On February 13, three days before Arvind Kejriwal took oath as Delhi’s chief minister, the Aam Aadmi Party held a review meeting. The agenda: what led to the party losing six seats from its 2015 tally to the BJP? In the last election, AAP had won 67 of the 70 Assembly seats and the BJP had bagged the rest. This time, the incumbent won 62 seats, leaving eight for its chief rival. In addition, AAP saw a marginal drop in its vote share, to 53.6 percent from 54.3 percent in 2015.
In 2015, the BJP had won Rohini, Mustafabad and Vishwas Nagar. It couldn’t retain Mustafabad this time but more than made up for it by taking Ghonda, Karawal Nagar, Rohtas Nagar, Gandhi Nagar, Laxmi Nagar, and Badarpur from AAP. These gains came coupled with an impressive jump in the party’s vote share, from 32.3 percent to 38.5 percent.
“In the review meeting, leaders expressed surprise on why Aam Aadmi Party lost eight seats even after so much work by the government,” the party said in a statement following the review.
So, why did AAP lose the seats it did to the BJP?
AAP’s key campaign plank was good governance and Delhi’s voters, the results show, . But not the voters in these six constituencies. To understand why, let’s look at some data.
In East Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar, AAP lost by a slim margin of 880 votes. One can argue that such a close outcome does not reveal much, that the result could have gone either way. But the situation wasn’t much different in 2015. AAP’s Nitin Tyagi had defeated his BJP rival by just 4,846 votes. The Congress had won 23,627 votes, a vote share of 17.26 percent.
In 2020, both AAP and the BJP improved their vote shares, but the BJP’s increase was double AAP’s, nine percent as against 4.5 percent. The gains arguably came at the expense of the Congress whose vote share saw a steep decline from 17.26 percent to a meagre 3.56 percent. AAP’s failure to consolidate after winning in 2015 could be another key reason for its defeat.
In nearby Gandhi Nagar, the situation was more complicated. AAP’s victory margin in 2015 was similarly not impressive. It was just 7,482 votes. In 2020, the party’s prospects were dented by two other factors.
Its winning candidate from five years earlier, Anil Kumar Bajpai, switched over to the BJP before this election and went on to win by 6,079 votes. AAP’s new candidate, Naveen Chaudhary, who managed 37.33 percent of the vote share, found another strong challenger in the Congress’s Arvinder Singh Lovely.
Gandhi Nagar has a sizable Muslim population. Ahead of the election, a protest in neighbouring Seelampur against the new citizenship law drew a large number of people from this area. At the time, Newslaundry Lovely’s surging acceptability in the backdrop of the protest. Voters from the constituency had asserted that he was on firm ground. That’s how it turned out to be: the veteran Congressman ate into the anti-BJP support, taking 19.14 percent of the total vote. This contributed to Naveen Chaudhary falling short of the winning mark.
In South Delhi’s Badarpur, AAP’s defeat can be attributed in major part to the change of candidate at the last moment. Narayan Dutt Sharma, who had won in 2015 by 47,583 votes, was denied a second run. Instead, Ram Singh Netaji, who had left the Congress days ahead of the election, was fielded by AAP.
The decision cost the party dear. Netaji lost to BJP’s Ramvir Singh Bhiduri by just 3,719 votes. Bhiduri is an old face who had won the seat twice in the past. Rejected by AAP, Narayan Dutt Sharma contested for the Bahujan Samaj Party, and walked away with 10,436 votes. So, despite establishing a strong presence in 2015, AAP was done in by a disgruntled Narayan Dutt Sharma.
The rest of the seats AAP lost to the BJP – Ghonda, Rohtas Nagar and Karwal Nagar – fall in the North East Delhi parliamentary constituency. Dominated by migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, the Lok Sabha constituency has chosen the BJP in two of the three elections since it was created in 2008. Its sitting MP is Manoj Tiwari, president of the Delhi BJP, who has held the seat since 2014. In this Assembly election, the BJP bagged three of the eight seats in the area.
For the BJP, the decisive factor that enabled its success was the polarisation over Shaheen Bagh. For over two months, this South Delhi locality has been the epicentre of protests in the capital against the new citizenship law.
In the last two weeks of the campaign, the BJP made Shaheen Bagh the focus of a belligerent strategy geared towards engendering communal polarisation. To amplify its message, the BJP launched dozens of its MPs and several chief ministers onto the battleground across the city. Some of them resorted to using personal slurs against AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, calling him a “” and suggesting a direct link between his party and the Shaheen Bagh protest.
In contrast, AAP decided to stay away from the issue and chose to focus on the agenda of governance. While the party’s strategy worked in almost all of Delhi, the results show it did not gain traction in these three North East Delhi constituencies. Speaking to Newslaundry, voters across these constituencies attested to the BJP’s success of using Shaeen Bagh to woo Hindus.
Take Ghonda. MC Gupta, who runs a grocery shop along the Brahmapuri road, argued that Shaheen Bagh helped the BJP to mobilise Hindu voters. “Muslims, in the absence of a strong Congress, relied on AAP to counter the BJP. Many Hindus saw it as a threat and similarly banked on the BJP,” he said. “The election was totally polarised here.”
