By Nisheeth Sharan
It is universally acknowledged that incumbent governments are in campaign mode all through their tenure, while the opposition gets its act together closer to the hustings.
I use this banal observation not because it merits mention, but to remind you that politics and elections are a 24x7x365 effort. Over the years with the advent of high octane political campaigns, the import of this understanding has diluted.
Incumbents think they will figure out the future and the freebies in their fourth year in power, while the opposition takes on the government only tactically and believes in mounting a challenge only when the election season arrives.
Probably, it is better utilisation of resources but certainly not smarter utilisation of resources. Because the voters form their opinion of parties every day of their existence. Which is why “living the character” in politics is so important for one’s branding.
Delhi Assembly elections are the most recent instance of BJP relinquishing the role of an active opposition for 59 months and picking it up with gusto in the 60th. It displayed less commitment to Delhi and more to elections. It is a move fraught with risks.
But to imagine BJP erred in its approach would be wrong. BJP played by its script. A script which is getting dog eared by the day as its strike rate is under threat and the party faces erosion of states.
To understand what really contributed to the defeat of BJP in Delhi, let us look at how the Delhi elections unfolded.
Dusting and rebooting BJP Delhi
BJP has been well aware of the stench in its Delhi unit. For over 20 years, Delhi BJP has been at loggerheads in terms of petty factionalism, leadership conflicts, groupism and opaque ceilings. The same jaded faces have lorded over their micro fiefdoms to manage their mini factions in municipal elections and the power that comes with it.
BJP has managed to win the parliamentary and municipal elections but failed to have their legislative candidates. They have lost connect with the people, are seen as an arrogant and corrupt bunch with no zeal to solve the problems of Delhi. BJP’s mistake No. 1 was to not address the rot in its Delhi unit.
A leaderless party is a faceless fear
BJP had over 10 years to identify and groom its second generation Delhi leaders. For a party that plans well into the future, BJP failed to do so.
We have the example of Arvind Kejriwal who emerged out of nowhere and became a face to reckon with in Delhi’s political landscape. All through his journey, he was never singularly challenged by a young dynamic BJP leader backed by the party’s national leadership.
Instead, the BJP chose to field its national leaders against Kejriwal to his delight and advantage. Initially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and currently Home Minister Amit Shah have taken on Kejriwal. Kejriwal couldn’t have prayed for a brighter stroke of luck. In fact, he made every effort to pitch himself in that zone.
There has been increasing chatter nationally about BJP’s policy of winning states and foisting light weight state leaders as Chief Minsters, a move resented by the voters as well as party’s state units.
Modi has maintained rock solid loyalty from public while state units appear too infirm in comparison. To add to the equation is the internecine power struggle and heart burn that emerges from it.
Delhi voters were not looking for an anointed CM, should BJP win. They wanted to know the groom well before the marriage. Not choosing a Delhi bred state leader who could connect with the aspirational Delhi voters was BJP’s mistake No 2.
60 months is NOT equal to 60 days
Over the 60 months of Arvind Kejriwal’s tenure, BJP almost allowed him a clean run. Admittedly, with its minuscule presence in the Delhi Assembly, there was little BJP could do in the House. But that allowed BJP the opportunity of putting its famed opposition genes to use.
BJP could have gone to the public at every given opportunity. Instead, it allowed Kejriwal to accuse Modi government of obstructionism and disfavour while really not delivering anything spectacular.
BJP had 60 months to put Kejriwal and his juvenile government on the mat, but it chose to take him on only in the last 60 days, committing its mistake No. 3
A campaign too late
Till December end, the Delhi elections were considered a foregone conclusion. From rank and file to state-national leaders, the preparedness indicated that BJP had chosen to throw in the towel even before the match.
It is an intriguing question as to why the BJP decided to take on AAP so late in the day. It is believed that serious planning for Delhi elections began only in the first week of January. Probably the defeat in Jharkhand at the tail of Maharashtra debacle pushed Delhi elections up the priority of the national leadership.
With its state unit in disarray, rusted local leaders and dejected karyakartas, BJP decided to go all out. A call for all-hands-on-the-deck pushed BJP’s famed election machinery to contest a minuscule territory against a wily adversary playing in his backyard. This was akin to an under prepared Indian cricket team out to challenge Australia on its windy, bouncy wickets; definitely its mistake No 4.
Choosing to be a Goliath?
Putting up a brave fight in Delhi appears like a diktat that came in too late. Credit must go to Amit Shah-J.P. Nadda for mobilising the largest inflow of BJP leaders, managers and organisational heavyweights in a spirited show of aggression.
One can appreciate the Hobson’s choice both had. With a leadership transition in progress (Between Shah and Nadda) and a redundant state unit, they had no choice but to call on their trusted lieutenants from outside. By one estimate, four organisation General Secretaries, six Ex-CMs, 8-10 state Presidents and countless MPs and MLAs were tasked with mapping every nook and corner of Delhi.
