The scoreline is stunning. 67 for AAP, 3 for BJP and 0 for Congress. Yes the exit polls got it wrong, the AAP did far better than anyone could ever have predicted.
This is, of course, right about the time two narratives emerge, the victor’s and the vanquished.
For the vanquished, the loss is because the media was in the tank for the other team, our organization dropped the ball, the winner benefited from Cause A that was not in our hands, and finally that old chestnut, look at their vote-share, they didn’t even x% of the total vote.
For the winner, the victory is a new horizon in Indian history, a win for the forces of good over evil, of the will of the people over money-power, and feel free to throw in your own cliche here.
We saw these two narratives emerge after the Lok Sabha election, and they emerge here once again, except that the people pushing the narratives have been interchanged. Not that these narratives have no truth in them, except the sulking vote-share argument, but a realistic analysis is in order, one that is made without Arnab Goswami trying to shut you down.
Is this the proverbial blow to Modi? The answer is “yes and no”. It is “yes” because, for reasons best known to them, the BJP actually made it into a mandate on Modi. Perhaps it was because of a lack of faith in their local leadership (we shall come to that later) or because the performance of BJP corporators, as I understand it, has been less than stellar, Amit Shah brought in political rhetoric more appropriate for a Lok Sabha elections, and in a State elections, there is a cognitive disconnect when you do that, because people want to hear about local issues. As an example, in a speech that I heard on TV, Amit Shah kept on saying how under Modi sarkar, Pakistan may start border skirmishes but India finishes it. Even if you are impressed by the nationalistic narrative in the speech, why would you want to vote for the BJP at the state level based on that? By bringing issues that had the risk of irrelevance and by making Central ministers bear the bulk of political communication (as opposed to state leaders), the BJP made it about Modi, which is a very risky strategy in a state, where their electoral prospects had already been made dodgy (and they should have known this) by the inevitable vote flight from a broken Congress and the consolidation of anti-BJP-votes under one banner.
It is also “no” . The Modi government has neither been an abject failure, partially because of factors they cannot be credited for like falling global gas prices, nor has it been a stupendous success, specially in terms of its roll-back on corruption. The most pragmatic assessment of the Modi Sarkar is that it is firmly in the band of “acceptability” (or as my school teachers would write in my report card V. Fair) as far as governance is concerned. If Lok Sabha elections were held today, Modi would still win pretty handsomely, and many of the people who voted for Kejriwal for the State would vote Modi for the Center because at the time of writing, there is still no national alternative to BJP, with the Congress having passed away. Also lest we forget, this same party was winning one state after another, only till very recently, and nothing catastrophic has really happened, except Modi’s questionable fashion choices, to sink the government.
So then, what happened in Delhi?
The first thing to consider is that in terms of state elections, Delhi is very special. It is significant politically purely because of the media attention it receives by virtue of it being India’s political and political news capital. It is also special because it is a city-state, that has both affluent and highly educated class, less prone to politics of caste and religion, as well as poor migrant workers. Because of the fluid structures of migrant communities, the baggage of caste and religion and history is not as heavy for them in Delhi as it would have been back in Bihar. Which is why both the rich and the poor, are more interested in questions like “What is in it for me?” as opposed to “What’s the religious/caste identity of the candidate you are putting up”. In other states, an Amit Shah can cobble together strategic caste alliances, or pit local satraps against the other, or play up to local chauvinism, and that’s sometimes enough to give him victory, but in a place like Delhi, it’s mostly about getting the messaging right.
And there the BJP absolutely tanked. Even its counter-messaging, or negative campaigning, was all wrong.
It attacked Kejriwal for being a “bhagoda”. Kejriwal promptly “apologized”. I put the quote-marks because it was not a real apology, for that would have “I was auditioning for PM-ship because that’s what I wanted, I used my time in the government to primarily get into the national conversation, I jettisoned the government strategically to pursue my ambitions for being a PM, I spread my resources too thin, and I am back now to my old job”. But then again, it was still an apology and given that Indian politicians never say sorry, and the Indian electorate is more than forgiving, the apology was powerful enough to totally take the wind out of the sail of that attack.
It attacked Kejriwal for accepting donations from shady people “at night” which actually ended up shifting the conversation to political funding in general, which, to put it mildly, is not BJP’s strong suite, corruption is a important issue in Delhi than, say, it would in the backwaters of Bihar.
And over the last few months, it has let the Sakshi Maharaj and assorted other loonies emerge as their most popular faces. Modi’s mandate, in urban India, was development, and the kind of wide media play these fringe elements got (and it is a virtuous circle here, the anti-BJP media will cover the worse stereotypes of right wing politics and the same elements will revel in that coverage) did real harm to the party, specially in mild places like Delhi.
