assembly of a union territory where the elected government is severely constrained by statutory provisions. But the BJP sought to make this election disproportionately important. That makes the failure of the BJP look even more impressive. Two, notwithstanding what the spin doctors may say about improved vote share, winning margins and so on, the BJP squarely lost and the Aam Admi Party won handsomely. The BJP must realise that its all-too-powerful national leadership seems repeatedly unable to deliver at the state level and that shrill rhetoric does not necessarily win elections.
Three, these elections happened in a rather extraordinary context, which has an all-India relevance. In deciphering the outcome, without taking away the credit from the AAP’s record over the past five years, it is necessary to go beyond the Delhi-specific fallout and look for the larger meaning of the result.
In discussing election outcomes, the term mandate is thrown around somewhat loosely. The “mandate arguments” gain popular currency particularly when the result is rather one-sided. However, often enough, mandates are read into outcomes post-facto and even crafted post-facto. Therefore, instead of rushing to declare the victory of performance or drawing satisfaction from rejection of the BJP’s deeply divisive stand, we need to estimate who will craft a mandate and in which way. It would be hard to deny that this outcome throws up mixed signals. It does not reflect the “national mood” in an electoral sense and yet, there is an eerie reflection of the national mood in this result.
The only way one can make sense of AAP’s victory can be in terms of its performance. Re-election, therefore, not just endorses what the government did but also symbolises the fact that voters do reward parties for their performance while in power. But perhaps the more significant signal is about what the voters did not buy. The election was happening in the backdrop of the anti-CAA agitation, the assault on students of JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia and of the unregulated venom being poured by important BJP leaders. Every effort was made to turn the voter into a cynical instrument of communal division. In that sense, the choice before the voters was between governmental performance and an open invitation to uncivilised, divisive animus. A straightforward reading of the result would assure us that the voter did not choose animosity over performance.
That is where the romance with the Delhi outcome must halt. During the campaign, the BJP continuously sought to trap Kejriwal into taking a position on the CAA, nationalism and Shaheen Bagh protests. It was tactically clever of Kejriwal not to fall into that trap. This allowed him to retain his electoral base. This also begs two questions: What really is/was his stand on these issues? We will probably never know. Or, post-results, he may muster courage and formally dissent from the BJP’s position. But the more nagging question is: If he had indeed taken a stand in favour of the protests during the campaign, would voters still vote for AAP? Was it because of the ambiguity of Kejriwal’s stand that the voters could vote for him despite their continuing love affair with Narendra Modi? Because this would mean that state parties should refrain from taking a stand on critical issues about national identity and the nature of nationalism in order to make local electoral gains. Such a strategy would ensure victories of state parties in state elections and yet facilitate BJP victories in national elections. This is not merely about the separation of the menus and platforms in state and national elections. This is about opening up passages of popular approval for the ideas and views the BJP propagates. If so, we shall soon experience a misleading political scenario where many states witness a rejection of the BJP without necessarily discarding the agenda the BJP represents.
It is not just Kejriwal’s tactical silence on critical issues raised by the BJP. The Delhi elections also underscore how the popular imagination of a good CM candidate (or for that matter a good political leader) is being shaped. By reciting Hanuman Chalisa, Kejriwal didn’t just exhibit his piety, he opened up new tests for future politicians. Nobody should grudge Kejriwal or any other political leader a personal space to hold and practice her religious and spiritual beliefs; but by making that into a public virtue, are we not implicitly shifting the criteria of both a public worker and the public sphere? This insistence of holding your faith on your shirtsleeves characterises the BJP’s Hindutva.
While the AAP’s victory is a small window to let fresh air in, for that opening to be durable and real, we need to address two questions. First, does the defeat of BJP mean disapproval of its divisive stand? Second, is the alternative to the BJP to be necessarily a softer copy of the BJP itself?
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While the outcome of Delhi’s election does not give a convincingly affirmative answer to the first question, it portends the possibility of an affirmative answer to the latter. That is where we encounter a deep paradox when reading the Delhi outcome. It rebuffs the BJP and facilitates a respite for its opponents but at the same time, the outcome actually hints at the possibility that discourse and agenda would continue to be determined by the BJP. Parties wanting to seriously pose a challenge to the BJP can do so only within what this writer has long been describing as the new “middle ground”.
One suspects that the ground on which the BJP operates remains more or less intact. It may be well that instead of over-reading the mandate, the Delhi outcome is seen as a small, tentative step towards reshaping the battleground that BJP currently seems to be controlling.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 12, 2020 under the title ‘New winner, same game’. The writer, based at Pune, taught Political Science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics.
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