“Why would I support someone so intensely if I am not benefitted by it myself? I am sure Kejriwal will come back because he has worked and helped all of us.”
That is how our auto-driver, Madan Lal, (name changed) responded when we quizzed him on why he expressed support for the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi despite the fact that he had enthusiastically voted for “Modi ji” in the Lok Sabha elections six months ago.
This sentiment of passionate support, based on policy delivery, was widespread and unanimous among all the auto and taxi drivers we met in the last month and while this does not make for scientific psephology, it does give a sense of the mood amongst the quintessential aam aadmi of Delhi.
The state assembly elections for the National Capital Territory of Delhi are three months away and presents the first real frontal contest that the hegemonic political establishment led by the Modi-Shah dup would face with a (semi) regional electoral competitor. This contest is frontal despite the fact that in terms of electoral competition as well as political significance, AAP finds itself in doldrums. The party’s decline nationally and regionally has been widely discussed and established through analysis of electoral performance.
Source: Collated by authors from ECI & MCD data
From winning 67 out of 70 assembly seats in 2014, AAP was reduced to third place in 47 of these assembly segments in the 2019 general elections. The party’s vote-share fell from 54.3% in the 2015 assembly elections to 18.11% in the general elections 2019.
It is in the context of this steep decline that three major shifts in AAP’s political behaviour are particularly notable.
The most interesting change of course has been the decision to put the assertive demand for full statehood (based on the constitutional principle of progressive democratic representation) on the back burner.
Since the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections (in which full statehood was the main election plank) were announced, not a single prominent reference has been made to this core demand. Moreover, AAP has strongly supported the Union government’s decision to de-operationalise Article 370 and reduce the status of the bifurcated state of J&K to a Union Territory. Not only did AAP vote in favour of these legislations in the parliament, it also vocally supported the government’s moves in the public domain.
This clearly unprincipled and hypocritical behaviour is in line with another key shift. It is the shift in its approach towards the BJP-led government, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even though second-rung leaders have criticised the policy choices of the Union government, especially in the contexts of economic recession and unemployment, the party and its chief have not directly attacked Modi.
This is especially notable in the context of the humiliating refusal of permission to chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to attend the city chiefs’ meeting at the C40 Climate Summit. Kejriwal, who had called Modi a coward and a psychopath, did not speak about this until much later and in a rather indirect way.
The third shift is palpable in the context of AAP posturing as a local Delhi-based party which has no intent to lead the national ‘anti-Modi’ front. Its slogan of “Delhi mein toh Kejriwal” is symptomatic of its appeal to the voters to consider him as their choice for the mayoral post of the half-state.
This seems to be based upon a realistic understanding of the political climate in the country in general and in Delhi in particular.
AAP has realised that its boisterous positioning as an anti-Modi front that would lead the political opposition was electorally imprudent. Hence, in 2020, AAP’s pitch is likely to be much different from its 2015 pitch.
Its entire political messaging and publicity has remained strictly limited to its policy successes in health and education sectors, so as to clearly remind its core voters of its achievements. In this context, a number of factors are in Kejriwal’s favour:
Different horses for different courses
According to a post-poll survey conducted by CSDS after the 2019 results, about 72% of the voters in Delhi were satisfied with the Kejriwal-led state government, however, 56% preferred Modi-led-BJP at the center. One-fourth of the voters who voted BJP or Congress said that they would have voted for AAP if this were a state election.
Therefore, the more AAP tries to project itself as being only a state alternative, the greater advantage it will reap from this voter base. AAP’s distancing itself from its own earlier anti-BJP stance also comes from this purposeful distinction in voters’ minds between state and Centre that AAP can expect to benefit from.
Moreover, propagandist electoral campaigns by BJP in times of an economic slowdown and a lack of jobs are only going to help Kejriwal, who if nothing else, is seen as an active policy-maker who has transformed the education and health sectors in Delhi.
In Haryana and Maharashtra assembly elections, BJP performed significantly below expectations. The two states not only sent a strong message against BJP’s invincibility in states but were also a reinforcement of the idea of the “self-correcting mechanism of democracy”, as political scientist Yogendra Yadav put it.
