As we get used to the spectacular victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi election, it is important to also take note of the characterisation of the win by its leaders as an endorsement of what they term as their ‘politics of change’. They insist that this model of policymaking has marked a shift from the politics of vacuous promises to one of work on the ground. However, even as one grants the AAP leaders this boast, it is equally important to note that the change in politics began a little earlier and for a different set of reasons. But let us first have a look at the salient meaning of the Delhi poll.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal realised early that his strong electoral plank was his government’s accomplishments in the area of social welfare — provision of affordable education, healthcare, water and electricity — and that his party’s chief rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had nothing to offer on this front. The BJP, he understood, would thus seek to draw him into an agenda which has given it several victories: a programme featuring communal hatred masquerading as nationalism. The passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the project of National Register of Citizens/National Population Register set the background for the BJP’s characteristically aggressive campaign. The protests against these, symbolised by Shaheen Bagh, gave it further context. Mr. Kejriwal wisely chose to fight the election on his own, rather than on the BJP’s, terms.
Support across sections
It is remarkable that the AAP received support from affluent colonies like Greater Kailash, Vasant Vihar, as well as colonies of the underprivileged, like Govind Puri and Seelampur; the party gained approval of both the highly educated voters in New Delhi and South Delhi and the supposedly illiterate villagers. Clearly, voters in the richer areas did not choose Mr. Kejriwal for giving them free water and electricity but over something bigger. These were issues that concerned them, but not them alone, in defining the nation.
This concern began with a visible, almost forcible, redefining of the nation by the BJP along the path of ‘Hindu Rashtra’. This was not the path Indians had inherited from their history, which had always celebrated their civilisation’s pluralism. There was also concern over the BJP’s brazenly partisan use of the state apparatus, including police and bureaucracy.
Unprovoked thrashing of students at Jamia Millia Islamia by policemen and the latter’s protection to goons with masked faces who entered the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were widely witnessed on TV channels for days, and met with public condemnation. Incidentally, there has not been a single arrest over the JNU incident so far.
Protests against the CAA, as well as in response to police action and inaction, took place in civil society — in the form of silent, passive, non-violent satyagraha marches and sit-ins, especially with women at the forefront. Shaheen Bagh became a marker for such acts of resistance. That the protests became widespread all over the country, from the invisible corners of small towns to other metros, brought the larger issue to the forefront. These protests were unconnected with either political parties or electoral battles and therefore left the government resourceless.
It is this attempt by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo to fundamentally alter the character of the nation, and the civil society’s resistance to their designs, that has brought about a change in the pursuit of politics. Shaheen Bagh formed the centrepiece of the BJP’s campaign in Delhi, with hate-filled slogans by its top leaders and second-rung politicians like Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Verma acting as a counter to Mr. Kejriwal’s focus on social welfare. The BJP clearly made the election a referendum for its CAA/NRC/NPR and for its communal vitriolic, in other words its version of nationalism. The voters responded with their verdict.
The youth deserted the BJP
The biggest loss to the BJP’s support base in this election was from the youth. Until a year ago, a portion of India’s young generation formed the unquestioning, adoring fan base of Mr. Modi even if they were not committed to the BJP or trained in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakhas. However, the CAA has made them aware of the unabashedly divisive politics of the government headed by Mr. Modi and they have refused to fall for it.
Here, a very interesting indicator is the fact that the BJP’s vitriol in public is now being met with roars of disapproval from the crowd. The youth are at the forefront of this condemnation of the BJP’s ‘divide and rule’ policy. And, they have voiced their disapproval through ballot power.
Will the Delhi elections persuade the BJP to abandon or even modify its strategy of spreading hatred for mobilising electoral support? The party can adopt a different approach if it has an alternative economic or social vision. But generating an alternative vision will require it to change its fundamental character, its organising principle.
It is noticeable that far from cautioning its leaders against the use of vitriol during the Delhi campaign, the BJP’s top leaders extended full support to them through their eloquent silence. Now, after the party’s resounding defeat, a line of argument propagated in BJP circles is that the Delhi voters neglected grave issues of religion and nationalism for the sake of freebies.
It is the tension between this inability of the BJP to change and the growing urge and energy for change at the ground level among the voters that will constitute the political and social dynamics of India in the next few years.
The author taught history at Jawaharlal Nehru University