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THAT the February 10 verdict of the Delhi elections took everyone by surprise is a serious understatement. Stunned would probably be a more appropriate description. True that as we approached the polling day, every-one agreed that the BJP was in for a tough battle. Many even felt that the till recently written-off Aam Aadmi Party enjoyed an edge, an assessment that opinion pools echoed. The exit polls further confirmed the trend. Yet, no one – psephologists, political analysts, party activists – was prepared for the scale of victory for the AAP and the rout of the BJP. Post-facto claims to prescience just do not wash. Meanwhile, the widespread sense of relief and quiet satisfaction amongst wide sections of the electorate, reminiscent of 1977 and the sense of freedom, is unmistakable.

Much has been written on the verdict, and more will surely follow. Unfortunately, despite being innundated with details, we are not necessarily wiser about either the underlying reasons, or the long-term implications of the verdict. Take for instance, the Congress. No one, including Congress candidates, expected the party to do well. But, not even its strongest detractors expected the party vote share to slip to single digits, or that it would fail to open its account, and that over 60 of its 70 candidates would forfeit their deposits. Surely, this was not what Rahul Gandhi meant when he said that he would transform the Congress beyond recognition?

We now know that the virtual decimation of the Congress contributed significantly to the AAP victory, both the seats won and the margin of victory. Clearly, nearly all of the traditional Congress supporters – the dalits, minorities, poor – even while acknowledging the work done by the party during its three terms in office, seem to have decided that the Congress is no longer worth reposing faith in. Even as the debate on the causes – an ineffectual/uninspiring leadership, the absence of a party structure of cadres on the ground, an unwillingness to accept accountability, or just the loss of fire in the belly – will go on, the implications of a Congress mukt Bharat remain to be figured out.

The BJP too is on shaky ground. Its spin masters may argue that not much should be read into what was after all a local election; that the party has more or less held onto its traditional vote share; or that its miserable performance can be blamed on a Congress conspiracy to self-destruct, and so on. But, it needs to honestly figured out why its vote share of 46% in the Parliamentary elections slipped to 32% in a matter of months and its lead in 60 assembly segments dwindled to a lowly three. Not only did all the new social segments of voters that it was able to attract in 2014, but a worrying proportion of its traditional base too expressed a lack of faith in the party – leadership, candidates, vision, campaign.

Tracing its drubbing primarily to local factors – the announcement of Kiran Bedi as chief ministerial candidate, the ongoing factional strife in the party, the abysmal record of the BJP-controlled municipal councils – though undoubtedly important, would be a serious error. Even a badly managed election would not have yielded this result for the BJP had the voter not disapproved of the last ten months of the Modi sarkar. Be it a lack of delivery on the ground, alongside irritatingly pompous pronouncements; the refusal to curtail if not surreptitiously encourage regressive and socially divisive statements and actions; or the sheer arrogance and hubris exhibited by the Modi-Shah leadership – none of this is designed to win voter approval.

If the inability to distance from the traditional agenda disturbs one section of its voters, not being sufficiently true to its cultural agenda dispirits the ideological faithful. Together, this has left a party, otherwise proud of its ideological and organizational coherence, confused and worse. An electoral setback like the one in Delhi is only likely to exacerbate the internal rumblings and schisms, seriously dent Modi’s image of invincibility, and embolden party leaders uneasy with the new political culture and style.

Finally, the Aam Aadmi Party. One cannot but be impressed by its ability to survive the debacle of 2014, and through a combination of hard work, intelligent campaigning, credible manifesto promises, and inadvertent fortune (Congress collapse and BJP ineptitude) effect a remarkable comeback. This is a reflection of both its increasing ‘normalcy’ as a political party – the toning down of moral rhetoric and ‘realism’ in candidate selection and financing – as also an ability to hold on to its promise of something new and different. It is otherwise difficult to explain the upsurge of volunteers despite the recent parliamentary humiliation. How the party adapts to the challenges of governance remains to be seen. If AAP can manage its ‘success’ as well as it has its ‘defeat’, we may well witness a much needed change in our politics. For the moment, it deserves both our appreciation and support.

Harsh Sethi