Congress’s mistake, BJP’s mess, AAP’s mire
India’s oldest party needs an introspection to know why losing has become its habit. Delhi’s single largest party in the 2013 election must bring an end to haughtiness, disunity and indiscipline. And the party chosen to rule Delhi must realise that its manifesto is an unmitigated economic disaster from which it better change its course
The victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi deserves to be lauded with superlatives since the cosmopolitan city-state has voted decisively for deliverance. Those who tried to present it as class war would need to answer why the middle class voted for the AAP in large numbers. This is an expression of the combined will of Delhi society to give the fledgling outfit a chance to deliver on its promises. The same factors that brought Narendra Modi to power at the Centre made Arvind Kejriwal the chief minister of Delhi.
While the verdict is a triumph of the common man’s desperate desire for change, it also reflected poorly on other parties, particularly the Congress that was decimated; it lost vote percentage by about 15 points. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost votes only by a marginal percentage. In fact, it managed to gain almost as many votes percentage wise as compared to the 2013 assembly elections in Delhi. Both the Congress and BJP need to introspect: the Congress on why it is losing in ground one state after another and the BJP on why it lost its position as a party of hope within eight months of receiving a decisive mandate for the Centre.
First, the Congress. The party has developed a habit of losing. Rather than trying to regenerate and rediscover itself from past mistakes, it continues to commit one faux pas one after the other. Not giving a prominent role to former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit was a big mistake. She was singularly responsible for the party’s victory at three successive Assembly elections since 1998. Ajay Maken was a good choice, but it was too late for him to rejuvenate the party. By giving support to the AAP in 2013, the Congress had indicated that it did not make much of a difference if a voter voted for either the Congress or the AAP. The Congress’s humiliating loss is a direct outcome of the minorities moving away in search of a more reliable party that can take on the BJP head on. The Congress is in a serious crisis.
None expected the BJP to lose this badly. The party has lost Delhi for a fifth time: 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2014. This shows the BJP, despite the talk of a strong cadre base, has not been able to expand. Intra-party fights between senior state leaders have ensured enough cadre demoralisation. The proverbial crab mentality works here in full swing. The cadre plays a very significant role in creating the wave. For that, he must have complete faith in the party and its leaders. The cadre unification achieved during 2014 Lok Sabha was completely missing in 2015.
There is an interesting story that was narrated to this writer by a senior party functionary of Delhi. It goes thus: Some young party workers came with complaints to an important person at the helm of Delhi affairs. They had complaints about the lower organisational level and wanted the senior person to intervene and resolve the issue. Rather than counselling the younger people, the senior person chided the youngsters and said the party did not need them. He said, “You may go; we have Modi to give us victory.” The same people worked against the party during the campaign. Such stories in abundance affected the BJP’s Delhi unit.
The issue is that the party’s leaders had become very arrogant and they were more interested in fixing seats and candidates. A political party’s success is due to easy access of its workers to their leaders. The leftist parties have perfected this technique. On the one hand, you had the image of BJP leaders issuing diktats without knowing the ground realities; on the other you had Kejriwal working shoulder to shoulder with his party workers, a BJP leader said.
Many BJP workers who ostensibly worked for the party were privately happy with the results, some of them told this writer without being quoted. Their darling Prime Minister Narendra Modi is busy and cannot interact with them. Others, who draw powers from him, had become very arrogant. A party is not a company that people would obey orders due to hierarchy. In politics you have to make yourself acceptable on a routine basis by making the cadre feel that they have been taken into confidence on different matters, a lower level worker said. They must have a sense of belongingness.
What added to their disenchantment was foisting Kiran Bedi as the chief ministerial candidate without consulting the rank and file, bringing leaders like Shazia Ilmi and Vinod Kumar Binny and giving them more importance than the local leaders and running party like a fiefdom. “The decision to get Kiran Bedi could have been taken after cadre assessment to increase her acceptability,” a BJP Delhi state-level office-bearer said. The cadre would not say anything but sit dormant if something was forced upon them without proper justification. Bedi, despite being sincere, had an awful disconnect with voters. “You don’t need a thanedarni to tell us how to do politics,” was all that BJP leaders or cadre would say in private. She annoyed the media with her bureaucratic approach, too.
Perhaps they relied too much on Modi’s charm that worked well in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jammu & Kashmir. They forgot that Delhi was completely different — a turf perfected by Kejriwal. When the latter realised that his leaving Delhi Government in 49 days was going against him, he asked for forgiveness. This went down very well with the masses. As against the image of Bedi being a tough cop who would set things right, there was Kejriwal who was determined in his cause, but also humble. People buy humility and they support the underdog. The BJP’s high-profile campaign helped him gain sympathy, in the same way as the Opposition’s campaign had worked in Modi’s favour last year.
The minorities in Delhi this time voted aggressively against the BJP. When Muslims do not find any party that has the potential to give the BJP a tough fight, they lie silent. This has often helped the BJP win polls from seats with sizeable minority votes. This time around, they were angry with the Congress but hurt and vengeful against the BJP. Statements on “love jihad” by some BJP leaders like BJP MP Shakshi Maharaj’s statement on producing four children annoyed the community. Modi’s vote was for good governance and fringe elements were trying to derail the agenda. The BJP did not crack its whip strong enough to reverse the message.
