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Is Kejriwal’s massive win over BJP in Delhi a stepping stone, a template or a limited phenomenon?

AAP’s victory presents one way to beat the BJP, but can anyone replicate it?

Is Kejriwal’s massive win over BJP in Delhi a stepping stone, a template or a limited phenomenon?
An AAP supporter celebrates his party's victory in the Delhi assembly elections. | Money Sharma/AFP

Delhi emphatically rejected the Bharatiya Janata Party on Tuesday. The results of the state elections saw the Aam Aadmi Party winning a whopping 62 out of 70 seats in India’s national capital, leaving the BJP in single digits. From the three seats it won in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party only managed to bag eight this time, despite a high-octane campaign. Arvind Kejriwal will remain Delhi’s chief minister.

The massive victory for AAP immediately drove many to ask the question: what does this mean for AAP and other parties that have been struggling to take on the Modi juggernaut at the national-level?

There are at least three paths this can take from here.

Federal phenomenon

First, the idea of Delhi emphatically rejecting BJP in 2020 needs context.

The key data point is this: AAP may have won 53% of the vote share in the Assembly elections in 2020, but less than a year ago, the BJP won 56% of the vote share in the state in the Lok Sabha polls.

Normally that would indicate that the BJP had somehow lost a huge amount of its support in under 12 months after the 2019 elections. But actually, it mirrors the events half a decade ago when the BJP won big in Lok Sabha elections in 2014, only to see AAP take home 67 of 70 seats in the state assembly in 2015.

In other words, Delhi voters seem to be quite clear about what they want: Narendra Modi as prime minister and Arvind Kejriwal as chief minister.

That would mean this isn’t so much a rejection of the BJP as a verdict on individual politicians. As many pointed out, it also isn’t a rejection of the saffron party’s ideology, because the vote shares make it clear that there is at least some overlap between the two bases.

Going by this, the only big picture takeaway is that AAP is here to stay in Delhi, but doesn’t really offer any new understanding of a politics to counter the BJP.

Another way of looking at this: if a more credible leader does emerge from within the BJP’s Delhi unit (or end up there after being poached from another party or state), could that threaten Kejriwal’s hold on the city in the next election, when there will be a decade of incumbency?

Stepping stone

Arvind Kejriwal wants to be a national contender.

When AAP emerged out of the anti-corruption movement in 2013, there was the sense that it might immediately became a nation-wide player. Kejriwal even stepped down as Delhi chief minister after 49 days in charge and chose to contest Lok Sabha elections against Narendra Modi in 2014.

After returning to power, he tried again in 2017, putting everything behind the party’s efforts on Punjab, but only managed to win 20 of 117 seats. Since then, AAP tempered its ambitions and focused exclusively on the Delhi re-election campaign.

Tuesday’s emphatic victory, with AAP winning enough seats to not be worried about a challenge at the state-level for the next five years, may awaken Kejriwal’s national aspirations yet again.

The Lok Sabha elections in 2019 made it clear that there is not yet a credible face that voters believe can take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is no indication that the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi will ever be that face.

Kejriwal might hope to occupy that space. Even though his party was already well ahead in the run-up to this election, Kejriwal nevertheless engaged Prashant Kishor’s IPAC, the political consultancy that has been credited with helping Modi win in 2014.

Could the idea behind this be to help assist Kejriwal build an image that takes AAP beyond Delhi?

Delhi model

Kejriwal and AAP have been touting their “Delhi model”, an obvious echo of the Gujarat model that Narendra Modi used as a springboard to the national stage in the 2010s.

One aspect of this is a set of policies that can be replicated elsewhere, though they require the state to be somewhat wealthy and fairly urban: Big spending on education, the setting up of mohalla clinics, offering subsidies on electricity and water and distincitive moves like free bus rides for women.

But there is another aspect to Kejriwal’s politics: He managed a big win against the BJP without directly attacking Modi. Instead of taking the Rahul Gandhi route and trying to convince people that everything Modi does is bad, Kejriwal instead focused on his own work.

He also did not differ with the BJP on the changes to Article 370 and though his party came out agains the Citizenship Act amendments, AAP did not allow that to become the central theme of this election.

This side of Kejriwal’s politics is indeed harder to emulate. AAP finds favour among liberals as well as the more conservative middle class in Delhi, in part because of its reputation for doing work, but also becomes it comes with no baggage in the form of either parochial identity or allegations of corruption in the past.

Could another politician pick and choose elements of Kejriwal’s victory, as also those of the other state parties that have registered successes in recent times, in an attempt to take on the BJP?

Up next on the election calendar, in terms of major states: Bihar in 2020, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Kerala in 2021, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh in early 2022.

There is no obvious candidate to fully replicate the AAP win, yet politicians in these states – some of whom have also engaged IPAC – might take a leaf or two out of the playbook. And if more states see BJP losses in the run-up to 2024, it could pave the way for a more credible grouping on the national stage ahead of Lok Sabha elections that year.

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