For a while, it seemed like the Delhi elections would go against the recent norm of communal statements and manufactured controversies that accompany any test at the ballot box. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and its chief Arvind Kejriwal tried their best to keep the debate focused on governance, where the party was reasonably confident of its track record. Until a fortnight ago, it seemed like they would actually succeed.
But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to keep poking at the peaceful anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, until it finally became a major talking point. From threatening the protesters to demonising them, BJP leaders, including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah, have resorted to every trick in the book to discredit the peaceful sit-in. This included asking voters to “press the button so hard the current would be felt in Shaheen Bagh” (Amit Shah) to claiming that Pakistan has taken over.
Some of this hate rhetoric was undoubtedly responsible for the three different shootings that occurred in Delhi over the past fortnight as well.
The latest in the line of ruling party leaders to speak against Shaheen Bagh was party MP Tejasvi Surya, who warned of a “return to Mughal Raj” while speaking in Parliament.
“What is happening today in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh is a stark reminder that if the majority of this country is not vigilant, the patriotic Indians do not stand up to this, the days of Mughal Raj coming back to Delhi are not far away,” he had said.
Several people on Twitter condemned his statement and said he was indulging in fear mongering, while others said he should be talking about issues such as development and education (see here, here and here).
AAP leaders seem to have cautiously maintained a distance from Shaheen Bagh, instead talking about the Delhi government’s work. Only Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia has expressed solidarity with the protests.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has said that Shaheen Bagh isn’t even a poll issue and accused the BJP of resorting to diversion tactics. In an interview to The Times of India, he said that the ruling party was benefitting from the protests at Shaheen Bagh. While saying that the road should be opened, he added that “nobody is going to believe that he [Amit Shah] cannot get a road opened.”
One way or the other, the spontaneous protests at Shaheen Bagh, which have now inspired several similar sit-ins, is never out of the news cycle. So does this mean the BJP is winning?
Analysts don’t see much electoral dividend
Writing in The New Indian Express, Sajjan Kumar and Rajan Pandey, who conducted an extensive field study in Delhi, argued that Shaheen Bagh would not help the BJP much. They listed out five interrelated factors which would work in the AAP’s favour—these included the fact that Delhi voters have always given more weight to local issues over national ones, and that they usually practise “differential voting”.
Roshan Kishore and Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa wrote for Hindustan Times that the BJP has not emerged as a clear favourite because of two factors—Delhi’s relative opulence as compared to other states, which neutralises Modi’s welfare push, and AAP’s positioning of itself as a purely governing party, instead of as an ideological opponent to the BJP.
But while the BJP’s vitriol against Shaheen Bagh may not win them the electorate, what long-term effect will it have on Delhi?
The long-term effects
Rahul Verma, a fellow at Centre for Police Research, who works on areas including voting behaviour, points out that the provocative remarks made by several BJP leaders are not merely intended to win them votes.
“Notwithstanding the result, each election campaign provides the BJP leadership with an opportunity to push the ideological framework governing party politics in India. This not only enthuses the party’s core support base but also to attract new voters to its fold,” he told HuffPost India.
This observation is borne out by ground reports.
Scroll’s Supriya Sharma spoke to a group of people who attended Yogi Adityanath’s public rally on 3 February. Most of them said they will vote for AAP because of the work the Kejriwal government has done in five years.
The men Sharma spoke to were opposed to the protests at Shaheen Bagh. They believed that the anti-CAA protests had caused widespread damage to public property in Delhi and they also believed that “anti-India” slogans are raised at Shaheen Bagh.
The Scroll piece also pointed out that AAP had also delegitimised the protests and therefore it’s “no surprise that its supporters had internalised all the hateful propaganda of the BJP”.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s piece in The Indian Express also argued that “incitements by BJP leaders aim to polarise society, create violent identities — not just win elections”. The incitements by BJP leaders “are not simply dictated by the demands of a local election. They keep the party and its base united and energised,” he wrote.
“The creation of a country where the political justifications of violence are not merely episodic, but routine and perpetual. That is the long-term prize the BJP is after; not just a short-term logic of electoral dividends.”