When Delhi with just 70 Assembly constituencies witnesses its seventh state election since 1993 on February 8, the entire country would be keenly awaiting the political fate of the two prime contenders, the AAP and BJP. Since December 2019, Shaheen Bagh has emerged as the proverbial epicentre of the anti-CAA protests, with the agitations primarily led by Muslim women. This has led to the emergence of a contested and polarised public opinion on the same. The fact that the BJP since January 23 has launched an intense electoral campaign under the leadership of Union Home Minister Amit Shah to decimate the incumbent AAP’s early campaign advantage—by aiming to change the dominant electoral narrative from local issues pertaining to electricity, water, education, health and public transportation to national issues like the NRC-CAA and national security—has left everyone speculating about the possible bearing of Shaheen Bagh on the voters’ choice.
While there is a general consensus that until recently, the AAP had a smooth ride, with Shaheen Bagh becoming the central pitch just two weeks before the polls, it has generated a perception that the BJP is fast gaining ground at the expense of the AAP. However, our field study suggests that the AAP would comfortably make a comeback on account of five interrelated factors, the polarised opinion of the Delhi electorate on the Shaheen Bagh protests notwithstanding.
First, it is pertinent to remember that the Delhi electorate has always privileged local-material issues over national-cultural ones in state Assembly elections starting with the BJP losing power in 1998 on the issue of soaring onion prices. Thereafter, the Congress under the strong leadership of Sheila Dikshit ruled for 15 years until 2013 on account of two factors: pro-poor posturing and big infrastructural development like flyovers, metro, CNG, etc., to sway the middle class. On the other hand, as a study of Delhi by one of this article’s authors in 2012 in the wake of the Anna Hazare movement revealed, the BJP at least in that period was perceived to be pro-rich and more concerned with national issues.
Second, augmenting the above trend, the last decade and a half show that the Delhi electorate is the champion of differential voting for different elections, namely, national (Lok Sabha), regional (state Assembly) and local (Municipal Corporation of Delhi or MCD). For instance, the BJP is out of power in the Delhi Assembly for the last 22 years, but it has been dominating the coveted MCD elections since 2007 with a huge margin. Similarly, after winning all seven seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP witnessed a shocking defeat in 2015 at the hands of the AAP, only to relegate the later to a humiliating third position in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The main cause for this has been an overarching consensus that national issues are for Lok Sabha elections while state elections would be dominated by regional and local concerns.
We would do well to remember that 2020 wouldn’t be the first state polls in Delhi to be dominated by an emotive national issue. Back in 2008, Delhi witnessed state elections when India was shocked as 10 terrorists of the Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks that lasted four days across Mumbai. In fact, on the day of polling in Delhi, i.e, 29 November 2008, the attack was still going on. Predictably, the national mood was swayed by security issues and the Congress was perceived as being soft on the national security front. The BJP lost no opportunity to put the Congress on the defensive and yet, the Delhi voters rewarded the Congress with its third successive victory.
The third factor is the demographic structure of Delhi wherein 76% of the city dwells in informal colonies, with around 50% of the population residing in jhuggi bastis, unauthorised colonies and notified slum areas (katras). The poor and lower middle class, with their everyday struggle for access to basic amenities like water, electricity, sewerage, primary health, public transportation and quality education with government fee-structure in private schools are bound to be swayed more by local-material issues than national-cultural matters as far as state elections are concerned. At this juncture, the AAP enjoys a huge perception advantage on this front, making the BJP’s attempt to privilege Shaheen Bagh as the central electoral determinant quite a difficult prospect.
Fourth, the BJP faces another hurdle with respect to the crisis of its core voters in Delhi on account of it not only lagging demographically behind the Congress until 2013 and the AAP thereafter, but also due to its inability to keep them consolidated in Assembly elections. In the last two decades, it emerged that the core of BJP’s social base came from three castes/communities, namely Punjabis, Banias and Jats, while the Congress enjoyed the major support of migrant electorates, slum dwellers, Muslims and Gujjars. By 2013, not only did the AAP succeed in capturing almost the entire social base of the Congress, it also managed to get a slice of the BJP’s committed core voters.
Our field study categorically points out that in the present election, the AAP’s support is emanating from three sets of voters: one, its own core support base that it captured from the Congress in 2013 and 2015; two, the shift of a section of the remaining Congress voters given the party’s perceived electoral insignificance; and three, a section of the BJP’s core voters who are driven by the logic that ‘Modi is good for the country while Kejriwal is good for Delhi’. It is the shift of this third category that the BJP is more concerned about.
However, if media reports are to be believed, the BJP’s strategy of treating the established practice of the Delhi electorate voting for different parties in Lok Sabha, state Assembly and MCD elections since 1998 as a sign of the city having around 25% floating voters, i.e, non-committed ones, based on their calculation of the difference between the AAP’s and its vote share in the 2015 Assembly polls and 2019 Lok Sabha elections is flawed.
It not only fails to take a much longer history of these voting percent differences, but also doesn’t factor in the prime reason behind these shifts as discussed above, besides completely overlooking the MCD election trends. In fact, a historical and issue-based observation would reveal that what the BJP strategists may call as floating-cum-undecided voters happen to be those who are well articulate about their differential voting pattern. Hence, an overarching majority of this 25% of voters is the most articulate, and has a strong reason to vote for the AAP in 2020 after voting for the BJP in 2019.
Last but not the least why Shaheen Bagh would fail to help the BJP is the state-level leadership factor. To appeal to the largest voting bloc of Poorvanchali migrants, the BJP appointed popular Bhojpuri singer Manoj Tiwari as state president in November 2016. While the BJP swept North-West, North-East and East Delhi Lok Sabha constituencies that have a sizeable presence of migrant voters, the reason was PM Narendra Modi’s popularity than Tiwari’s appeal. The Delhi BJP chief has failed to deliver his supposed constituency for three reasons: one, more than half of the migrant electorates are the poor residing in jhuggi bastis, unauthorised colonies and notified slum areas, making them the biggest beneficiaries of the AAP government’s welfare measures.
Two, while the BJP has a Poorvanchali face as its state president, the party is still giving more tickets to local communities and old settlers than the AAP. For instance, out of the 70 candidates of the BJP in this election, there are more ‘Jat-Gujjar-Punjabis’, and less Poorvanchalis than in the AAP list, thereby neutralising the advantage of a state-level face at the constituency level. Third, a section of non-Poorvanchali BJP voters are not enthused by Tiwari heading the party. In this backdrop, it is reasonable to infer that while Shaheen Bagh would make most of the electoral noise, the AAP would be getting a bigger support silently.
2020 isn’t the first state polls in Delhi to be dominated by an emotive national issue. Back in 2008, Delhi witnessed state elections when India was shocked due to the Mumbai terror attacks. In fact, on the day of polling in Delhi, i.e, 29 November 2008, the attack was still going on. Predictably, the national mood was swayed by security issues and the Congress was perceived as soft on the national security front. The BJP lost no opportunity to put the Congress on the defensive and yet, the Delhi voters rewarded the Congress with its third successive victory
Political analyst associated with People’s Pulse Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The author teaches political science at Christ University, Bengaluru