BJP’s national dominance doesn’t count in state elections against regional forces like AAP. Why?

The saffron party’s nationalist messaging, though, keeps widening its canvas.

ByAnand Vardhan
BJP’s national dominance doesn’t count in state elections against regional forces like AAP. Why?
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The exercise of offering takeaways from election results might be a professional necessity for analysts but holds little value for politicians. As competitive electoral politics is steeped in the race to grasp the immediate, the conclusions drawn from election outcomes are fraught with the risk of being falsified within a few years, if not months. More so in a country like India, some or the other part of which is always poll-bound.

So, it would be safe to stick to the immediate while identifying signals that emanate from the results of the Delhi election, an event that punched above its weight in the media discourse with coverage disproportionate to its significance in national politics.

Before coming to the immediate signals given by these results, it would be useful to remember one of the key developments in the Delhi politics of the last five years. As I explained in a recent piece, this period witnessed the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party being co-opted into the mainstream of Indian party system, embracing traits that were a clear departure from its initial claims of being a disruptive influence on the system. In the process, the trajectory of the political start-up has followed political scientist Otto Kirchheimer’s thesis on the mainstreaming of political parties.

AAP’s sweeping victory can easily be subjected to overanalysis, misdirected narrative-hunting and imposition of wrong binaries. To put it briefly, the party’s win can be seen in more immediate context and there are quite a few clues for decoding its political import.

First, the Delhi election saw a contest similar in its script to the Assembly elections of recent years: the appeal of an entrenched regional party versus the influence of a national party. This was the key binary in the Delhi election as it had been in similar match-ups in Assembly elections over the past two decades. And, again, the regional force prevailed.

In contrast to its voting behaviour in parliamentary polls, an influential section of Delhi’s voters has tended towards local factors in Assembly elections. In the 1998 state election, for instance, the factor that most swayed the voters was the rise in the prices of onion. At the time, political commentators widely believed that the high prices of onion cost the BJP the return to power and paved the way for Sheila Dikshit’s Congress. It was the last time the BJP led the state government in Delhi.

The only exception to the trend of local factors deciding the state polls in Delhi was 2013. Despite favourable perceptions about its work in infrastructure development in the city, Dikshit’s government lost power after 15 years as the anti-graft movement against the Congress government at the Centre benefitted the opposition. While the BJP won 31 seats, the newly formed AAP, benefitting from its close association with the Anna Hazare movement, won 28 seats.

However, the normalcy of the local-national difference in voting behaviour of Delhi’s voters was restored in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and subsequent polls. While the BJP comfortably won all seven seats in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, AAP comfortably won the Assembly elections in 2015 and this month.

The BJP’s vote share has been hovering in the impressive 30s (33.07 percent in 2013; 32.1 percent in 2015; 38.5 percent in 2020) in Delhi’s Assembly polls, it has touched or crossed the unassailable mark of 50 percent in Lok Sabha elections (46.4 percent in 2014 and 56.6 percent in 2019). At the same time, while AAP’s vote share in Lok Sabha elections shrunk from 32.9 percent in 2014 to 18 percent in 2019, it clinched successive wins in Assembly polls with over 50 percent of the vote (54.34 percent in 2015 and 53.57 percent in 2020).

Except for Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has been grappling with this regional-national variation in the voting pattern in states where regional parties are strong. Not so in states where it contests directly against another national party, the Congress – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Goa, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh remains the only state where the BJP has been able to tame regional forces such as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party without help from a regional player.

In Maharashtra and Jharkhand which went to polls late last year, the BJP’s bid to retain power faltered after it failed to sustain or seal alliances with regional parties, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the All Jharkhand Students Union in Jharkhand. Similarly, the party’s prospects in the Bihar Assembly election later this year are linked to its alliance with the regional player Janata Dal United.

In a way, after emerging as a formidable national party, the BJP is confronted with the same regional challenges in Assembly polls that the Congress did after establishing its dominance in the late 1960s.

Second, despite the wide expectation of an AAP win, the odds of local factors and the lack of cohesive leadership of its Delhi unit, the very fact that the BJP managed to get 38.5 percent of the vote implies that beyond retaining the support of its core supporters, it has added a sizeable number of voters since the last election. Even if, like all parties in the fray, the BJP was making noises about winning the election, the fact remains that it was channelling its campaign only to put up a face-saving performance. To an extent, rise in its vote share attains that objective, though with just eight of the 70 seats it may look meaningless in the eventual composition of the Assembly. That’s just how the first past the post electoral system works in India. The same system had rewarded the BJP with 303 seats in last Lok Sabha election with only 37.36 percent of the vote.

Its increased vote share means that despite AAP’s landslide win, the BJP’s core vote is intact. A breakthrough victory for the opposition, where it makes inroads into the BJP’s core vote, is yet to happen.

Third, there is a subtext of impressive ideological positioning the BJP can draw solace from in Delhi. Its political messaging, meant for a wider national audience, was an early indication of how it saw this election in terms of narrative-setting – conceding the local turf but keeping alive the national canvas. In doing so, it can be satisfied that it did not find an effective counter to the latter. In fact, AAP thought it expedient to be the regional outpost of the nationalist narrative. Apart from shunning the contentious sites of protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (Shaheen Bagh, say) and growing careful about not being seen as practising minority-appeasement, AAP opted to show sensitivity to the cultural sensibilities of Hindus.

In seeking Lord Hanuman’s blessings, reciting his praise and thanking him, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal was only distancing himself from the ingrained middle class guilt about expressing religious beliefs in the public sphere and also its delegitimisation through elite protocols of non-believers in institutions that ironically functioned in a country teeming with believers. It’s a process that had its landmark moment when Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed up his win in the 2014 Lok Sabha election by doing Ganga aarti in Varanasi.

The sociological underpinnings of such public statements were identifiable. “A generation felt that elite modernisation was a hypocritical affair conducted by groups which used words like ‘secular’ to dismiss the thought processes of a middle class more rooted in religion. By articulating such anxieties, Modi soothed their wounded subconscious,” sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan observed afterwards.

Similarly, the use of nationalist slogans in AAP’s campaign stemmed from the realisation that the idea of what Jurgen Habermas called constitutional patriotism needs a stronger glue of territorial attachment. The latter explains the continuing sway of the nation state, something political scientist Benedict Anderson would have called the appeal of the imagined community. It’s in this context that even if some commentators are talking about AAP’s centrist positioning in the campaign, BJP’s understated ideological success is that such centrist positioning has the imprint of the centre-right in its socio-cultural messaging.

Fourth, in terms of economic policies, almost all political parties in India, including the BJP, tend to have left-of-centre welfarist outlook. This is in line with third world economic regimes with the presence of what Hamza Alvi described as an overdeveloped state.

In this context, AAP’s most important vote-catching device of freebies and high subsidies isn’t different from what regional parties in India have tried successfully in the past to create a compact support base for themselves. Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have witnessed competitive politics woven around such offers for many years. In the process, this creates a captive vote bank in state polls because the regional parties use the fear of the loss of freebies as a subtle poll plank. What, however, should invite more rigorous scrutiny is how these offers impact state finances, their sustainability and availability of resources for development work of the government.

While overanalysis of poll results remains an occupational hazard, the Delhi results could be primarily seen as a mix of tangible and intangible factors which followed the recent script of entrenched regional forces scoring over national parties in state elections. While AAP succeeded in occupying the regional turf, the BJP’s nationalist messaging widened its canvas despite the party facing a predictable loss.


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