History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. This is one of the oft-quoted statements from Karl Marx, which alerts us that the re-occurrence of an event carries very different meanings in history. The Aam Adami Party’s repetition of its grand victory in the 2015 Delhi election is neither a tragedy nor a farce. In many ways, it does more to alter the equations of national politics. But it is no longer the victory that could change the established models of governance or the ways of Indian politics.
Judging by the craft of electoral battlefield, this is undoubtedly a memorable victory, bigger than the previous one. Coming at the end of a full term marred by a hostile central government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an electoral victory is rare and should call for compliments. Repeating the unmatched scale of victory — nearly 54 per cent votes and about 90 per cent seats — in the wake of a washout in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, a central government determined to deny the AAP another term, one of the most aggressive and vicious campaigns by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and a diffident Election Commission makes it even more historic.
Add to it the special sociology of voting. India Today’s exit poll that provides social break-up of votes confirms that the AAP actually consolidated its vote share among women and poor voters. It seems that the AAP lost a 4-5 per cent votes to the BJP but made up for it from the gains it made from the Congress. In terms of education and class, the correlation is straightforward: the poorer and less educated the voter, the greater the AAP’s lead over the BJP. That suggests an enduring alignment of voters that is here to stay. Arvind Kejriwal must be complimented for holding his nerves during this campaign and guiding his team to this success.
While the AAP’s victory in 2015 was a one-off exception that did not alter the national equations, the 2020 election result brings good news for the entire country. Since 2018, Delhi is now the ninth successive assembly election (Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Delhi) where the BJP failed to win, despite being a serious contender (excluding Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Mizoram where it was not). This may not be an indicator of a decline and eventual fall of Narendra Modi from national centre stage. Nation-wide opinion polls attest to the continuing popularity of Modi. Opinion polls in the run-up to the Delhi election had shown that most AAP voters prefer Modi as the national leader and BJP as the party of their choice for Lok Sabha. Yet, another defeat in state assembly elections would puncture the narrative of BJP’s rising tide. It would also mean stronger federal resistance to the Centre’s attempts to ride roughshod over states.
Cause for relief
This defeat of the BJP carries a bigger message. The BJP’s election campaign in Delhi was a new low in India’s electoral history. From national leaders to local minions, this was a full-throttled communal polarisation. Short of officially calling for Hindu-Muslim riots, the BJP leadership did everything that it could — branding its opponents as terrorists, anti-national, Pakistanis and whatnot — as the Election Commission made polite noises. Had this model succeeded, this would have become a national template — incite-hatred-win-elections — with ethnic, caste and regional variants. Its defeat may not put an end to the polarisation strategy. The BJP may well read the increase in its vote share as an indicator of the success of polarisation. And the party is bound to try this in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. But this result would surely sow seeds of doubt in the minds of those who argue for this. That is a cause for relief.
Yet, it would be misleading to compare this victory of the AAP with its path-breaking electoral debut in 2013 and 2015. At the time of inception, the AAP promised nothing short of a new model of governance, even if the contours of that model were yet to be worked out. Its ideology of swaraj promised a new vision for India, breaking free of ideological rigidities of the past. Above all, it promised a new kind of politics that would challenge the established rules of the game.
This second victory is not a realisation of that promise. Instead, it confirms that this new player has learned the rules of the game better than the older players, and proven that you don’t need a new model of governance or vision to succeed in India’s politics.
Far from inaugurating a new model of governance, the AAP has replicated, more successfully than others, what is by now a box standard template of re-election. The template was designed by Narendra Modi himself in his second and third assembly elections in Gujarat, replicated and refined by chief ministers like Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh, Nitish Kumar, and Naveen Patnaik. This template of re-election for an incumbent government comprises three elements: assured delivery of select welfare measures that directly reach the people, high-decibel publicity of these measures and the leaders personality to amplify these policies, and a strong election machine to convert these into votes.
Arvind Kejriwal used this template better than those who designed it. Free or cheap electricity did provide real relief to the poor and lower middle classes. Education may not have improved, but school infrastructure did. Mohalla clinics were mostly a start-up, but these did hold out a promise of accessible health services. These tangible gains were amplified through very simple and powerful communication, both official advertisements and party political publicity.
As a result, it became an article of faith that Delhi government was about education plus health. Everyone forgot about corruption, employment, pollution, transport and liquor. Arvind Kejriwal managed his image very deftly where it mattered most, the ordinary voters, without bothering much for the opinion-making classes. He too discovered that the public has a very short memory. All this was converted into votes through a powerful and well-oiled election machine, with some assistance from Prashant Kishor. This is not to take away from the brilliance and perseverance of the AAP leadership in executing and improvising on the template. It is just useful to remember that this is not a new model.
The same is true of the AAP’s political strategy. Far from rewriting the rules, the party has reaffirmed the existing rules. One, you cannot do politics without mobilising political entrepreneurs who are agnostic to political principles. Two, vision and principles are for the chattering classes, you don’t need to bother about these much. Three, a political party is all about winning elections, which is a necessary and sufficient test of political success. Four, a political party cannot work without a ‘high command’ that follows a single leader. The amazing thing about the AAP is not that it fell back on this conventional wisdom, but how quickly and eagerly it embraced the rules that it set out to change.
Many of these learnings paid off in the 2020 Delhi election. It could award ticket to every winnable candidate without any moral or ideological hindrance. The ideological flexibility allowed the AAP to quickly adjust to the Right-ward shift of the political spectrum. From welcoming the dilution of Article 370 and abolition of the state of Jammu and Kashmir to welcoming the Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya, the party quickly shifted to the middle-Right. It managed, brilliantly, to remain ambiguous on the CAA and Shaheen Bagh through its campaign. Finally, it could limit the contest to the local issues of Delhi and paint itself as the only alternative at that level.
And this is the real irony: the party that was formed to break the tyranny of TINA (there is no alternative) won because there was no alternative to it.
So, the question is not whether these strategies work in elections. The AAP has shown that they do. The question we need to ask now is whether these can help us fight the larger battle to reclaim the republic.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.