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Delhi Elections: AAP Sweeps Back To Power As BJP's Divisive Formula Falls Flat

While Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party focused on their record of governance, the BJP's scare-mongering did not bring electoral dividends to it.
Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal waves to his supporters during a rally for the upcoming Delhi state elections in New Delhi.
SAJJAD HUSSAIN via Getty Images
Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal waves to his supporters during a rally for the upcoming Delhi state elections in New Delhi.

NEW DELHI ― The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is set to form the government in Delhi for the third time in six years with Arvind Kejriwal returning as the Chief Minister.

AAP has won or is leading in 62 of the national capital’s 70 Vidhan Sabha seats in Delhi. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is ahead in 8 seats, up 5 seats from its 2015 tally, according to the Election Commission’s website when this story was last updated. The Congress, like last time, looks set to walk away with no seats at all.

AAP’s win capped a months-long campaign that highlighted the party’s achievements which included free neighbourhood clinics, a focus on Delhi’s government-run schools, free travel on public buses for women, and sharply reduced tariffs on water and electricity. The party, born out of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, also reminded voters that it had run a largely scam-free government.

Its chief rival, the BJP, ran a divisive and mostly joyless campaign focused around the presumption that the integrity of the Indian republic was compromised by a group of peaceful demonstrators camped out on a national highway, near the neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh along Delhi’s south-east border. Much of the BJP’s campaign was focused on the controversial new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), that critics say violates the secular tenets of India’s Constitution by making religion a basis for citizenship and the BJP claims is in national interest.

The BJP’s campaign appears to have struck a chord, with the party’s lead rising marginally from 2015, and close contests in some seats, but it is unclear if the hard-edged campaign brought out the base or scared off swing voters.

The Congress Party, which ran Delhi for 15 years from 1998 to 2013, was rendered irrelevant in this election, ending up with zero seats again. There were a few rallies that Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi addressed, but these barely registered with voters.

At one such rally, while trying to attack Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the unemployment crisis in India, Rahul Gandhi said the youth of this country would start beating him with a stick in six months. Gandhi’s remark, like his ’chowkidar chor hai’ jibe at the PM in the Lok Sabha election in 2019, failed to resonate and was not well received.

Congress sources did not confirm if the party had decided not to run a full campaign as a matter of strategy, but they did say cutting AAP’s vote was deemed a bad idea.

Neither the BJP nor the Congress were able to project a chief ministerial candidate against Kejriwal, an Indian Institute of Technology graduate, a former Indian Revenue Service official and an anti-corruption activist, who won the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2006 for his contribution in bringing about the Right to Information legislation.

As a rookie politician in 2013, Kejriwal defeated Congress veteran and three-time Chief Minister of Delhi Sheila Dikshit by a margin of over 25,000 votes.

Famously, Dikshit, who passed away last year at the age of 81, had said on the day of voting, “Who is Arvind Kejriwal? What is AAP?”

While Kejriwal steered clear of the BJP’s virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric, he was careful to ensure his Hindu credentials were not questioned. He declared himself a devotee of Hindu god Hanuman, prayed with his wife at the Hanuman Temple in Connaught Place, and recited the Hanuman Chalisa on a television channel, ahead of the election.

In the meantime, he insisted that Delhi’s voters would reward his party for the work he had done over the past five years.

Kejriwal’s measured approach, neither Left nor Right, but not quite Centre, say analysts, could be the only way to challenge the BJP in the present political climate of Hindu majoritarianism.

What do the results mean?

While AAP’s victory is not a widespread endorsement of the protests at Shaheen Bagh, or the vociferous anti-CAA movement in Delhi, it does show the limits of Hindu nationalism at a time when the ruling BJP is under fire for mismanaging the national economy.

At least in state elections, the results suggest, credible local leaders focused on local issues can prevail over the BJP’s tried-and-tested tactic of religious polarisation.

Less than a year ago, AAP did not win even one of Delhi’s seven seats in the Lok Sabha elections, even though it fielded candidates like Atishi, a Rhodes scholar, who was an advisor to Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and is widely credited with improving Delhi’s government schools.

Atishi lost to former cricketer Gautam Gambhir, fielded by the BJP in East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency. In fact, all seven BJP candidates secured more than 50% vote share in the 2019 parliamentary election, an even higher margin than the Hindu nationalist party’s seven-seat sweep in 2014. This time around, Atishi contested and won from the Kalkaji constituency.

Given that the BJP has only been in power once in Delhi, from 1993 to 1998 (Sushma Swaraj was chief minister in 1998 but only for 52 days), its parliamentary victories were attributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, or, as it was called, the “Modi wave” and the “Modi wave 2.0.”

Following BJP’s Lok Sabha victory in Delhi in 2014, AAP swept the Delhi election in 2015, winning 67 of the 70 seats in the Assembly. Then, in 2017, the BJP swept the Municipal Corporation Development (MCD) election.

