DELHI 2020 The sweep of this verdict reflects AAP delivering goods, and BJP going overboard

No Love for Hatemongers

After his electoral sweep in May 2019, many called Narendra Modi the new hegemon of India, à la Indira Gandhi. That balloon has been burst by BJP’s thrashing in the Delhi state election. BJP’s strategy of labelling all dissenters as ‘pro-Pakistani’ and ‘tukde tukde’ traitors has flopped. This aimed to sully all students, secularists, Muslims and opposition parties that condemned the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and proposed an all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) as a communal plot against Muslims.

The ploy failed. The women protesting at Shaheen Bagh had blocked a major road, causing huge citizen inconvenience. BJP, supported by some fire-eating TV channels and sections of social media, hoped to win by portraying this as an ‘antinational’ plot supported by nefarious groups including Islamic radicals, and implicitly blessed by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Communal tempers were whipped up to a point where a gunman fired at peaceful protesters. But despite having won 100% of Delhi’s parliamentary seats, on Tuesday, BJP won only 10% of Delhi’s assembly seats.

Lesson: Modi can win national elections, but BJP communalism cannot. Modi should now distance himself from the communal venom that has undercut his ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas’ promise after the general election and proved a loser even in narrow electoral terms.

BJP has now been defeated, or lost ground, in 10 state elections: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Delhi. Its control of Indian territory has shrunk from 70% in 2018 to barely 35% today. Far from becoming a hegemon, it is retreating.

India’s social and political atmosphere has been communalised to a degree not seen since the destruction of the Babri Masjid. CAA provides fast-track naturalisation to non-Muslim immigrants from neighbouring Islamic and Muslim-majority countries but not to Muslims, or those from non-Islamic countries. BJP claims this is a humanitarian way to accelerate naturalisation of those fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and should not be seen as a communal tool.

This claim might just have passed muster a decade ago. But in today’s communal climate, laws have become tools of harassment, not fairness. Schoolchildren acting in an anti-CAA skit were hauled up by police after a complaint, and a teacher and parent have been arrested for sedition. A taxi driver took a passenger to a police station for questioning after hearing the passenger having an anti-CAA phone conversation. The local BJP MLA then gave the taxi driver an award. A BJP minister invited a crowd of supporters to shout that traitors must be shot, with no definition or process to actually identify who is a traitor.

Many TV channels and social media have spewed hate speech, rather than analysis. Many bhakts long to see Muslims incarcerated or worse. The NRC fiasco in Assam — where 1.2 million Hindus, along with 0.6 million Muslims and 0.1 million tribals, failed to produce papers proving their citizenship — proved that India is so weakly documented that a lack of documents is no way to ascertain citizenship.

Yet, home minister Amit Shah has pledged repeatedly to hold an all-India NRC that can trap 80 million undocumented people. In theory, CAA imposes significant conditions to fast-track non-Muslims. But after several arbitrary acts of imprisoning or harassing dissidents of all sorts, people simply do not trust the government to use any legislation fairly. They suspect, with precedents aplenty, that CAA and NRC will be used selectively to trap millions of Muslims and let others off the hook.

This is why people in Kerala formed a 612 km-long human chain in protest, while those in Kolkata formed another one 11 km long. Several states have point-blank refused to implement one or all of CAA, NRC and National Population Register (NPR). The fundamental trust that the Constitution assumes between the Centre and states has broken down. Modi may cry ‘anarchy’, but his party is the architect of that breakdown.

Winning a national election is not enough. The central government must not polarise issues so much that states rebel. BJP has crossed that line. It suddenly looks helpless to implement the pledges it has made to its own core supporters. Without state cooperation, there can be no CAA, NRC or NPR. Far from becoming an all-powerful juggernaut, BJP now looks somewhat lost, foaming at the mouth but helpless.

A party sweeping a general election with 37% of the national vote must not think it has the power to damn all dissenters, misuse the police and tax authorities to harass opponents, and break the consensus on India being a secular democratic State that promises equality and fraternity. Protesters at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere are waving banners and wearing T-shirts bearing the first paragraph of the Constitution that guarantees fundamental freedoms. How outrageous for BJP and its friendly TV channels to say those swearing by the Constitution are unpatriotic anti-nationals!

The Delhi elections should be a wake-up call for BJP. Communal polarisation is a losing strategy. It should reach out to dissenters, formally abandon all-India NRC, and suspend CAA.