However, this had a set of problems of its own. It created multiple power centres, decision making units and communication silos. The local units initially resented this airdropping of senior leaders, but over a period of time aligned themselves and started functioning as a team.
What this created was very public, heavy duty, high visibility presence of BJP on the streets. Although it injected necessary enthusiasm in the BJP cadre and supporters, it also created an unwanted David vs Goliath scenario for neutral, apolitical voters. Here were a bunch of heavyweights with no connection to Delhi working to throw out a local lad who was unequally matched.
By default, AAP and its local units became David to BJP’s Goliath. And we know everybody has a soft corner for the underdog.
Selection of candidates
There has been a difference of opinion amongst people who know about the selection of candidates. I do believe, nobody knows more about the process of decision making than the parties involved.
By a rough estimate of winnability being the criteria, BJP managed to select approximately 60 per cent candidates with electoral winnability while 40 per cent were selected on political considerations.
It might be possible that those 40 per cent were from “grade C’ constituencies where possibility of winning was meagre. However, it would be safe to assume that the selection of candidates was sub optimal.
This was also evident from the absence of heavyweights in the electoral fray. Academically, imagine if the candidate list included Harsh Vardhan, Manoj Tiwari, Vijay Goel, Meenakshi Lekhi and Parvesh Singh Verma. The kickoff to the elections would be with leaders personally invested in the outcome. It would have mobilised the local karyakartas as their lifelines would have been on the chopping block. Nonetheless, this is a matter of conjecture and for worthier political acumen to dwell upon.
Freebies and more
Unable to deliver on his loftier electoral promises like marshals in buses, 15 lakh CCTV cameras, 500 schools/colleges and so on, Kejriwal opted for the Shivraj Singh Chouhan model of delivery. It had worked for him in 2015 too.
By an estimation, 30 lakh households (75 lakh voters) fell into the bracket of less than 200 units of free electricity. It is reported that they have been receiving ‘nil’ electricity bill for many months now. That’s a sizeable contribution to their average monthly cash savings. Electorally, this was freebies in the bag, not promises.
Free rides for women, free ‘tirth yatra’ for elders etc. also played their role in keeping Kejriwal’s 2015 voters cemented. Now compare this with BJP’s spread of freebies, which was bigger and BJP had no option but to extend them.
The difference lay in ‘a bird in hand is better than two in the bush’. AAP prevailed here.
Tactical absence of Congress
The dwindling vote share of Congress from the time Shiela Dikshit exited Delhi politics should have struck to BJP. It would have been smart of BJP to ween away those voters.
With nobody to peg themselves to, these voters frittered away to both sides of the spectrum with an erosion of about 8-10 per cent. It can be assumed that ideological divergence would have pushed most of them towards AAP.
In the current elections, Congress as a party has displayed conspicuous lack of application. It sent a tacit message to its voters to consolidate behind AAP to harm the BJP. This myopic move, drawn from its leadership’s visceral hatred for BJP, may cost it dearly in the days to come.
An improved Kejriwal
With all the restraint at his command and to the relief of the voters, Kejriwal appeared to have matured as a politician. He displayed a tight grip on his emotions, was measured in his utterances, stayed clear of the shrill, slanging matches he was known for and read entirely from the script.
Ask him anything and he would talk of the things that rung a bell with the voters. Electricity, water, ‘tirth yatra’, schools, clinics. This is the evolution of Kejriwal 2.0 that makes him ready for larger space on the political horizon.
Kejriwal lured them with Shaheen Bagh, BJP lapped it up
Setting the agenda is the single most important initiative in an electoral battle. With anti-CAA protests sizzling across the country, AAP and its allies erected Delhi’s own battle field. The Shaheen Bagh protest, with continuous media coverage and frenzy, propelled it to the national mainstream.
The signature of India Against Corruption and the Anna Andolan was evident in they way Shaheen Bagh was organised and captured national visibility. It was a thought out move with zero spontaneity.
That was the lure AAP presented to BJP. It hid a poisoned hook under its shiny plume. BJP, already late into the arena with very little to show for its Delhi efforts, with no exciting vision for the future of Delhi and struggling to win over the poor in a fight for freebies, lapped up the lure. Now the hook was set. And an agenda was squarely in the hands of Kejriwal.
Incremental? What incremental?
Elections in a democracy are about adding incremental votes. It is said that seats are won on the election day, but vote shares are won 24x7x365. With Shaheen Bagh becoming the point of reckoning, the lines were drawn.
Muslims + Liberal + Poor vs Nationalism consolidated.
It is a given that in times of Hindu-Muslim conflict, Muslims mobilise and consolidate first and fast. Hindu consolidation begins slowly and takes a longer time to peak. Kejriwal had gauged this accurately to peak Muslim consolidation right into the elections.
BJP had no choice but to hasten the process of Hindu consolidation to get to peak it in time. The high decibel aggression of Amit Shah without losing a minute in bringing Shaheen Bagh to focus was a fait accompli. He was fighting for a Hindu backlash in a city where a large chunk likes to play liberal.