AAP’s loss at the time was largely attributed to public anger at Kejriwal, who, for the first two years after coming to power, was seen locked in squabbles with the Narendra Modi government, which controls the Delhi Police, and the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, who represents the Centre in Delhi. For the first half of his term, Kejriwal demanded full statehood for Delhi, and accused the Modi government for interfering with appointments of bureaucrats, targeting his ministers with baseless allegations, and not letting his government function.

There was internal strife as well. Two founding members of the party, Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, were forced out of the party after Kejriwal accused them of planning a coup against him. They accused him of behaving like a dictator and compromising the values of the party.

Kejriwal’s attempt to expand in Punjab and Goa in 2017, instead of focusing on Delhi, also irked the public.

It took almost three years for Kejriwal to settle into his role as the Chief Minister of Delhi.

In a conversation with HuffPost India in 2019, Ankit Saxena’s father, Yashpal Saxena, who was hailed for now letting his son’s murder by his Muslim girlfriend’s family become a flashpoint for communal violence, said that he would vote for Modi in the Lok Sabha election and for Kejriwal in the Assembly election.

“Cheap electricity and free water is a godsend” he said at the time. “People forget that Kejriwal was a newcomer in politics. He fights, he falls, but he does something.”

Subramanian Swamy’s prediction

BJP’s loss in Delhi on Tuesday follows a string of defeats in Assembly elections in the country. Last year, nearing the end of BJP’s five years at the centre and ahead of the parliamentary election, the party lost Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh.

This year, following the BJP’s huge victory in the parliamentary election, even as the Modi government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status and the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Hindu parties in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute case, the party lost Maharashtra and Jharkhand and failed to get a majority in Haryana.

Speaking to HuffPost India in November, BJP leader and Rajya Sabha lawmaker Subramanian Swamy said the economic slowdown would eclipse the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid verdict, and hurt the party’s chances in the Jharkhand and Delhi Assembly elections.

“Unemployment will supersede every other thing including the Ram Mandir,” he said.

Subramanian had also said the BJP could salvage the Delhi election “if we put a good chief minister’s candidate.”

Yet as the day of results grew closer, he seemed to change his mind.

Only to flip again:

BJP’s blitzkrieg on Shaheen Bagh

The BJP did not put up a chief ministerial candidate, and its star campaigners including Home Minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Bisht, who goes by the name Yogi Adityanath, relied almost solely on misinformation and preyed on Hindu insecurities to drum up support for the party.

At one rally in Delhi, Bisht falsely said that Kejriwal “is feeding biryani” to the protesters in Shaheen Bagh. At another, Shah called on voters to choose between Modi and Shaheen Bagh, and publicly lied, claiming that protestors were demanding “Jinnah wali azadi.”

At a third, Minister of State for Finance Anurag Thakur said, “Desh ke gadaron ko…” and the crowd responded, “Goli maron salon ko.” At a fourth, PM Modi said the anti-CAA protests were politically motivated. At a press conference, Union Minister for Environment Prakash Javadekar said that Delhi would have to choose between “Jinnah wali azaadi” and “Bharat mata ki jai.”

This polarising campaign may have worked in places, cutting into AAP’s tally from 2015.

While on Saturday, the day of the polling, the voter turnout appeared to be below average, the Election Commission of India on Sunday said that it was recorded at 62.59%.

The AAP questioned why it took the ECI so long (almost a day after the polls closed) to calculate the voter turnout.

“This has never happened in the history of India,” Sanjay Singh, a national spokesperson and Rajya Sabha lawmaker for AAP, told India Today. “What is wrong, they should say?”

Eye on the ball

CM Kejriwal resisted getting drawn into a conversation about the CAA, or a war or words despite the BJP’s repeated provocations, focusing instead on his party’s work in the past five years.

On the one hand, Kejriwal was chastised by liberal commentators for not speaking against the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status, the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid verdict, the CAA, and the recent violence in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

On the other, the BJP leaders accused him of “feeding biryani to the protesters” at Shaheen Bagh.

On Kashmir’s special constitutional status, Kejriwal said that he supported the Modi government’s decision to abrogate it and divide the then Jammu and Kashmir State into the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh.

The Congress came out against the sudden abrogation of J&K’s special status, which some legal experts say was unconstitutional.

Kejriwal did not visit Shaheen Bagh. Neither did Congress’s Rahul Gandhi.

While Kejriwal has called for Shaheen Bagh to be cleared up, the Congress’s stand is ambiguous.

Even though Rahul Gandhi has not visited Shaheen Bagh, Congress leaders like Shashi Tharoor and Mani Shankar Aiyer have addressed the protestors.

In his first public rally for the Delhi election, Kejriwal told workers of both BJP and Congress to remain with their parties, but cast votes for AAP, “so that the pace of development doesn’t suffer.”

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact