As the Delhi Assembly election looms near, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the ruling Aam Admi Party is the frontrunner in the three-way contest and its chief challenger, BJP, is struggling. It is not the opinion polls alone that predict a clean sweep for Arvind Kejriwal's party, the BJP's strength — Narendra Modi — is turning out to be its weakness.
An over-reliance on brand Modi is weakening BJP and preventing it from formulating local strategies that are necessary in Assembly polls where grand national narratives hardly work. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections — and the clutch of Assembly elections preceding and following it — prove a new dynamic in India's voting behavior. When it comes to Lok Sabha elections, the mode becomes presidential where the prime minister towers over the field with his mass connect, personality and cult-following.
We witnessed this in 2019 where BJP made massive inroads in West Bengal against all expectations and ended up bagging 18 seats out of 42, giving Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress a run for its money. It also clean swept northern and western India, including Delhi. However, in the Assembly polls that followed, the BJP lost badly in Jharkhand, somehow managed to retain Haryana and lost control over Maharashtra.
This new dynamic in voting preferences — where Lok Sabha elections are won on national narratives and Assembly polls on local and hyper local — places the BJP at a distinct disadvantage in states where it doesn't have a popular local leader.
For instance, even though BJP couldn't retain Maharashtra because its pre-poll alliance with Shiv Sena eventually broke down, the alliance had easily won majority beating the NCP-Congress alliance. BJP-Shiv Sena combine received voters' confidence and Devendra Fadnavis, who broke past records in retaining mandate as chief minister, was expected to continue before everything unraveled over chief minister's post.
The BJP, which fought the election under Fadnavis, saw its vote share go down only marginally but managed a better strike rate.
In Jharkhand, however, the BJP lost to JMM-Congress-RJD alliance where voters expressed their unhappiness with an unpopular chief minister. In both these states, Modi had launched extensive campaigns. If he had been the deciding factor (either way) the results wouldn't have been different.
These lessons are important as we head into Delhi Assembly polls in February.
The BJP appears on backfoot. It has allowed the AAP to exploit its vulnerabilities. On the question of BJP's chief ministerial face to take on Kejriwal, BJP's answer is interesting. Union minister Prakash Javadekar claimed "not having a face is BJP's strategy", and reiterated that "PM Modi is a credible leader and in Delhi, he will lead the poll effort."
In a poll rally earlier this month, Amit Shah had repeated the same thing. This prompted Kejriwal to ask will the prime minister abandon his seat to become the Delhi CM? "I don't see how it happens."
Inherent in Kejriwal's jibe are two strategies. One, not attacking Modi personally mindful of the fact that the prime minister remains an immensely popular leader. This is the mistake that Kejriwal did in his early days when he fancied himself as Modi's challenger.
Kejriwal's second strategy is not to fall in the "personality cult" trap but re-focus the campaign on local issues and run a positive campaign. On Tuesday, while filing his nomination for New Delhi seat, Kejriwal told reporters: "They say defeat Kejriwal, I say let's improve Delhi's roads and schools". Kejriwal is a fast learner and a street-smart politician. He quickly figured out that his 'krantikari' image is politically unsustainable, and towards the middle of his tenure (and most definitely since the Lok Sabha drubbing) he transformed himself into non-controversial, non-confrontationist figure.
We support the govt on its decisions on J & K. We hope this will bring peace and development in the state.
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) August 5, 2019
He stayed clear of contentious issues such as commenting on the ongoing protests over Citizenship Amendment Act and has not yet visited Jawaharlal Nehru University or Shaheen Bagh protests because he did not want to cede the nationalism space to BJP, and was aware of a counter-consolidation of Hindu votes if he aligns too much with the discredited "secularism" clause. In his effort to run a positive campaign, Kejriwal seems to have picked up tips from the prime minister's campaigning style — giving an account of AAP's work and laying out its future plans.
"All (BJP president and Union Home Minister) Amit Shah ji did in his speech recently was abuse me. I will not indulge in anything like that. We will not abuse anyone. In 70 years, for the first time, people will vote on schools and hospitals. Our whole campaign will be a positive campaign," Kejriwal was quoted, as saying.
This is Kejriwal taking a leaf out of Modi's book. In 2019, faced with a vituperative campaign against him run by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi who wanted to prove that the prime minister is a corrupted leader, Modi proved that voters want to know what have you done, what more can you do instead of merely criticising your opponent.
In focusing on local issues and running a positive campaign, Kejriwal has thrown a challenge at the BJP that the saffron party is finding hard to meet. If grand national issues are not at play, then it becomes difficult for Modi to focus on national issues such as CAA or NRC and he will be forced to debate on local issues. Additionally, since the AAP chief is not attacking the prime minister personally and refraining from criticising BJP, any such move from Modi may become counterproductive.
This forces the battle to be fought on a local turf, and here the AAP had BJP right on the mat. It has relentlessly reiterated a simple message — Kejriwal is chief ministerial face and challenged the BJP to come out with one. It has also turned the spotlight on factionalism in BJP through clever election strategies.
— AAP (@AamAadmiParty) January 2, 2020
Interestingly, while the AAP has mockingly wished 'Happy New Year' to seven BJP leaders claiming that they are all chief minister candidates, the BJP leaders in the AAP poster have not denied being the chief ministerial face. They have said the top party leadership will decide the name of the chief minister if elected to power, as PTI reports.
This factionalism may further dent BJP's chances. The saffron unit's only hope is for Congress to improve its performance and eat into AAP's minority votes, but this is only a slim possibility. For now, Kejriwal seems poised for a return.
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Updated Date: Jan 21, 2020 19:54:30 IST