Delhi winner Kejriwal emerges as Modi's biggest challenger
India's national political parties have some soul-searching to do after humiliating loss in the capital
Though the final result of the Delhi election is not in at the time of writing, it is abundantly clear that the Aam Aadmi Party (common man's party), led by Arvind Kejriwal, is back in power with a loud bang. However, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has done marginally better than in the last Delhi poll of 2015, by winning a few more seats. It has also got around 40 per cent of the 15 million Delhi electorate favouring it, which is a decent percentage on which it can build in the future. It also lost several seats with a narrow margin. AAP's deputy chief minister Sisodia also won narrowly. In the 2015 Delhi election, the AAP triumphed by a veritable landslide, winning 67 of the 70 seats in the Delhi Legislative Assembly, leaving the BJP miserable with three seats. This time round the BJP has won a few more seats, while the AAP has lost a few.
The Congress Party, which had kept the BJP at bay and ruled the Delhi roost for 15-long years under the chief ministership of the late charismatic Sheila Dikshit, has sunk to an absolute nadir, with not even a single seat in 2015 and 2020. That amounts to a truly terrible performance in India's capital city and a thumbs down for the Nehru/Gandhi family of the Italian-born Sonia, her son Rahul, and daughter Priyanka. All of them campaigned vigorously for the Congress, Rahul Gandhi the most, yet had nothing to show for their efforts. The Delhi electorate, once their firm and loyal supporters, shunned them. Every Congress candidate lost his or her deposit, an embarrassing outcome.
Rahul has proved to be an ineffective political campaigner. He is no match for the oratorical skills of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, nor does he have the craftiness of Home Minister Amit Shah. As for Rahul's sister, Priyanka, though she has a certain charisma and looks a lot like her grandmother, the formidable Indira Gandhi, she has the baggage of her husband, Robert Vadra, the beneficiary of some dubious property deals that are still being investigated. Clearly, it is time for the family to withdraw from the political scene and allow other members of this once great and powerful party to take the lead. There is no shortage of talent in the party. However, they have not been allowed to come to the fore.
Mahatma Gandhi, the founding spirit of the Indian nation, and Jawaharlal Nehru, its first Prime Minister, left behind a legacy of tolerance, inclusivity, and secularism, which is presently under challenge and which needs to be preserved and, indeed, taken forward by a new Congress leadership.
Turning to the BJP, despite the slight rise in its number of seats in the Delhi Legislative Assembly, it must be sorely disappointed by its performance. Amit Shah tried his utmost to turn the tide against the AAP and in the BJP's favour, as did Modi and other BJP stalwarts. They even resorted to underhand tactics. One of them called Kejriwal 'a terrorist', a ludicrous and defamatory description that did not go down well with the Delhi electorate. He has been labelled 'an anarchist'. The targeting by the BJP of the protest movement centred in Delhi's Shaheen Bagh (Majestic Garden), as being 'anti-national', even 'seditious', also had few takers and probably hurt the BJP badly. In fact, for most Delhiites, Shaheen Bagh symbolised the anger against the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which had recently been passed by the Indian parliament, where the BJP has a large majority. The CAA, in the guise of moving against 'illegal infiltrators' while giving sanctuary to those who have been persecuted in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh was exposed for what it really was - a blatantly communal act that discriminates against Muslims. The BJP needs to do some serious rethinking.
It can perhaps take some solace from the fact that in the General Election of last May, it won all the seven seats at stake in Delhi, while the AAP got none. This would suggest that Delhi's voters place their faith in Modi and the BJP at the national level to take care of matters concerning foreign policy, defence, and the country's economy, while they trust Kejriwal and AAP to deal with local bread-and-butter issues like cheap electricity and water, better state education and improved health facilities.
The big question now, following the Delhi win, is whether Kejriwal and AAP will try to go national once again. It tried to do so earlier in the last two general elections but fared badly. Only in Punjab did it make some minor inroads. It obviously needs to rework its strategy if it wants to stretch its appeal nation-wide. In Kejriwal it has a politician who is widely respected for his honesty, plain-speaking, and down-to-earth concerns. He now needs to look at the larger picture and combine it with an ideology that unites a society that is in danger of becoming polarised. The BJP could have a formidable opponent facing it, very different from the failed Nehru/Gandhi family.
Rahul Singh is a former editor of Khaleej Times