Kejriwal was clear that he wanted nationalist (read BJP) consolidation not a reverse Hindu consolidation. To Amit Shah’s advantage, emergence of hard Muslim utterances of Sharjil Imam and the Amanatullah variety created the reason for not just nationalists, but also the Hindus to consolidate against him.
Wary of a Hindu backlash, Kejriwal was quick to distance himself from Shaheen Bagh while letting Manish Sisodia support it in a cheeky display of brazen ambiguity.
However, Kejriwal made all efforts to dilute the reverse Hindu polarisation by citing Hanuman Chalisa on TV with fawning anchors in tow. Following it up with his religious tweets in a subliminal act of deceit. But by then, part of the damage was done.
Let’s come to the electoral arithmetic of polarisation. With Hindu-Muslim becoming the leitmotif of Delhi elections, BJP had little to gain. The nationalist Hindu voters were already behind them. At best, this polarisation ensured that the entire core vote bank of BJP voted. With BJP’s apathy for Delhi, earlier there was a fear of even its core voters not coming out to vote. Shah’s high decibel campaign ensured that the core voter came out and also rallied behind him nationally.
What it did not do was get substantial incremental votes. BJP crosses the victory line with its core voters and incremental voters. Without the incremental votes it languishes in the Advani era.
Nationally, PM Modi and team have been mindful of gaining incremental votes of the poor sections and the aspirational voters. In Delhi, with the poor class hooked to AAP’s freebies, naive hooked to Kejriwal’s theatrics, aspirational class being averse to hard Hindutva, there really were no incremental votes to woo.
BJP was confined to its core vote bank and nothing much.
Soft Hindutva vs Hard Hindutva
Both parties managed to achieve a highly charged, polarised atmosphere. However, this polarisation was more in favour of AAP with Muslims rallying behind it.
It is an established psychographic conclusion that a large part of Delhi is averse to hard Hindutva. Probably it has to do with the entrepreneurial mindset of Delhi, which avoids situations of commercial inactivity.
Or possibly the aspirational urgency of the youngsters, who connect more with the idea of a liberal village than with the idea of civilisational majesty.
With the Sharjeel Imam episode, it was impossible for the BJP not to rebut. But the rebuttal pushed BJP into the Hard Hindutva zone while Kejriwal went about singing Hanuman Chalisa to softer Hindus. In BJP’s defence, it was not a choice they made. It was a decision thrust upon them by circumstances.
Feet-in-the-street vs vanishing volunteers
Till 2015 and beyond, AAP had a bubbling presence of committed volunteers who travelled across the world to participate in this ‘Lets change India’ experiment.
However, with realpolitik taking over, Kejriwal practiced what any dyed in wool politician would. He consolidated his stranglehold over his fledgling party. Challengers and dissenters were quickly shown the door.
Volunteers were now a burden of expectations and resources. He swiftly displayed a cold shoulder and most of the naive volunteers withdrew with their innocence hurt.
It did not matter much to Kejriwal then, because running the government hardly required anybody looking over his shoulders. This is where Shah-Nadda and their team had a clean sweep.
With their mammoth machine in action, core voters energised, he had no shortage of feet on the street. While AAP volunteers were lulled into complacency looking at the early hour rush of Muslim and AAP voters, the BJP machinery went to task.
In the classic mould of Sangh mobilisation, the BJP workers went door to door, cross checking on their voters and ensured voting peaked tactically in identified constituencies.
The much talked about surge voting of 4 p.m. onwards was the outcome of BJP’s untiring efforts to bring their lazy and latent supporters to the voting machines. Between 4 p.m. and end of polling, approximately 23 per cent votes were polled. This was way after the exit poll pundits had retired to the studios to be the first to air their findings.
While pollsters were analysing the exit poll data, BJP workers were flooding the booths with their voters. This is where arithmetic dealt a blow to the chemistry of Kejriwal.
Chemistry vs Arithmetic
There is now no doubt that Kejriwal walked away with the chemistry in these elections. He managed to connect with Delhi as their own person, to give respectability to freebies, adopted the mantle of the eldest son, his residual image of a man trying to do better for Delhi and above all an underdog defending his terrain from BJP heavyweights endeared him to the national capital.
Where he lost was with the nationalists who pegged him with the Shaheen Bagh crowd and considered him a potential threat to national interests.
BJP, on the other hand, had limited sentiment going for it. The Hindu backlash, though limited, along with nationalism under threat and belligerent Islamism ensured that BJP’s captive vote bank poured out in numbers.
Aided with tactical voting in identified seats, feet on the street management countered Kejriwal’s chemistry with its own brand of comprehensive arithmetic.
In the end, however, arithmetic proved woefully short of chemistry.
(Nisheeth Sharan is the founder of Utopia Consulting, a political consulting firm, and has worked with the BJP on multiple elections. He tweets from the handle @nisheethsharan)