Worked More, Talked Less

Kaam bolta hai’ (work speaks) is the basic message of the Delhi assembly elections, enabling the seven-year-old Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to sweep for a second term, getting the better of BJP’s hyper-nationalism and well-oiled poll machinery.

People did not just recognise the work AAP has done to address bijli, paani, education and healthcare, but also rewarded it with their votes. That is the significant shift. It will send its own message to politicians who believe that when the chips are down, everyone tends to be swayed not so much by programmes as much as by considerations of caste, religion and emotive issues like who’s a nationalist and who’s an anti-nationalist. Other parties may well emulate AAP’s module for governance.

BJP tried to polarise the electorate on Hindu-Muslim, India-Pakistan, national-anti national lines, placing anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests in the middle as a bogey. It worked only to a point, and this may be reflected in the party’s increased vote share this time to about 40%, up from 33% in the 2015 state elections (but down from 56.5% it had got in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when polarisation was sought around the Balakot attacks). But it did not reach the critical mass of votes required to be converted into seats.

BJP’s campaign was, even by its own standards, unnaturally divisive and abusive, sinking to lows that amounted to sanctioning vigilantism. This seems to have become counterproductive after a point, and BJP may well have done better but for this shrill blast that made many Dilliwalas, even many Narendra Modi admirers, uncomfortable.

Not unexpectedly, Congress was completely squeezed out. A strong showing by it, even in a few constituencies, could have damaged AAP. Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra addressed only a couple of meetings each, and their poll narrative was flat, concentrating on the achievements of the late Sheila Dikshit’s rule instead of making any kind of pitch for the future.

Another significant takeaway has been the narrative put out by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. He kept the focus on ‘basic issues’, but also signalled that his party was certainly not anti-Hindu or Muslim-appeasing. BJP tried to trip him by talking about AAP’s support for Shaheen Bagh, going to the extent of dubbing him a ‘terrorist’. It failed in this ‘character assassination’ mission.

Kejriwal’s recitation of Hanuman Chalisa on a TV channel, his visit to a Hanuman mandir, the ‘Jai Bajrangbali’ slogans raised by AAP volunteers near booths on polling day, not to mention the ruling party’s proposal to include the subject of ‘real patriotism’ as part of school curricula pretty much short-circuited any BJP attempt to paint AAP as a bunch of Left-liberals or members of any ‘tukde tukde’ gang.

AAP was geared to take a leaf out of BJP’s book, without taking recourse to turning on the toxic tap. This was not ‘soft Hindutva’, but a bijli-paani governance narrative in an idiom and optics Delhi’s multicultural electorate could well identify with.

Kejriwal knew only too well that his constituency overlapped with that of BJP’s. Many Delhiites quite openly remarked that while they would vote for Modi in a national election, they wanted Kejriwal in Delhi. This is another narrative other opposition parties may look at in the coming days.

BJP appeared to have woken up in mid-January when it realised that it may lose its core vote to Kejriwal. It pulled out all stops. But, ironically, by making Delhi such a high prestige election — it pressed into service 200 MPs, 70 Union ministers, with home minister Amit Shah leading the charge — BJP gave a larger-than-life profile to Delhi, which would have otherwise be seen as only a ‘half-state’ election.

What should worry BJP’s brass is the growing loss of power in states that are increasingly turning to other parties, states in which voters are now being able to see viable alternatives. In just over a year, it has lost out in six states — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and now Delhi.

While Modi still retains his popularity at the national level, he is no longer able to make up for the shortcomings of BJP’s state leaders or its state units as he was able to do in the early part of his prime ministership. As a third-time chief minister — and winning with aplomb despite many odds — Kejriwal is now likely to be accepted with open arms at the high table of opposition leaders. He is expected to try and increase his footprint outside Delhi. He won’t be in any hurry, though, as he wouldn’t want to repeat the mistakes he made in the past — such as ‘going national’ in 2014, or attacking Modi stridently.

In Punjab, AAP had taken roots, but lost the election in 2017, because credible faces left it, and BJP transferred its votes at the last minute to Congress. Kejriwal may well encourage the entry of known and established political faces from other parties to build his organisation, be it in Punjab, or in states like Haryana, Goa and Gujarat. In Delhi, some Congress leaders may well look at greener pastures and turn to AAP — or BJP.

Arvind Kejriwal is now a threeelection wonder. And that will make him to be taken dead seriously.