The Delhi Assembly election result is an affirmation of the Aam Aadmi Party’s welfarist political agenda trumping the hyper-nationalist narrative of the BJP. The AAP chose to seek votes on the basis of its record in office and refused to be drawn into any debate on national issues. Calling itself a post-ideology solution-driven political group, it projected an inclusive civic agenda and claimed backing from its record in office. It defined nationalism in these terms — good classrooms and health camps make for good citizens and a secure nation. Voters were convinced.
It wasn’t an easy battle for the AAP as it sought a third successive win in Delhi, a city-state where the Centre controls public order, land and services, including the power to appoint senior civil servants. If the footsoldiers of the party went from door to door spreading the message of governance, their strongest asset was their leader Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Under whom the government had delivered on most of its promises including providing subsidised public goods, mainly electricity and water, as well as raising the quality of public education and healthcare. In the time of a sputtering economy, even the few hundred rupees saved through subsidies and welfare schemes would have endeared voters in Delhi to the AAP. Beyond its record in office, the party’s near-sweep of Delhi owes to Kejriwal’s tactical smartness in refusing to be drawn into a debate on the divisive and contentious issues that the BJP raised during the campaign. In fact, in the first phase of his term when he defied Prime Minister Narendra Modi almost every other day and was himself locked in a bruising battle with Raj Bhavan, Kejriwal quickly realised the diminishing returns of such a strategy. He changed tack and de-Modi-ised his discourse. That’s why when the BJP sought to inject hyper-nationalist rhetoric into the election, the AAP countered with its government’s work in education and healthcare. Kejriwal skillfully avoided the identity trap the BJP had laid for him in a highly polarised discourse. Overall, the AAP’s success in nearly replicating its 2015 win tells a remarkable story of political resilience, hard work and tactical acumen.
For the BJP, the Amit Shah-led high voltage campaign against Shaheen Bagh failed to fetch returns. The entire brass of the BJP, including much of the Union Cabinet, 200 MPs and leaders from neighbouring states including Adityanath, were fielded in the campaign. The anti-citizenship law protests in Shaheen Bagh were turned into a talisman of nationalism and a counter to the AAP’s governance-as-ideology politics. Clearly, few were impressed. In the absence of a strong state leader, the party, once again, leaned on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win Delhi which it last won in 1993. But as the Assembly elections after the BJP’s spectacular Lok Sabha win in 2019 show, there are limitations to that strategy. Brand Modi may not have diminished but it doesn’t seem to enthuse fence-sitting voters when the playground is the state — which means interesting times ahead.
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