When it comes to politics in India, history and legacy matters. But in the national capital, a newbie political party, led by a former bureaucrat who trained as an engineer in the country’s top college, won a landslide victory against a powerful opponent and is keen to establish a new legacy.
On February 11, the new party won 62 of the 70 seats and is set to govern Delhi for another five years.
The Aam Aadmi Party – the Common Man’s Party, or AAP – was born out of an anti-corruption movement in 2013. Its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, who has served as Delhi’s chief minister for the last six years, was hoping to get another term.
But in May 2019, the general elections gave his party a major setback. Delhi has seven parliamentary seats, all of which went to the BJP as part of prime minister Narendra Modi’s landslide and historic win. The vote share of AAP fell dramatically, while the BJP scored more than 58% of the votes.
India follows the “first-past-the-post”system, where anyone who garners the highest number of votes is declared the winner. As a result, the vote share becomes critical to any political campaign hoping to win elections in India.
Worried that their vote share was falling, Kejriwal and his closest associate Manish Sisodia started to redraw their campaign strategy with a host of key party functionaries.
Why the Delhi election matters so much is due to several factors. It is the national capital and is one of the most high profile states in the country. The federal government sits there, so it is important that the ruling federal government has a presence governing the city.
The fact that Modi and the BJP swept the general elections also put pressure on them to win a state as prestigious as Delhi. The party deployed its past president and current federal home minister Amit Shah to lead the charge.
Shah is arguably the closest ally Modi has in the BJP. Both come from the state of Gujarat and have worked together for more than 15 years.
In some ways, Shah is more powerful than Modi and is considered a modern-day genius at winning elections at any cost. Shah immediately drew up a plan to hit the APP using a sectarian campaign that would target Muslims and label the party’s opponents as “anti-nationals.”
An ongoing protest against a controversial citizenship law that excludes Muslims at a place called Shaheen Bagh (Falcon’s Garden) became Shahs’s primary focus, enabling his cadres to target Muslims as the enemy.
For Kejriwal, a loss in the Delhi elections could have posed a significant existential challenge. His deputy Sisodia had earned praise for refurbishing Delhi’s government-run schools along with senior party colleague Atishi Marlena.
Between the two of them they shaped the government schools which now have better facilities than expensive private schools. When challenged on the expense incurred, Kerjriwal would say “if we don’t spend taxpayer’s funds on education, then what else do we spend it on.”
Kejriwal also deployed Jasmine Shah, the vice-chairperson of his official think tank the Delhi Dialogue Commission who is also an engineer from one of India’s top colleges to start work on a campaign strategy, while also roping in consultant Prashant Kishore who has several successful election campaigns to his credit.
As the core team started to shape a message that would appeal to Delhi’s voters, they avoided any direct confrontation with the divisive provocations the BJP threw at them.
“That was a clever strategy by AAP,” a senior BJP leader told Asia Times. “Our internal surveys showed that we were to get a low number of seats. So we came up with a strategy to polarize the voter on religious lines because we have seen that it works,” he said.
The BJP also drew on its earlier experience to label political opponents “anti-national” or “anti-Hindu,” forcing them to run a defensive campaign.
Instead, Kejriwal spoke about how his government had halved power and water consumption charges, introduced accessible healthcare and worked on improving education.
“This was our key messaging and we always stayed on point,” an AAP leader said. Throughout the election campaign, while BJP leaders even encouraged their supporters to “shoot the traitors,” giving them license for vigilante action, the AAP leaders continued to speak about “good governance.”
In television interviews, Kejriwal remained open to hostile questions from TV anchors known to side with the BJP. He also admitted that some of his promises had fallen short and he issued a “guarantee” on the issues he would tackle if elected again. He urged voters to hold him to task, a strategy that worked for him a few years earlier, and continued to remain on point.
On the day of voting on February 8, exit polls began to show a landslide victory for the AAP.
Hours after it was apparent that the AAP had won nearly 62 seats, Kejriwal addressed his supporters and hinted that the party could be thinking of taking their successful “Delhi model” to other states in a bid to become a national alternative.
So far, the party has been crowd-funding its electoral expenses and has remained one of the most transparent political parties in the fray. But scaling this nascent movement into a nationwide political party will remain a formidable challenge.
It could also mean the dilution of key values that AAP was originally built upon. This election saw the highest number of candidates with a criminal background come from the AAP.
However, Kejriwal and Sisodia’s personal credibility and integrity remain very high. How far this will help them pose a notable challenge to the BJP in 2024 remains to be seen.