Is Modi’s Honeymoon Over? The 2015 Delhi Legislative Assembly elections and the Possibility of Change

This blogpost by Dr Wilfried Swenden originally appeared on the #IndiaVotes Ballots and Bullet Blog at the University of Nottingham on the 11th of February 2015          

Aam Admi Sympathisers

Aam Admi Sympathisers © Wilfried Swenden

Since wresting power from the Congress led United Progressive Alliance in the Lok Sabha elections (April-May 2014), Narendra Modi’s Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP) has secured a trail of successive electoral victories. The party swept the state legislative assembly elections of Haryana and Jharkhand, became the lead coalition party in the government of Maharashtra and, following the November 2014 state assembly elections, may well become the junior partner in the government of Kashmir after it successfully captured two third of the seats in Jammu, the Hindu-dominated part of that state. Yet, with a massive electoral defeat in the February 2015 Delhi legislative assembly elections to the Aam Aadmi (common man) Party, the BJP electoral bandwagon finally appears to have run into trouble. Despite winning all 7 Lok Sabha seats from Delhi in 2014, the BJP is set to capture only 3 of the 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly against 67 for the Aam Admi Party and none at all for Congress, India’s –not so Grand- Old Party- which governed Delhi uninterruptedly for fifteen years (1998-2013).

How can we explain this victory for AAP and what is its significance for politics in India more generally? First of all, we should note that the astounding performance of AAP in seat shares is a reflection of India’s first-past-the post system. Although AAP appears to have amassed about 54% of the vote, the BJP still comes a distant second (32.5%), with Congress a marginalized third (with now less than 10% of the vote). Compared with the Lok Sabha performance in Delhi (May 2014), the BJP’s vote share dropped by about 13% and that of Congress by about 5%. However, in comparison with the most recent Delhi Legislative Assembly elections (December 2013), the BJP lost only 2 percent against about 15 percent for Congress. Although electoral surveys have yet to confirm this, these data appear to suggest that many former Congress voters (including Congress’ traditional Muslim vote bank in Delhi, good for about 14% of the Delhi electorate) switched their support to AAP in an attempt to keep the Hindu nationalists out of power.

BJP Activists

BJP Activists © Wilfried Swenden

Yet, for Narendra Modi, India’s combative Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, this result undoubtedly comes as a personal disappointment and reality check. By making four interventions during the Delhi legislative elections and calling upon his party MPs and state (Chief) Ministers to join the campaign trail, he turned the Delhi election into a popularity test for his own government. In parallel with this nationalizing election strategy, his party also pushed through centralized decisions against the wishes of the party rank-and file. In this, as in previous state assembly elections, a select group around Modi, party president and strategist Amit Shah (who just a few days before the election confidently claimed in The Hindu to have masterminded 42 successive BJP electoral wins) and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley single-handedly decided on candidate nominations; including that of Chief Ministerial candidate Kiran Bedi who was brought in halfway through the election campaign. Neither the BJP legislative group in the Delhi legislative assembly, nor the party’s Parliamentary or Election Boards appear to have had much of a say in the matter. Expressing their discontent, many party volunteers refused to canvass, especially when it appeared that Bedi was no match for the formidable Arvind Kejriwal, the former tax inspector and anti-corruption activist turned AAP leader. Such a centralized strategy may have worked in previous state assembly elections in which the BJP managed to unseat state governments comprising the highly unpopular Congress Party. Yet, it may not work as well in those states where the party faces a powerful regional adversary. Indeed, the 2014 Lok Sabha elections indicated as much, as K.K. Kailash highlighted in Economic and Political Weekly: the BJP did well where it fought against Congress or some of the caste based parties, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. However, it did not do as well in those states where its adversaries expressed a strong regional sentiment (as in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal or for that matter in the Kashmir Valley during the most recent state assembly elections there).

A specific ‘regional sentiment’ is also present in Delhi, and in fact in many state elections which do not always follow a ‘national’ electoral logic. As India’s largest ‘city-state’ (strictly Union Territory), Delhi’s politics are not easily replicated across other states. As P.K. Datta has argued recently in The Hindu, economic deprivation, experienced by about 60 percent of the urban population enabled the AAP to project a ‘universalization of class politics’, transcending divisions on the basis of caste, religion and region. The pro-poor politics in rhetoric (and to some extent in substance through the local development initiatives of AAP councillors) has been accompanied by a skilful process of candidate selection with the fielding of Jat, Bania, Punjabi Khatri, Yadav or Muslim candidates where they could sway the election in AAP’s favour.

For the Aam Aadmi Party, this election result offers new opportunities after its – at times chaotic – brief stint in government following the 2013 Delhi legislative elections. This time with an absolute majority, the party can seek to offer a more meaningful counterpoint to the BJP’s rhetoric of economic growth by emphasizing policies of social inclusion, anti-corruption, and communal harmony. As Chief Minister of India’s second largest city, Kejriwal can project the message of his party well-beyond its state boundaries and it certainly helps that he can do so in Hindi. As such, Aam Aadmi could offer a voice to the chorus of state party leaders which, in the short run, appear to provide a more effective opposition to the BJP than Congress. Yet the challenges are high: keeping its highly heterogeneous electorate together (from slum dwellers to sections of the middle class), building out a party organization that is not overly reliant on its leader but retains a considerable degree of intra-party democracy and participation and delivering on some of its policy promises in the face of a young and increasingly impatient electorate. Its short term prospects are also limited in the less urbanized and ‘patrimonial states’ of North India where the politics of caste and religion may continue to play a more seminal role: the forthcoming assembly elections in Bihar, India’s third most populous and one of its most backward states will be an important test case in this regard.

For Modi and the BJP this election holds three lessons. First, even with a relatively popular central leader, a highly centralized electoral and campaign strategy may not pay dividends, especially where it alienates large sections of the party rank and file. Within his own party, Modi certainly does not practice the ‘co-operative-competitive’ federalism which he projects as the ideal pattern of centre-state interactions within the country as a whole. Second, the party will do well to reconsider some of its policies that alienate the downtrodden, in particular the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and Other Backward Castes, large sections of whom lent their support to the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Its recent handling of the Land Acquisition Bill is a case in point. Finally, at least the Delhi vote appears to have signalled a concern with a party that implicitly consents to the Hindutva aspirations of the Sangh Parivar and especially of the RSS and VHP. The failure of the party or its leader to openly condemn the burning of churches in Delhi or the forced mass conversions of Muslims into Hinduism appears to have unsettled sections of the BJP vote base.

Finally for Congress, the Delhi election can provide yet another impetus for much needed internal party change, away from its dynastic and highly centralized leadership. In all these senses, the Delhi vote holds the possibility, but no guarantee for a different and more consensual style of politics in India.

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