They showed that national narratives like security and terrorism can’t capture the entire spectrum of social and political aspirations in a state.
Another factor in favour of AAP is going to be an increase in the number of people who turn out to vote. The voter turnout in 2019 elections was markedly low, up to 5 percentage points lower than in 2014, because this time with a very strong pro-BJP wave and the deep opposition fragmentation between AAP and Congress, no serious electoral alternatives were present for opposition voters.
AAP was never in the fray for national representation. This, however, is not true in state elections, where most voters who decide to vote in state assembly and didn’t vote in general elections will likely support AAP. Moreover, the regional national quandary as well as a lack of electoral alliances had made the risks of vote division real and lead to voter disinterest and fatigue. This is likely to change because Congress has been utterly dysfunctional and deeply divided since the election results and is unlikely to successfully challenge the achievements of AAP’s state government.
Notice in figure 2 that voter turnout and AAP vote-share tend to move in the same direction. A vote share of 60.51% in 2019 general elections led to a sharp fall in AAP vote-share while 2015 state elections (67.47%) and also 2014 general elections (64.07%) both had high voter-turnout and a brilliant AAP performance. If the trend continues to hold true, then a high voter turnout in 2019 assembly could be an important turnaround for AAP.
Source: Collated by authors from media reports
If AAP continues to build on this momentum, they stand a good chance of coming back to power, however it won’t be smooth sailing as there are some serious roadblocks. The party’s hypocrisy, especially with respect to going back on its demand of statehood, may come at a cost of losing its voter-base.
Even the reading down of Article-370 in this regard may be seen as contradictory to party’s stance on full statehood and may not bode well with its liberal voter base.
Unlike the 2015 elections, when they had a plank of the anti-corruption movement and bringing in an honest alternative politics behind them, their image has since been discredited with the failure to deliver on the promises of ‘swaraj’. From an organisational standpoint, AAP’s volunteer-driven party structure in 2020 is a pale reflection of its 2015 avatar. Not only internal factionalism, there is deep-seated mistrust and multiple dissenting voices amidst the din of resignations and ugly exits that it has been afflicted with.
Moreover, the elite and middle class continues to be disaffected and unconvinced about its performance and the significant trading communities continue to have certain grievances.
This is especially important because there exist real and practical challenges in policy implementation, execution and delivery. The ultimate policy delivery, notably the health sector, accrued to the general public is often found to be much more humble than the omnipresent publicity claims. Moreover, the impact of last minute sops to voters by calibration of electricity bills and their cancellation are is yet to be seen especially because the credit-war between the BJP and AAP over the long-delayed relief for residents of unauthorised colonies continues.
Compared with 2015, AAP is facing serious internal and external challenges as it seeks to regain the popular mandate in the city-state. However, what goes in its favour is that a significant number of people trust its capacity to deliver on its promises and consider it a steadfast political actor focused on local issues, especially the ones that impact the lives of poor and marginalised.
Against the backdrop of a divided BJP and a laggard Congress, AAP can make serious efforts to capitalise on this credibility as the party of Delhi’s aam aadmi while trying to reach out widely to other demographics.
As Delhi turns into a gas chamber with the AQI touching more than 999 in many parts of the capital, the AAP government, even with its seemingly active efforts of distributing masks and implementing the odd-even scheme, has miserably failed to control this catastrophe.
While there is no doubt that the Delhi government needed to do much more than what they have been able to but so can also be said (and even more strongly) about BJP. Pollution is a national crisis and apart from pointing fingers at the state government, not a single concrete step has been taken by the Centre.
BJP minister Vijay Goel, meanwhile, also decided to break the odd-even rule. Such a dramatic way to protest is only adding more fuel to the fire. This does not bode well for BJP if pollution is the issue Delhi decides its vote on.
Prannv Dhawan is a third-year law student at National Law School of India University, Bangalore (India). He leads the Law and Society Committee at the University. Ishaan Bansal is a final year liberal arts student at the Ashoka University, Sonipat.