BJP vs AAP vs Congress: What To Make Of The Chandigarh Municipal Elections
Of the 26 seats, in 2016, BJP had won 20, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), their then ally, had won one, leaving four for the Congress, and one independent.
In 2021, the seat count was extended to 35. SAD still managed a single seat while BJP’s count has come down to 12 with AAP making a grand debut with 14 seats and Congress doubling its seat count and winning eight.
It was the final phase of the national elections of 2019, and even without the benefit of opinion polls or the voting mathematics, the underlying current was that of Modi 2.0, of Modi returning for a historic second tenure. Less than a week after the polling in Chandigarh, the existence of the current was confirmed.
However, less than a week ago before the city went to polls, a political shift was ushered in with the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the grander scheme of things, Chandigarh, a single seat in the vastness of the Lok Sabha, would not have mattered to most, but to Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it did.
Before Modi’s arrival in the city, Kirron Kher, the sitting MP chosen for a second tenure, was leading a weak campaign against Congress’ Pawan Kumar Bansal. Eventually, the rally was an astounding success, and while Bansal managed 40 per cent of the votes, Kher was one of the many riders of the Modi wave, capturing over 50 per cent of the vote.
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had gone from more than 23 per cent in 2014 to less than 4 per cent in 2019. Everyone forgot the weak parachute MP, and all misgivings were forgotten and forgiven.
More than 30-months and a pandemic later, the same misgivings have come back to haunt the BJP in the city's civic polls. Of the 26 seats in 2016, BJP had won 20, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), their then ally, had won one, leaving four for the Congress, and one independent. In 2021, the seat count was extended to 35. SAD still managed a single seat this time while BJP’s count has come down to 12 with AAP making a grand debut with 14 seats and Congress doubling its seat count and winning eight.
While the civic poll throws up important lessons for the BJP, the understanding of the city is necessary so as to not read too much into the debacle of the national party. With a population of less than 1.2 million, the city is spread across 120 square kilometers. Unlike the Union Territory of Delhi, it does not have a Chief Minister or a State Assembly, and thus, it votes only twice in 5 years, that is for the civic and national polls.
Consequently, the voting numbers are not that staggering either. In 2019, less than 460,000 people went to vote, of which Kher won 231,000-odd. In the 2021 municipal elections, the greatest vote count for a winner was a little above 8,000 and the lowest was 1,759. The narrowest margin of victory was 11 votes, where the BJP barely made through, even though that was the ward where Kher was seen the most. In four of the 35 wards, the winning margin was in double digits, and in 16 of the 35 seats, the winning margin was in triple digits.
Thus, the municipal election is not a reflection of the national sentiment by many million light years, and therefore, neither it dents the cause of the BJP for 2024, neither it gives the AAP the buoyancy it needs to emerge as a national player, and nor it signals the comeback of the Congress. Further, the election is also not a reflection of what we might see in Punjab, for many of the major players are missing here. However, it does indicate that AAP may have a shot at some lost votes in the region.
Two, it is also not a reflection of the success or failure of the rural welfare schemes initiated by the centre. While AAP did manage to score big, bagging votes amongst the lower-income groups, their sweep was far from complete in the rural areas. Not a lot must also be read into the freebies promise made by the party, for most of the wards where free electricity and water could have been a game changer have gone with Congress or the BJP. Interestingly, BJP has also won in one of the wards with significant Muslim population.
Three, the results are not a testament to the performance of the local administration during the pandemic. Fortunately, the city was not as brutally hit as some other parts of the country, and the thriving healthcare infrastructure, both public and private, was utilised by people from the neighbouring regions, including Delhi. Even the vaccination drive has been largely successful, ensuring access in both public and private facilities.
So, what does the result represent?
One, the impact of the farmer protest is real. Until a week before the formal announcement of the repeal was made by the Prime Minister himself, the sight of protesters on traffic signals, holding flags and donning protest merchandise was not uncommon. The significant Sikh population within the city has chosen to stay away from the BJP, and though unrelated, a similar story is expected to play out in Punjab.
Two, the city, being a central trading hub and a large market for Punjab, Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, and Himachal, and even some parts of Haryana, was unhappy with some of the policies of the BJP, particularly the soaring fuel prices and irrational lockdowns.
Across the pandemic, there were regular protests from trading bodies, citing their unhappiness with the lockdowns, and while the administration went for an odd-even format earlier this year, it did little to solve the problems of the traders. Further, the restrictions during the Dussehra and Diwali, a season that traditionally witnesses huge spending in markets, dampened the business spirits, adding to the traders’ woes. For instance, the city wore a sombre look during Diwali with the firecracker ban in the city, even when no such ban was announced for Punjab and Haryana.
Three, the voters have rejected the parachute MP. While her unfortunate health condition for the past year-and-a-half has kept her away from the city, Kher’s absence across her first-term as an MP is not forgotten by most.
For a city this small, all Kher had to do was remain accessible to the citizens, visit one sector, an area of around 3 square kilometres, per month, and yet she restricted herself to the northern parts of the city. Today, BJP lost all southern areas of the city, barring one where the winning margin was less than 500 votes. In Kher’s own home area, the winning margin for the BJP was 11. Come 2024, and the BJP will need a fresh face for its Lok Sabha contest.
Four, Kher and BJP’s little interest in the city’s depleting urban infrastructure. While Kher’s predecessor, Congress’ Bansal, left a grand legacy of sprawling urban infra including scores of parks, walking trails, and much more, the BJP did little to arrest the falling standards of cleanliness in the city. From being in the top-10 cities in the cleanliness rankings, the city fell to 66 earlier this year. Electricity and water woes, previously unheard of, were also becoming common in the city.
For the BJP, Chandigarh as a constituency and a local administrative unit, was an easy task, for all they had to do was manage the infrastructure in place, and most importantly, ensure the cleanliness, upgradation of a strong network of utilities, and be more vocal towards the interests of the traders, and still, they managed to make a mess of it.
Yet, the results bring no alarming signs for the BJP at a national level, but they do serve two important lessons. One, that after seven years in the centre, the era of parachute MPs riding the Modi wave and thus taking the local voters for a ride is slowly coming to an end, and two, listen to the traders and be mindful of their interests.
Be it one Lok Sabha seat or many, not everything can be left to the brilliance and leadership of one man, and the local leaders, across India, must up the ante before 2024.
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