Commentary: The BJP could upset odds at the Delhi state elections

Asia World

NEW DELHI: The stakes are high in the upcoming Delhi assembly elections to be held on Saturday (Feb 8), when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the current state government, goes head to head with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, India’s ruling party since 2014, is eager to win the contest to govern Delhi, the country’s capital territory, which it last did in 1998.

The Delhi elections are also a litmus test for the Congress which is hoping for a revival – it ruled Delhi for 15 years before the AAP took over in 2014.

CONTROVERSIAL LEGISLATION

The election is being fought amidst unprecedented protests across the country against the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). Criticism of the legislation is centred on its discriminatory implications for India’s Muslim minority.

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A staggering 144 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of the Act that came into force on Jan 10, 2020. The top court declined to suspend the law but has given four weeks to the Modi government to respond. But the agitation doesn’t seem to be subsiding.

It’s worth recalling how in December 2019, amidst angry protests against the CAA, the BJP lost control of a key state with the election in Jharkhand, in the eastern part of India.

The defeat was a major snub to Modi’s party that won only 25 out of 81 seats on contest – 12 less than it won the last time the state went to the polls. 

This was also in sharp contrast to how the state had given a favourable mandate to the BJP in the May 2019 parliamentary elections, as it won 12 out of the 14 seats with 55.29 per cent vote share, which anointed Modi as India’s prime minister for a second successive term.

Jharkhand became the fifth state that the BJP lost with its national footprint shrinking from 21 to 17 states, a significant drop from nearly 71 per cent in 2017 to around 40 per cent today.

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But this may just be an indication of how the Indian electorate makes a distinction between an assembly and a parliamentary election and often votes differently with dissimilar political preferences for state and national leadership. In the former, people have a proclivity to vote with a focus on local issues, while in the latter, a leader’s towering charisma, such as the one Modi commands, may overshadow any other criteria.

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's popularity in Delhi's teeming slums rivals that of Prime
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s popularity in Delhi’s teeming slums rivals that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi AFP/Sajjad HUSSAIN

But the upcoming Delhi elections could turn this theory on its head where the BJP is poised to offer a tough fight to incumbent Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal from the AAP.

DELHI ELECTION COULD BUCK TREND

According to a survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the AAP government has fared well on several fronts and seems popular with Delhi voters. 

Kejriwal has played to his strengths by focusing on his government’s achievements in the key areas of water, electricity, health and education. He has stayed clear of any personal attacks on Modi which he knows can be counterproductive. His novel interactive campaign features him as a “friendly neighbour” who knocks on his voters’ doors to have a casual conversation over tea about his government’s successes.

This is an image that the BJP is trying to decimate. An anti-Kejriwal campaign portrays him as a ”terrorist” who is in cahoots with violent protesters (flagrantly depicted as Muslims) to destroy public property.

This is a new low in political campaigning in India where fanning communal sentiments is perceived to be central to the BJP’s election strategy.

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Kejriwal’s public criticism of the CAA has opened him up for character assassination by India’s right-wing groups who view him as a sympathiser of Muslims and therefore, a “traitor” to the country.

Capitalising on this, Modi has attempted to leverage on his magnetic appeal as a leader to be the face of the campaign for the BJP in Delhi without revealing the party’s chief ministerial candidate.

TARGETING PROTESTORS

The longest ongoing protest against the CAA is a 24/7 peaceful sit-in that has achieved iconic status. It started on Dec 15 and is being led solely by women in Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood in South Delhi.

Demonstrators attend Republic Day celebrations at the protest site against a new citizenship law in
Demonstrators attend Republic Day celebrations at the protest site against a new citizenship law in Shaheen Bagh, area of New Delhi, India, January 26, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer NO ARCHIVES. NO RESALES.

But these peaceful protesters are key targets of BJP’s star campaigners. Aiming directly at them, Home Minister Amit Shah said: “Press the button of lotus (the BJP symbol) so hard that the current makes the Shaheen Bagh protesters run away.”

Some BJP MPs have indulged in the vilification of protesters targeting their religion. “These people will enter your houses, they will pick up your sisters and daughters, rape them and kill them,” said one MP, Parvesh Verma.

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Others have also incited violence. At a campaign rally in Delhi last week, BJP Minister of State for Finance and Corporate Affairs, Anurag Thakur used phrases like “Shoot the traitors” designed to keep young party workers energised and fired up with a goal to “crush the enemy”. This comes at a time when a youth fired shots at protesters at Shaheen Bagh, making it the third shooting incident here in five days.

CALIBRATED STRATEGY

Why would the BJP resort to these crude tactics? Aren’t they interested in winning at all?

On the contrary, the BJP wants to win in Delhi where they haven’t been in power for over 20 years now. But more importantly, what the BJP is trying to do or has done so far through its divisive rhetoric is entirely in character and right out of its national playbook that won it a rousing second term in office. The anti-CAA protests have been branded as the opposition’s “political conspiracy” to subvert a well-intentioned law that grants amnesty to six religious communities.

Man brandishes a gun during a protest against a new citizenship law outside the Jamia Millia Islami
FILE PHOTO: An unidentified man brandishes a gun during a protest against a new citizenship law outside the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi, India, January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

If the BJP wins in Delhi, it will lend more muscle to its rabble-rousing politics. If it loses, it doesn’t mean that it has suffered a dent in its popularity nationally as the Indian electorate has often voted differently in its assembly and parliamentary elections.

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Kejriwal’s chance at winning is bolstered by his party’s performance in the first term, but it may not be a shoo-in for him yet with Modi being the face of the Delhi campaign. It is plausible that the BJP may draw a sizeable number of votes away from the AAP that clinched 67 out of 70 seats in 2014.

But beyond the elections, it will be business as usual for the BJP and its majoritarian agenda.

As writer and political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta remarks, the BJP is in the process of Hindutva consolidation.

The BJP may find that Delhi is a small price to pay for its broader nationalist agenda. But if its carefully calculated political rhetoric pays dividends, the BJP could well walk away with a dent to Kejriwal’s chances to govern the capital territory for a second term and divide the electorate further along communal lines in the process.

Sumithra Prasanna is a freelance journalist and an award-winning filmmaker.

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