It is not in BJP’s DNA to learn lessons from the rout in Delhi
The BJP's landmark defeat in the Delhi State Assembly elections this week is both symbolic and substantive. It was the sixth straight defeat of India's ruling saffron party in a State election.
In Delhi, where the Indian parliament dominated by the BJP is located, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and their huge army of ministers and State-level leaders failed to make any meaningful impact. And this despite the employment of their most formidable weapon, namely, brazen communalism.
The manifest rejection of communalism in Delhi indicates that India is losing patience with the politics of religious extremism and distractions. Delhi’s voters have punished the saffron brigade for not delivering on goods and services at both the micro and macro levels.
Delhi is a microcosm of India because it is at once nobody's city and everybody's city. Over the years, its population has become more and more mixed with people from all over India converging on it in search of power and pelf.
So in some ways, the comprehensive nature of the BJP's defeat in Delhi ( it got only 8 of the 70 seats, the rest going to AAP) is evidence that the party has peaked and is now in terminal decline.
There are many pundits who argue that the Indian voters are smart and those in Delhi are the smartest -- they voted comprehensively for the BJP in the parliament polls in which AAP won only one seat (that too in Punjab, not Delhi), but in the State polls they punished the BJP and rewarded Kejriwal for the excellent development work and delivery on civic issues like improving government schools, reducing school fees, ensuring round-the-clock electricity and at rates cheaper than anywhere else in India, improving government hospitals and much else.
Kejriwal, a former government Assistant Tax Commissioner and a graduate of India's redoubtable Indian Institute of Technology, challenged Modi on a number of issues. His messages were telling if hurtful: "Please learn from us how to work more and lecture less.” “Stop dividing our people and learn to unite India.” "You may scare other Opposition politicians by unleashing your federal police to unearth corruption, but you can't scare me because I am not corrupt and I know how these agencies work."
These slogans caught on, and Modi and Shah had no answers to them. All that they could do was to mock at AAP’s freebies and dubbing its supporters as Pakistanis or terrorists.
The BJP's lack of State-level leaders, all living in the shadow of Modi and Shah, is beginning to afflict the Saffron brigade with what has long afflicted the Congress -- the “High Command” culture.
In a vast country like India, where multiplicity of identities is a fact of life and federalism is the only viable political alternative, Modi-Shah's centralizing tendencies and their Presidential style of campaigning may have worked in parliament but not in State polls.
The BJP and its allies now control only half the Indian states and one-third of the Union Territories. "BJP is becoming Stateless," said Mamata Banerjee very aptly. With both the Congress, which failed to get a single seat in Delhi in these polls (and also in 2015), in terminal decline, the fight for the control of India is increasingly turning out to be one between the BJP and the powerful regional parties.
In a previous column, I had alluded to a kind of 'federal crisis' all this is leading to. Close to half the Indian states have already refused to implement the new Citizenship Act and forced the BJP to give up its plans for a countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC) which led to the exclusion of nearly two million people in Assam last year.
This is Kejriwal's third successive victory in Delhi, a feat bettered only by Congress' former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit who is credited with modernizing the Indian capital. In 2015, Kejriwal had trounced the BJP in Delhi 67-3, an unusual margin considering it was within a year of Modi's resounding victory in the 2014 parliamentary polls.
Analysts this time felt that the BJP's divisive campaign -- attacking Muslim women protestors in Shaheen Bagh, attacking students in Jamia Millia and Jawaharlal Nehru University -- will provide the party some mileage. But in the end, Kejriwal managed to keep BJP in single digits. The BJP's only consolation was an increase in the vote share from 32 percent to 38 percent but that translated into only five more seats.
Since 2014, the BJP under Modi and Shah, has depended on a single formula for electoral success. That involves ramping up of Hindutva and anti-Pakistan rhetoric; rolling out of Modi’s oratory; branding the opposition as anti-national; carpet-bombing constituencies with VIP leaders; and doing huge number of road-shows backed by carpet-bombing in social media with its troll army. All this fires up the party workers, ensuring organizational mobility.
This had worked in many Statesbut is now providing diminishing returns. It has locked the BJP into a tight, unchanging template which provides little flexibility against a doughty and creative opponent like Kejriwal who can even turn issues like “patriotism” against the BJP. The saffron brigade has no real Plan B.
Now that Kejriwal's victory has created a new template of service delivery driven work and nationalism minus Hindutva, the BJP has much to worry. Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, one of Kejriwal's closest supporters, kicked off her 2021 Bengal State polls campaign on the day the Delhi poll results came.
"BJP is finished, magic does not stay long, work does," she announced in a hurried press conference in Kolkata." No CAA, No NRC, No NPR, no dividing Indian people, only national unity, only development work, only caring for people, this is my model and that of Kejriwal’s, this will destroy BJP," Mamata said.
A sure-shot strategy for the BJP in Delhi would have been to prop up voting for the Congress party in Delhi and make it somewhat of a triangular contest to chip away at the AAP’s vote bank. In 2017, the BJP had ‘donated’ some of its votes in Punjab to the Congress to defeat the AAP in the final round of polling amid fears of a Khalistani separatist revival. But in Delhi, it failed to do this.
The Congress did not put up a fight, its candidates had to fend for themselves financially, and got less-than-enthusiastic support from the party High Command.
The BJP failed to project a local leader in Delhi, like in most other State elections. After the faux pas of announcing Kiran Bedi as the CM face in the 2015 Delhi election, the saffron party did not announce a CM candidate to take on Arvind Kejriwal. It deployed Manoj Tiwari in pockets but not as its CM candidate. And Tiwari was just no match for the middle-class friendly Kejriwal.
Instead, the BJP relied on Modi’s alleged good governance record, demonization and the Shaheen Bagh protesters far too much. And Modi's governance record at the Centre was not worth drumming up -- surely not on the economic front.
AAP knew all the tricks of the game. The party’s IT Cell and meme factory were as active as the BJP’s from the beginning. The way the BJP has diminished Rahul Gandhi’s persona through memes, jokes, and WhatsApp forwards, the AAP did the same with Manoj Tiwari. He never really took off.
The other is about embracing barbs as trophies. BJP’s Parvesh Verma called Arvind Kejriwal a “terrorist”. The latter latched on to it, asking the people of Delhi decide if he was a “Bhai (brother), Beta (son) or a Terrorist.” He reminded voters about how he had sacrificed his job as an Indian Revenue Service officer to do public service.
In Bihar, when Modi questioned the DNA of Nitish Kumar, the latter began sending DNA samples to Modi’s home address. As one columnist said -"Everybody is learning the game."
The next big battle for the BJP is Bengal 2021 and there again the saffron party is up against a ruthless street fighter in Mamata Banerjee, who is whipping up "Bengali pride" and showcasing her considerable rural development record. If Mamata manages to get some big ticket industrial investments to her state and utilizes the groundswell of Bengali regionalism evident in the surge of groups like "Bangla Pokkho" the BJP will find it difficult to repeat their 2019 Lok Sabha performance.
The BJP's only way out of the ditch is to switch to an inclusive brand of politics. But that is not in its DNA!