Five years after an unforgettable David vs Goliath election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) face off once again on February 8. But this time, it has been a very different campaign, less of a festival of democracy, much darker, and mostly overshadowed by the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests. I'm going to skip over the part where I outrage about the methods employed by the BJP in its campaign to wrest power from AAP - that's what my Twitter feed is for. I'm also going to skip the part where I voice my deep personal disappointment with AAP having squandered an opportunity to become a national force after 2015 and relegating itself to a municipal party in Delhi - that's what my novel-writing is for. This column is restricted solely to the electoral choice Delhi voters confront this Saturday.
Had this been a normal election, predicting the result would be relatively straight-forward. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is immensely popular, there is no obvious anti-incumbency, and on the ground, voters openly voice admiration for the AAP government's work in the spheres of education, health, and basic amenities. The leading opposition party of Delhi, the BJP, has no Chief Ministerial candidate, the party produced a manifesto of no real consequence and leaders make no mention of it in their speeches, it parted ways with its main coalition partner, the beleaguered Badal family, before coming back together too late for it to matter, and it seems uninterested in discussing local issues at all. In such circumstances, the incumbent party should win in a landslide. Ah, but these are far from normal circumstances, we are in India and it is 2020, people are protesting on the street in droves and we have one central minister threatening to shoot peaceful protestors while another minister proclaims to the nation that the Chief Minister of Delhi is a terrorist. Not to mention the young imbeciles who keep shooting their guns in and around anti-CAA protest sites.
The entire first half of the campaign was subsumed by the tsunami of anti-CAA protests across the nation and especially in Delhi. The BJP expected trouble in Assam but was totally caught off-guard by the size and spread of the protests, so naturally the Delhi election was pushed down its list of priorities. They had started with a campaign strategy that relied on legislating the regularisation of unauthorised colonies, which seemed promising initially, but never really took off as it got caught in the customary bureaucratic thicket regarding its implementation. So when the election dates were announced in early January, the BJP had no candidate for Chief Minister, no real issue to rely on, and an opponent that was running a disciplined campaign based solely on local issues after having procured the expertise of strategist Prashant Kishor. I suppose this is when Amit Shah and his campaign team decided they had no choice but to go completely negative and dark in a manner that broke new ground for them.
Meanwhile, things were going along relatively smoothly for AAP as it laid the groundwork for its campaign, right when the whole country was transfixed by the events at Jamia Millia, JNU and Shaheen Bagh. Of course, this was not the AAP of five years ago which was made amply clear by the fact that young people were on the streets protesting, but AAP, a party born form the last major protest movement in Delhi, was nowhere to be seen. Additionally, AAP had always prided itself as a party of volunteers but by bringing Prashant Kishor and his team of mercenaries on board, the volunteer spirit was exposed as fiction. Hypocrisy aside, the party was keeping its eye on the prize and concentrating on local issues where it could show a track record which the BJP has largely failed to undermine because false propaganda has no chance when the voter has experienced for themselves a change for the better on the ground.
And thus the BJP, with Amit Shah leading the charge as a de facto Chief Ministerial-candidate, has tried in the last two weeks to do the campaign equivalent of causing a solar eclipse, darkening the sky with a message of doom and Hindus in danger from a bunch of non-violent protestors who are largely college kids and grannies. It is ludicrous. They are demeaning themselves, their party and their country by their behaviour. That the Prime Minister is only addressing two rallies this time in comparison to his full campaign schedule of five years ago could be a sign that he is distancing himself from the campaign. It's all on Amit Shah's shoulders now. The campaign ad released by the BJP this past Sunday on social media is so hateful and despicable that it would have certainly outraged Vajpayee. Unfortunately for the BJP, Arvind Kejriwal did not play into their hands by visiting Shaheen Bagh. So-called liberals have been castigating him for that decision, but it may ultimately prove to be consequential as Kejriwal explains in his strongest comments yet on the subject in today's interview to NDTV.
The stakes as always high in a Delhi election as the national capital is at the very least a microcosm for North India. For the BJP, it is chance to gain revenge for the humiliation of 2015 and gain electoral legitimacy for their CAA gambit. If they lose, they could still barrel ahead on their extreme right-wing agenda but their remaining allies may well get spooked, especially Nitish Kumar in Bihar where his re-election is coming up later this year. For AAP, a defeat will mean a bleak immediate future with the loss of office and the resources that come with it. An AAP win will be a great achievement, of course, but not quite like the famous victory of five years that catapulted them into the national spotlight as a possible third force. This will be a more localised triumph and any remaining national ambitions for AAP will remain hostage to the unpleasant prospect of still being at the mercy of a central government that is nothing if not vindictive.
(Krishan Partap Singh is a novelist and political commentator.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.