Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, shown here campaigns during the 2015 Delhi polls, swept to power again in February 2020. Photo: Courtesy AAP

They call Arvind Kejriwal the “new center” in India’s sharply polarized politics. Former taxman and the current chief minister of Delhi, India’s national capital, is pitted against prime minister Narendra Modi’s powerful Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).

The city-state goes to polls on February 8 – today – in a battle that will have national implications.

In many ways Delhi is a half state, with the elected state government having power over very few sectors. The bulk of the city’s governance is administered by the federal government through an unelected official called the Lieutenant Governor. But the Delhi elections come in the wake of the controversial religion-based citizenship law that sparked off nationwide protests across the country in December.

While Kejriwal and his party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are hoping to retain power, they know these polls could prove to be an existential challenge if they lose. For the BJP, the stakes are very high, because a win in Delhi would serve as a major boost after posting a landslide victory in the general elections in May last year.

AAP is the proverbial David and BJP the Goliath in this bout, given the latter’s massive amounts of money, police controlled by the federal government and a largely favorable and influential television media.

But there’s a reason why these polls are seen as critical to India’s future. While AAP is fighting the election on issues of development, the BJP launched one of its most vicious campaigns – and turned it into a referendum on its ramped-up brand of nationalism. The winner of the Delhi elections could set the template on how India will shape up in the four years before the next general election.

Politics of progress

India’s federal Home Minister Amit Shah launched a formidable campaign in Delhi a month ago. Considered a genius at winning elections Shah is also Modi’s closest confidant in the party and the government. Unlike the 2015 elections in Delhi, which were led by Modi, Shah decided to lead the campaign.

That was a surprise for many who had expected the incumbent AAP to enjoy a walkover. In 2015, the AAP surprised everyone with a landslide victory in Delhi, winning 67 seats out of 70. The victory was a coup, as it came months after Modi had led the BJP to a historic win across India in May 2014.

But after five years in power, the AAP has some anti-incumbency to contend with. It also has lost some of the appeal it had in 2013 and 2014, when it stormed Indian politics and rode a wave of anti-corruption fervor. The party crowd-sourced their campaign, unlike other political entities, which took secret donations. It wrote a manifesto after spending weeks talking to the electorate and promised a new discourse. But Delhi’s ambiguous status as a state hit AAP hard in the years after it took power in 2015.

Unlike other states, the national capital is mostly controlled by the federal government, which governs the police and land, two major sectors that gives it huge political clout. It also controls the municipal corporations that look after basic civic functions, plus bureaucrats and their postings, even when they serve the state government.

Despite these limitations, the AAP state government built shiny new schools and classrooms that began to outperform expensive private schools. They added facilities to the schools, while sending the teachers abroad for better training in modern-day teaching methods.

They also started introducing affordable healthcare, by opening neighborhood clinics that offer basic consultation, tests and medicine for less than a dollar. They halved power and water supply bills, by incentivizing low consumption. The federal auditing authority that is mandated to carry out audits of government spending gave them a thumbs up for an historic budget surplus.

A vicious campaign

The BJP, which has not won a state election in Delhi for over 20 years, pivoted to the nationwide debate over the religion-based citizenship law as its main campaign. It started a vicious rumor that a win for the AAP would be a win for Muslims in India. This was centered around a month-long protest by women in a corner of Delhi called Shaheen Bagh (The Garden of the Falcon), where they sat on the road in protest against the new citizenship law – through one of Delhi’s coldest winters in 122 years.

Shah used the protests at Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-dominated locality, as a key theme to target AAP. His party and government colleagues started using the slogan “Shoot the traitors” to target protesters opposed to the new citizenship law. But a junior federal finance minister, Anurag Thakur, and a BJP Member of Parliament, Parvesh Singh Verma, were banned by the Election Commission of India for using rape threats and fear-mongering in their election campaigns.

On the ground, several reports suggest that Delhi voters have been polarized on religious lines and that this has dented the AAP’s hopes of another landslide victory.

Polls show that the BJP’s polarization has worked and significantly narrowed the gap between AAP and the BJP. And while polling can be widely off the mark in India, it does suggest a trend. They still place AAP ahead of the BJP, but it also suggests the latter has edged closer.

The elections in Delhi will not only have great symbolic value – they are seen as likely to shape the next four years. A win for the AAP will give hope to a decimated opposition that wants to stop the BJP’s massive electoral gains.

For the BJP, a win would be a huge symbolic boost – a referendum of sorts on its citizenship law and other muscular decisions it has taken after assuming power in May 2019.

Between the two lies the shape of things to come in India’s immediate future.

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