In contrast, AAP got the messaging correct. It was also appropriately negative but it constructed the narrative around familiar middle-class bogeymen, namely sinister big business houses and vague conspiracies to tamper with EVMs and other assorted inflammables that would get the old boys all agitated during their morning walks and community samosa-eating.
And in it’s positive messaging, it had everyone beat. If elections are about “What will you do for me?” the AAP came up with such an extensive feature list of deliverables that it was no wonder that BJP didn’t even want to get into a feature fight-out with them, delaying their manifesto as much as they could. It had a free “something” for everyone, from bijli and paani right up to Wifi, a veritable Santa Claus in February. CCTVs? We will install 15 lacs of CCTVs and boom woman’s safety. How will one pay for 15 lac CCTVs? Ah well, did I tell you about the new power plant we will set up? How? Where? How much will it…Err wait, have you seen point number 45? It’s frightfully easy for AAP to play this game, because they have never been in power before, and so have no record of not-kept-promises. Oh yes, there was that 49 day thing but they have apologized for it. So it’s cool.
Now that they have been elected and come to the business end of the promises, it will be interesting to see how much of that was “jumla”. If I can hazard a guess, the most likely outcome of most their promises will either be non-fulfillment (the 15 lac CCTVs for instance), or a transference of blame to the Central government for the “stepmotherly treatment” accorded to Delhi. I use the term “stepmotherly treatment” from my personal experience of having grown up under CPM rule in Bengal, these being exactly the two words they used to explain everything from why Jyoti Basu’s ambitious Bakreswar Power Plant, which would solve Bengal’s power problems, (note similarity) to why the long laundry list of promises made to voters was not being followed through. The similarities I find between CPM of the 80s and AAP is striking. Both subscribe to politics of extreme populism, both are strongly cadre-based, both have many genuinely likeable and committed people who felt there were making a difference, and neither could never really explain how they would fund all that they promised. The only difference was of course that CPM was idealogically monochrome, namely red, while AAP is a rainbow tent, from “give Kashmir independence” types down to mild nationalism, chameleon-like, different things to different people, and absolutely perfect for a heterogeneous urban center like Delhi.
Which finally brings us to leadership. BJP had none. It waited too long, hemming and hawing about their Delhi strategy, giving their opponents time to get off the ropes and have a shower-down. They had little trust in their local leadership, having sent the reliable Harsh Vardhan to the center, and when they brought in Kiran Bedi, it was too late. Perhaps even more damning, she was the absolute wrong choice. In elections for a place like Delhi, where messaging trumps caste, it is very important for a leader to be an effective communicator, and Bedi, with her angry school principal demeanor and her scrapbooks, was just not cut out for this. Because BJP felt they were so light on leadership, they poached Shazia Ilmi and Krishna Tirath from AAP and Congress, and this like was an IPL franchise buying Dinda and Nehra to bolster their pace attack. They did bring the cavalry in, late in the game, but that just made things matter worse, raising the stakes in a battle they had been losing for a while.
In contrast, AAP was supreme. In AAP 1.o, it was all about Kejriwal. He was in the studios, he was lying on the streets, he was here, he was there, he was waving his finger about, he was throwing a press conference, he was tightening his muffler, he was coughing into the mic. In AAP 2.0, he wisely became the leader, the statesman, sitting back and coordinating, the cool politician that south Delhi-tes would say “choo chweet”. But then South Delhi isn’t Delhi. So AAP had different faces to appeal to different people, Yadav, the kind self-deprecating uncle with a silk-smooth voice, Khetan, consistently on the attack in TV studios, Ashutosh raising Hell on social media, keeping the base riled up with wild conspiracy theories every morning, and Somnath Bharti Luther King with his feet on the ground, because Delhi. In addition, Kejriwal fielded pragmatic candidates , of questionable AAP quality, in outer Delhi, went easy on the “We are a social movement” and accepted that there were in the politics business, and ensured a wide targetting of different sections, Muslims, migrant workers, housewives, angry old men, and the effectiveness of that is attested to by the final vote tally.
As an independent voice, I welcome the arrival of AAP. Any working democracy needs a strong opposition and right now, with the increasing obsolescence of Congress party, the BJP does not have a credible antagonist at the national level. There is thus space for a party like AAP to emerge to take its place. With Delhi at an impregnable base, AAP can now again dream of conquest, but hopefully they have learned from the last time, the perils of spreading themselves too fast, too thin. A slow, graded, less greedy approach, predominantly concentrated around urban centers (and no I think UP is a bad move) would be the best strategy forward for them. As for BJP, the lessons should be clear namely that the people who really vote, they don’t really care for Modi hugging Obama or advice to produce more babies, because it’s not something that really helps them in their lives. I hope you get what I am saying. Also I sincerely hope that this defeat does not lead to the rise of the old BJP, both the shrill Hindutva-hawks as well as the protectionist-populist Swadeshis.
Finally congratulations Delhi. You will have five interesting years.