MC Gupta is a voter in Ghonda
Gupta, a BJP voter from Yamuna Vihar in the constituency, noted that top BJP leaders raised the issue repeatedly. Amit Shah, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Manoj Tiwary were among the prominent BJP leaders who held campaign meetings in Ghonda. “A big leader like Amit Shah has the ability to swing voters easily,” Gupta said. “The BJP leaders conveyed the message that the Shaheen Bagh demonstration was a ploy, a stunt backed by its rival parties against Hindus and other refugees to be welcomed by the new citizenship law.”
Jagdish Prasad in Gali No 1 of Brahmapuri, agreed with Gupta. He said AAP lost Ghonda because many Hindus saw it as being supportive of the Shaheen Bagh protest. “The party had seven-eight Muslim legislators. One of them was Amanatullah Khan who even visited the protest site,” Prasad said, referring to the Okhla legislator whose constituency encompasses Shaheen Bagh as well as another key site of citizenship law protests, Jamia Nagar. “Also, their leader Manish Sisodia openly said they stood with the protesters. Naturally, many Hindus felt alienated by such posturing and voted for the BJP.”
Jagdish Prasad says AAP lost Ghonda because of BJP's rhetoric over Shaheen Bagh
Adding to this was Ghonda’s longtime inclination towards the BJP. Both Gupta and Prasad fondly recalled Sahab Singh Chauhan, a former BJP legislator from the area who lost to AAP’s Shri Dutt Sharma by 8,093 votes in 2015. Between 1993 and 2013, Chauhan had won five times in a row. Following his death in August 2018, BJP projected Ajay Mahawar as the new candidate from Ghonda.
“AAP won the last time because there was a wave in its favour. Otherwise, Ghonda has always been a stronghold of the BJP,” Gupta said. While Prasad echoed the view, he added that Sharma’s performance paled in comparison to what Chauhan had done. “This factor too benefitted BJP this time.”
The BJP’s dominance is clear in other Assembly segments in the North East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency. Consider Karawal Nagar, where AAP lost this time despite winning by over 40,000 votes in 2015. BJP’s Mohan Singh Bisht, who won by just over 8,000 votes, is an old hand in Karawal Nagar, having won four successive elections between 1998 and 2013.
Of the six seats the BJP wrested from AAP, Karawal Nagar was the third where the incumbent party fielded a new candidate. Kapil Mishra, AAP’s 2015 winner, joined the BJP last year and unsuccessfully contested from Model Town on the Hindutva party’s ticket this time. In his place, AAP fielded Durgesh Pathak to fight Bisht this time.
Mishra’s thumping victory in 2015, however, needs to be seen in a larger context. His mother, Annapurna Mishra, was a BJP councillor who became the first mayor of the East Delhi Municipal Corporation in 2012. In a constituency with old loyalties to the Hindutva party, the Mishra family’s BJP background, along with a “wave” in favour of Kejriwal, helped AAP win in 2015. With the change of candidate, the party’s fortune changed accordingly, and Bisht became a legislator for the fifth time.
The saffron party’s hold over North East Delhi and its incessant focus on Shaheen Bagh yielded electoral dividend in Rohtas Nagar as well. Unlike in Ghonda and Karawal Nagar, however, the BJP has had limited success in this constituency, winning only twice between 1993 and 2020.
LK Malhotra, a stationery shop owner by the Subhash Park Extension main road, described his locality as “a BJP fortress”. “There are many other pockets in the constituency which have always upheld the Hindutva ideology of the Sangh Parivar. When the BJP made the citizenship law protest at Shaheen Bagh its key issue, the overall mood swung to its advantage,” he said.
Haji Zahid, an AAP leader from neighbouring Welcome, an area with a considerable Muslim population, admitted to the adverse impact of the BJP’s campaign on his party. But according to him, the shift in the voting pattern would not have been possible without the Congress party’s “weak fight”.
Indeed, Rohtas Nagar used to be one of the grand old party’s bastions in Delhi. The constituency voted for the Congress uninterrupted from 1998 till 2013. Even in 2015, the Congress’s Vipin Sharma, despite his party facing a wipeout, had secured 15,548 votes with a 11.48 percent of the vote share. In this election, however, Sharma’s piece of the pie crumbled to a tiny 3.92 percent, winning just 5,573 of the 1,42, 227 votes.
Though AAP’s Sarita Singh lost just about 1,500 votes from her previous outing, the BJP’s Jitendra Mahajan saw a jump of around 20,000 votes. The majority of these new voters, according to AAP’s Haji Zahid, were taken away from the Congress.
Haji Zahid is an AAP leader in Rohtas Nagar
“In areas like Ram Nagar, Ashok Nagar and Rohtash Nagar, a big portion of the Congress’s 2015 vote went to the BJP this time,” Zahid said. “Vipin Sharma, probably knowing that he faced defeat, ran a very frail campaign which ultimately benefited the BJP.”
The shift in the voting pattern was greatly facilitated by the BJP’s Shaheen Bagh rhetoric, Zahid added. “Many of the people here are uneducated and work as labourers or in low-paying jobs. Unlike the voters of South Delhi, New Delhi or other parts of the city, these people are easily swayed by the rhetoric of politicians,” Zahid argued. “When BJP leaders say Muslims at Shaheen Bagh will attack Hindu households, many end up buying the narrative. This clearly translated into electoral gains for the BJP.”