One may recall that Kejriwal’s die-hard supporters in 2012-13 were supporters of Modi as well: the same support base of the middle class urban youth who were articulate, educated and wanted to change the system. They gave the slogan, “Modi for PM and Kejriwal for CM.” Kejriwal was careful not to attack Modi this time. He worked overtime to change the loyalty of the youth towards him by raising the bogey of communalism in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In 2015 Assembly election, he clearly told the electorate that Modi was not the chief ministerial candidate of Delhi and made fun of Delhi BJP by projecting the image of Jagdish Mukhi as his rival. The same youth who voted Modi for the PM post did not find any contradictions in voting for Kejriwal. For them, both represent the face of change, the fight against corruption and a nationalist resurgence for a new India.
Kejriwal would do well not to try to walk away from this image. Any deviation such as compromise with corrupt, casteist or religious groups would prove to be dangerous for AAP. This writer remembers Kejriwal chiding his Muslim -supporters from Okhla when they asked him about his vision for the minorities in a meeting in December 2012. He told them point blank that he did not have anything about the minorities, but had everything about citizens and that would help the minorities as well.
At different points of time, Modi has said the same thing. Kejriwal’s failure to accommodate some Muslim leaders’ demand that the community be treated differently may alienate the community in the long run. However, if he compromises on citizen-centric politics on the pretext of various alibis, he would be doomed sooner rather than later.
Leaders of anti-Modi forces are gloating over the BJP’s defeat in the hope that this would lead to emergence of a political alternative to Modi. Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had extended her support to the AAP just before the elections; so did the left, Janata Dal (United) leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad Yadav extended their support to the AAP as well. They would all try to bring the AAP into a larger alliance framework of regional parties. From here, Kejriwal has to walk the tightrope and make that difficult choice — whether to expand on his own or take the help of other parties. Till now he has relied on his own strengths.
Losing Delhi may also be due to the overconfidence or oversight of the BJP. It appears that the Amit Shah-Modi duo underestimated Kejriwal and overestimated the BJP’s presence in Delhi. When elections happened in Maharashtra and Haryana, the Union government was still young and the BJP untested as an independent player in these states. The good work of Union government during floods in Srinagar and Modi charm worked in Jammu, bringing the party within a striking distance of power. Many BJP leaders now say that the Union government could have started some development works in Delhi. Laying of water lines in unauthorised colonies, taking action against the corrupt at MCD level would have proved to the people that the government had started tackling issues urgently.
While the Union Government focussed on big-ticket reforms in infrastructure and investment that would give the country’s economy a big push, it failed to meet aspirations of the people of Delhi in the short term. The youth are generally volatile and they do not have much patience. They are desperate for results they can feel instantly. Many people had started questioning whether the government had the abilities to deliver even before this election. Failure of the BJP to convince these voters turned them to Kejriwal. Voters do not wish to put all eggs in one basket. They have created a system of checks and balances in their own ways. “There must be some checks,” a young office going girl of 22 said.
While there are many predominant reasons for the AAP’s victory, anti-corruption fight, populism and shift of Muslim votes would score over others. Kejriwal was the most outspoken face of the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare. He could be faulted for anything, but not corruption, as reports of the cases against him have not circulated widely. This image worked in his favour among the new voters. They voted for Modi to bring a corruption-free regime and they voted for Kejriwal as his ‘backup’. There has not been a single case of corruption against the Modi government since it came to power. But lower-level corruption continues as ever before. Kejriwal promised to tackle this, such as police taking bribes, officials taking money to do a job that is their duty etc.
While the anti-corruption plank worked well with the middle class, announcement of government largesse such as power subsidy, free water attracted the poor and the middle class alike. The poor saw in Kejriwal their messiah. The middle class that takes ideological stand against government giving subsidies is the first to be in queue to avail them. Many people even justified free water and subsidised electricity, saying these were basic necessities! They had no answer when a commentator asked what would happen if poor people from Bihar and other parts of the country start coming to Delhi since life would be easier. Full credit must be given to Modi and his team that it did not get into a competition of distributing things free and kept the focus on good governance.
This election was in that sense also a fight between good governance and populism. Most government employees reportedly voted against the BJP because of the Union government’s decision to impose discipline in office attendance. They must have gone against the BJP also because of the decision by the party’s Haryana government to lower retirement age from 60 to 58 years. There has been large-scale disenchantment against this move and the impression that the Union government could replicate Haryana did not disappear despite the government’s clarifications to the contrary.
Kejriwal is going to face the same dilemma. Will he follow the example of Banerjee who basked in the glory of a pro-poor image, but has failed to deliver good governance? Will he fritter away the legacy and splurge government largess on populist schemes? Or, will he try to streamline the system? Making Tatas, Ambanis and Adanis villains of our economy is easy; producing wealth is not. Will he want the country to walk from free economy to an interventionist approach that prevailed prior to the 1990s?
Delhi’s Chief Minister-designate must know that good government measures of Modi would start bringing in results and his populism would reach a point of no return. Rather than making fun of Gujarat by saying that the state has overall not progressed, but a few business houses have, he should undertake an unbiased tour of that state to witness empowerment of people in all fields of activities.
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