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MCD setback shows that it has lost the political initiative. It needs to remake itself.

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Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD)

Nearly two years after its overwhelming victory in the Delhi assembly election, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has suffered a crushing defeat in the city’s civic body elections. The BJP successfully managed to retain control over all three corporations as it emerged victorious in 182 wards across Delhi. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, the party has been consistently winning state and local elections across the country. This victory is a continuation of that momentum.

The result may be a huge setback for the AAP and indicative of the brewing public dissatisfaction with its performance in government. But considering the volatile nature of the Delhi voter observed in recent years, it may be too early to term this a complete rejection of the party.

The steady decline of the Congress in the city, ongoing since 2013, ceased in this election: The party’s vote share has increased as compared to 2015. Yet, it may be too little and too early to term this a revival of the Congress in Delhi since it has failed to make substantial gains in terms of seats.

However, the real story of this election is the massive negative vote swing for the AAP. The party’s vote share in this election — 26 per cent — is almost half of what it got in the 2015 assembly election. The BJP’s vote share increased only marginally, by around 5 percentage points to 37 per cent as compared to the 2015 assembly election.

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Interestingly, there is almost no change in the party’s vote share when compared to the 2012 MCD election. Meanwhile, the Congress’s vote share has more than doubled, from 10 per cent in the 2015 assembly election to 21 per cent in this election.

The BJP’s victory in this election may be attributed to an interplay of multiple factors. First, the party correctly sensed the public anger against many incumbent councillors and the overall performance of the corporations. The campaign narrative of the BJP in this election focused on delivering a “new MCD” to people rather than recalling its 10-year performance. The party’s gambit of not re-nominating incumbent councillors was an implicit acceptance of dissatisfaction with their performance, but it proved to be extremely helpful in countering anti-incumbency: In fact, it helped to place the party as the challenger in the eyes of the voters. In the minds of many voters in the city, the AAP and Arvind Kejriwal were the incumbents in this election.

Second, unlike in 2015, the AAP failed to capture the public discourse and allowed the BJP to set the agenda. In 2015, the AAP’s victory could be partly attributed to promises like cheaper electricity and water, which had caught public imagination. However, in this election, the AAP failed to raise an issue or a promise that had mass appeal. For instance, the promise of a house tax waiver had limited appeal among the lower classes. Also, the party should have realised that the claims of EVMs being rigged would not help it in consolidating public support.

Third, as seen in multiple elections over the last three years, the BJP seems to be benefiting immensely from the personal popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP has performed extremely well in elections where regional opponents have allowed themselves to be directly pitted against the prime minister. In such scenarios, the party is able to convert PM Modi’s popularity into votes even in state or local elections.

Fourth, an analysis of the vote shares reveals that a division of the opposition space between the AAP and the Congress is an important reason for the BJP’s massive victory. The split in votes between the AAP and the Congress led to a significant lead for the BJP in terms of seats despite a marginal increase in vote share. Like in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana, a split in the “anti-BJP” votes between the Congress and the regional alternative (AAP) helped the BJP. The partial revival of the Congress in Delhi is likely to help the BJP immensely as the AAP and the Congress have a common core support base. Many traditional Congress voters who had voted for the AAP in 2013 and 2015 and the BJP in 2014 are now returning to the party. The Congress also seems to have regained the trust of Muslims, who had voted almost unidirectionally in 2015 for the AAP. Party candidates won in Muslim-dominant wards like Zakir Nagar and Darya Ganj.

How is Delhi politics likely to shape up after this result? A single electoral defeat or even a string of defeats do not seal the political future of a party. What matters is how parties react to defeats. The AAP needs to reinvent itself and find a new agenda if it hopes for political expansion.

The Congress needs to do a lot more if it seeks to regain past glory. Severe infighting observed between rival factions in the state unit during the recent ticket distribution, and then, the exit of senior leader Arvinder Singh Lovely, hampered the party’s prospects in many wards.

The prime minister’s popularity may be helping the BJP when national factors take precedence in elections. But the party must remember that many opponents would try to make local and regional factors salient in elections. In such cases, the party may find itself in a tough situation if it relies solely on the PM’s popularity.

The MCD poll was the fourth election in the city since December 2013. Interestingly, each election has thrown up a result markedly different from the previous election. The massive vote swings that each election has witnessed and the seemingly volatile nature of the Delhi voter in recent times should keep both the BJP and the AAP on their toes and the Congress hopeful about a revival in the city.