In the first state elections of the new decade, whose outcome will be known on Tuesday, incumbent chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is seeking to retain power in the face of a strong challenge mounted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
After being witness to a fierce election campaign, nearly 14.79 million registered voters in Delhi will finally get an opportunity to vote on Saturday to choose representatives to 70 assembly segments across the national capital and decide who governs the city-state for the next five years.
In the first state elections of the new decade, whose outcome will be known on Tuesday, incumbent chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is seeking to retain power in the face of a strong challenge mounted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has sought votes in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Delhi elections have four distinct strands.
The first is the AAP's attempt to replicate its success of the 2015 assembly election — when it won 67 of the 70 seats — versus the BJP's effort to replicate its success in the 2019 Lok Sabha election,when it won all seven parliamentary seats in Delhi. The second is the AAP's campaign, which is focused on local governance issues and its track record in the past five years versus the BJP's, which focused on the larger ideological issue of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, national security, and an effort to project all protesters — and the AAP — as "anti-national". The third is an effort by the AAP to carve out a multi-religious and multi-class alliance versus the BJP's campaign to consolidate Hindu voters across regions, castes and classes. And the fourth is the question of leadership — where the CM is not pitted against a local rival but the PM.
Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has said the primary issue in the election will be the work done by his government, but hit out at the rival BJP for trying to change the discourse and make it "about a Hindu vs Muslim" issue. "Ours is the first government in 70 years that is seeking votes entirely on the ground of work done on the development front," he told HT in an interview on Wednesday. People have to decide whether they "opt for the politics of abuse and violence, or politics of development", he added.
Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari said his party's agenda was development. "We are talking about Ayushman Bharat for free medical care and PM Awas Yojana to provide housing to people... Non-implementation of these two schemes will be the main reason for AAP's defeat in Delhi," Tiwari told HT on Wednesday, adding that party did not endorse the provocative statements of some of its MPs.
Over the last four years, the city has voted distinctly for distinct elections.
During the 2015 elections, the AAP bagged 54% of the vote share in the polls. But its vote share decreased in the next two elections held in the city — the municipal elections in 2017 and the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. The AAP polled the highest share of votes in 2015; it stood second in the 2017 civic elections, with 26% of the votes, and finished third in five of the seven seats in the 2019 national elections, dropping to 18% of the votes and winning no seat.
On the contrary, both the BJP and the Congress improved in terms of vote share in this period. The BJP polled 56% votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, up from 36% in 2017 and 32% in 2015. In 2019, it had a lead in 65 of the 70 assembly constituencies. The Congress got just 10% of votes in 2015, 21% in 2017 and 23% in 2019.
Political observers believe that this election will significantly depend on whether voting patterns of the Lok Sabha election hold, or whether it reverts to the assembly pattern. A Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)-Lokniti poll conducted during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls showed that only about half of the people who voted for the BJP or the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls would have voted for the same party in case of a snap assembly election. The corresponding figure was 82% for the AAP.
The second variable is the impact of the campaign on the polls.
The AAP — through government advertisements before the model code of conduct, public interaction programmes, townhall meetings by Kejriwal, hundreds of small corner meetings in Delhi neighbourhoods, dozens of rallies and roadshows, and a strong social media campaign — has advertised its governance record.
In particular, it has focused on the improvement in government schools, public health systems, provision of electricity and water supply and subsidised rates, and free public transport for women. It has also promised to focus on pollution, provision of clean water and cleanliness in its next term if elected to power.
At the end of last year, the BJP had two key campaign planks. Through a parliamentary legislation, and then an announcement by PM Modi at a rally in Delhi, the party claimed credit for providing ownership documents to four million residents of unauthorised colonies in Delhi.
It also promised "triple-engine governance" under Modi, for the BJP would then hold the reins of power at the central, state and local level if elected to power.
But the party's campaign took a turn in the wake of protests against the CAA, particularly in Delhi's Shaheen Bagh area. Led by home minister Amit Shah, the party deployed its Cabinet ministers, MPs, former and current chief ministers, and the cadre of ideological affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to project the protests as "anti-national" in character and which suited Pakistan. It blamed the AAP and the Congress for backing these protests, spreading anarchy and violence, and causing inconvenience to the city's residents.
Commenting on the nature of the campaign, Shakti Sinha,a former bureaucrat who has served in the Delhi government and former director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, said: "AAP's subsidy policy has huge long-term development costs in terms of forgone investment in infrastructure and sustainability, but has created a huge constituency of beneficiaries. Will the BJP be able to sell its message of nationalism and empowerment? It has stemmed the tide that was flowing against it but would it be enough to bring it to power?"
The third related strand was mobilisation of different segments. The AAP hopes to win the substantial support of the city's Muslim population — which is influential in close to 10 seats. While the minorities had shifted in large numbers to the Congress in the Lok Sabha election, reports indicate they may consolidate behind AAP for they see it as the party best positioned to defeat the BJP. The AAP also hopes to win the support of the Hindu poor and the lower middle-class, primarily on the ground of having delivered tangible benefits to these segments through its welfare schemes. AAP has also sought to quell the impression, pushed by BJP, that it is against Hindu interests, with Kejriwal reciting the Hanuman Chalisa, going to the Hanuman temple on Friday, and candidates repeatedly emphasising their religious identity — besides focusing on how the party has promised lessons in patriotism in school curricula and supporting moves such as the nullification of Article 370 that gave Jammu and Kashmir special status.
The BJP, for its part, is hoping to consolidate Hindus — across different demographic segments, from Punjabis, Banias, Purvanchalis (migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), and Dalits. This is based on the premise that the largely Muslim-driven protests against CAA would antagonise the majority community.
It is here that the performance of the Congress will also play a role, for if it retains its base of Muslims and the poor, weaning them away from AAP, especially in constituencies where it has put up locally strong candidates, it may benefit the BJP.
"Ultimately, it may boil to how much vote the Congress attracts; the higher it is, the more AAP would suffer," Sinha said.
And the final strand is leadership. While AAP's mascot is Kejriwal, the BJP is primarily focusing on Modi as the face of the campaign. While the PM addressed only two rallies, it is his image that adorns the party's hoardings and advertisements. Just as in 2019, when the BJP asked who the opposition had to counter Modi, Kejriwal in 2020 is asking who the BJP has to counter him as the CM.
"Arvind Kejriwal is the pole along which these elections are being fought. The AAP is fighting on Kejriwal's charisma and his governance," said Neelanjan Sircar, who is affiliated with Ashoka University and the Centre for Policy Research. "The BJP has ceded the governance narrative to the AAP, but is trying to paint Kejriwal as inimical to Hindu interests. And the Congress is a shadow of its former self."
It remains to be seen if the BJP had polarised the electorate enough to pull off a win in Delhi, he added. "Otherwise, it's advantage AAP."c