On Tuesday morning, as the Delhi election results began unfolding, it looked like the got it right: the Aam Aadmi Party was heading towards a comfortable majority. By noon, the party was leading in more than 50 seats, and was all set to return for a second term.
A festive mood had already gripped the party office. Sweets were being distributed among volunteers as they sang and danced to Lage raho Kejriwal, the AAP’s catchy anthem for the election. Some of the winning candidates arrived, closely followed by media personnel hoping for soundbites.
The AAP office in Delhi is located at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg near ITO. Yesterday’s scenes were reminiscent of the jubilance five years ago, when the party bagged 67 seats in the 2015 Assembly election. This year, the AAP clinched 62 seats, leaving eight for the Bharatiya Janata Party and none for the Congress.
According to several AAP workers, this election was more significant than any other election the party has fought before.
Amit Singh, a young businessman from Dwarka who deals in Chinese goods, believed the landslide victory was special because it showed a departure in Indian politics. “For the first time in the country’s history, a campaign has been successful by focusing only on good governance,” he said.
Singh was one of the thousands of AAP volunteers who had sweated it out for the party in the high-voltage Delhi election. He spent 18 days in North-East Delhi’s Babarpur constituency to campaign for party candidate Gopal Rai. The overwhelming mandate, according to him, was a resounding answer to the BJP’s “negative campaign”.
Amit Singh, a businessman from Dwarka.
Women dancing at the AAP office.
“They [BJP] harped on Shaheen Bagh to polarise the electorate and attack our leaders,” Singh said, referring to the citizenship law protests in the South Delhi locality which has continued for about two months now. “They fielded hundreds of leaders against one man, Kejriwal. I am thankful to the voters who discarded their narrative and elected us.”
In the run-up to the election, the BJP put all its might into taking on the AAP and its leader and Delhi chief minister, ArvindKejriwal. The focus of its belligerent strategy, especially in the last two weeks, was Shaheen Bagh. To amplify its message, the BJP fielded hundreds of its MPs and about a dozen chief ministers across the city. Some of them resorted to personal slurs against Kejriwal, calling him a “”, and suggested a direct link between his party and the Shaheen Bagh protest.
In contrast, the AAP of the issue and chose to focus on the agenda of governance.
In this backdrop, the election result on Tuesday was naturally seen as a triumph of the AAP’s strategy, and all party workers and leaders were ready to point it out. Earlier in the day, AAP’s national secretary, Pankaj Gupta, suggested to Newslaundry that the impending victory be seen in a larger context.
“The result sends out a clear message to our opponents: don’t try to divide the country,” Gupta explained. “If you do so, instead of focusing on issues of good governance, the people will reject you everywhere, as they did in Delhi.”
When Raghav Chadha reached the office, after winning from Rajinder Nagar, and addressed the party workers, the same view was echoed. “Today’s victory is a mandate on the Kejriwal model of development,” he affirmed.
But was it only the plank of governance and development that catapulted the party to an unprecedented comeback? While issues like free water and electricity supply, education and health remained the key highlights, the campaign was redesigned in its last leg.
Beginning on January 31, the AAP a three-day door-to-door initiative, urging voters to support Kejriwal if they believe he is “a son of Delhi”, or vote for the BJP if they feel he is a “terrorist”. On February 2, Kejriwal tweeted , with the caption, “My dear Delhiites, your son is not a terrorist. Give an answer to the BJP on February 8.”
And Delhi did.
“Look at the margin of victory in Okhla,” said Shabbir Hussain, a travel agent from the constituency who was dancing with other colleagues on the lawn of the AAP office. “They [the BJP] made Shaheen Bagh the axis of their campaign, but the people of the constituency have unanimously voted for AAP, irrespective of their religion.”
Shaheen Bagh falls under the Okhla constituency. Amanatullah Khan, the AAP candidate and the sitting legislator in Okhla, registered a thumping 66.03 percent of the total votes polled, and won by a margin of 71,827 votes.
The wide margin prompted Shoaib, another AAP volunteer from the constituency, to take a potshot at the BJP. “Amit Shah asked voters to send a current shock to Shaheen Bagh by voting for his party,” he said, referring to Shah’s on January 26. “But now, the shock has reached their headquarters.”
But despite the BJP’s embarrassing defeat, it can take solace from its improved vote share from the previous election. It jumped significantly from 2015’s 32.3 percent to 38.5 percent. On the other hand, the AAP saw a marginal drop from 54.3 percent in 2015 to 53.6 percent this time.
Shabbir Hussain, a travel agent from Okhla.
A poster of Kejriwal at the AAP office.
The BJP’s gain in vote share could arguably be attributed to their strategy of putting Shaheen Bagh at the centre of their campaign. “We can’t say Shaheen Bagh will not play any role in the election now,” a party member had admitted to Newslaundry during a on February 3.
The BJP’s jump from three seats in 2015 to eight in 2020 might not sound like much but a six percentage-point increase in its vote share shouldn’t be ignored. A better vote share, coupled with how the AAP was compelled to redesign its strategy at the eleventh hour, could be the BJP’s takeaway from the Delhi election. The AAP might have swept the election, but the BJP largely set its narrative.
Indeed, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued in , the BJP was perhaps not too bothered about winning Delhi. Its objective, he wrote, was a long-term “cultural transformation”, to “assert Hindu majoritarianism” and turn it into a “consolidated ethnic identity”.
“Even if BJP loses Delhi (assuming the plan is not to scuttle the election), it feels that the gains from a longer-term consolidation of identity will come elsewhere — at a national level,” Mehta wrote. “It is banking on the fact that polarisation in Delhi, the fact that it can display its agenda with all its might, will help to consolidate support behind it elsewhere.”
Upcoming elections will reveal how this strategy works out for the BJP. But Tuesday was all about the AAP and its supporters.
As the day progressed, the office premises were packed with people streaming in from different parts of Delhi and even outside the state. As drums and loudspeakers thundered, a volunteer from Rajasthan hailed the victory as “the dawn of a new era in Indian politics”. Apart from the Delhi volunteers, thousands of others from a number of neighbouring states contributed to the triumph, he added.
As the clock ticked past 3 pm, the congregation of party workers and media personnel waited in anticipation for Kejriwal to arrive. A message had circulated that he would address the crowd at 3.30 pm. Soon after, he appeared above in the office building. A frenzy broke out.
“I love you,” Kejriwal began, flanked by his wife and a few other party leaders after chanting “Bharat mata ki Jai” and “Inquilab zindabad”. “This is a victory of each and every Delhiite who considered me their son and voted for good governance. Delhi has heralded a new trend of electoral politics for the entire country.”
As he spoke, supporters on the ground below chanted slogans and clapped. Priyanka, a volunteer from Vishwas Nagar, stood on the verandah along the lawn. Her voice was emotional as she spoke to this correspondent. “The result has proven that people do reward good work and polarising campaigns cannot divide the country.”
Yet, Priyanka said, the party has a lot of ground to cover to emerge as a national alternative. “But within a short period, we have erected a model of governance that has inspired several states to follow it,” she said. “The time is not far when people will appreciate and champion our brand of politics all over the country.”