This Article is From Feb 08, 2015

Kejriwal's Willingness to Say 'Sorry' Has Paid Off

(Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University)

Before Arvind Kejriwal breaks out the aam aadmi's equivalent of champagne, he would do well to remember how the exit polls of December 2013 got the Delhi result horribly wrong the last time the city voted for its Assembly.

Apart from Chanakya, who gave the Aam Aadmi Party 31 seats, virtually every other exit poll projected the AAP finishing in single digits as a poor third, well behind the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. So today, if the story the exit polls are telling is of an AAP victory or even landslide, the party's supporters would be well advised to wait for the first actual trends and results on February 10th.

Regardless of the final election result, however, three conclusions are inescapable.

First, the BJP messed up its strategy badly and ended up fighting with its back to the wall despite the advantages that Narendra Modi's popularity as a national leader and the size of its election fund provided it. The source of most of its funding remains unknown but that's a point for another discussion. The fact is that the BJP unnecessarily delayed the Delhi election, mysteriously purged the one candidate, Dr Harsh Vardhan, who would have given the party a boost, parachuted in the controversial Kiran Bedi over the heads of its local leadership and wasted the 'Modi card' by using it in such a negative way. An AAP leader described the BJP's overall strategy as "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." If the party still manages to win, it will be because voters decided to play safe and choose a party that is also in power at the Centre so as to ensure a smoother financial ride for the national capital.

Second, the AAP, which was being written off after its failure to win a single Lok Sabha seat from its Delhi stronghold has managed to bring itself back into the centre of the political game. Kejriwal diluted the 'bhagoda' charge by taking it on the chin and apologizing for his blunder, but he also used that mistake to leverage the unique appeal of AAP: "We had consulted you, the people of Delhi, on every decision we had taken till then. Our mistake was in not going back to you before resigning." Even if the party effort falls short of the 'paanch saal' Kejriwal sought from the city's electorate, this is no mean accomplishment. The AAP leader has succeeded in putting the taint of abandoning his position as Chief Minister after 49 days in power behind him now.

Third, the Congress ran a desultory campaign in which the last minute appearance of its vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, failed to convince voters that the party had any reasonable prospects. The final outcome, of course, will depend on the extent to which the Congress vote collapsed. All exit poll results bar one indicate a calamitous decline in its vote share as erstwhile Congress supporters chose AAP instead. But if the decline is not that steep, the BJP will end up benefiting. Indeed, the political grapevine was abuzz the past few days with the rumour that BJP president Amit Shah had mobilized his supporters to throng Rahul Gandhi's road show in an attempt to convince Congress voters not to give up hope!

But more than the Congress decline and the apparent plateauing of the 'Modi wave', Delhi 2015 has been marked by the revival of the AAP. How did the party manage this despite its meagre resources, internal divisions and the hostility of a large section of the media?

The AAP cause was helped by the essential strength and appeal of its core idea - the need for a party of ordinary folks - and by fact that it started campaigning well before the assembly elections were called.

Even as the BJP wasted precious time trying to see if it could form the government by luring dissidents from the AAP, party volunteers were busy mobilizing support amongst the poorest residents of Delhi. Though the media - and the city's middle class and elite - had mixed-to-hostile feelings about the somewhat chaotic, seat-of-the-pants administration Kejriwal ran, the poor remembered his 49 days for the delivery of free water, lower electricity bills and an end to the petty corruption of government officials.  To this, the party grafted new promises on housing, education and even jobs. By the time the elections were called, AAP hit the ground running, this time with Delhi's working masses squarely on its side. Innovative proposals like a city-wide WiFi service were attractive to the 'aspirational' lower middle class that had thronged to the BJP last year.

If the poor had earlier been the 'natural' constituency of the Congress, AAP also managed to make inroads in other vital sections of that constituency: the minorities and the Dalits.

Exit polls suggest that an overwhelming majority of Muslim voters backed the AAP this time, just as they had in the 2014 general elections. Christians are more geographically dispersed but are also likely to thrown their weight behind AAP. The preferences of these two communities are clearly driven by their lack of faith in the BJP's promise of 'sab ke saath'. The strident communal rhetoric of the sangh parivar's various outfits in the past eight months has chipped away at any goodwill Modi might have generated by his talk of "development".

The fact that minority votes came to the AAP without the latter resorting to the "vote bank", tokenistic policies of the Congress is a good sign for Indian politics. Like Modi did last year, Kejriwal promised development for all. It's just that Muslims and Christians seem more willing to believe the AAP on this than they are the BJP. The AAP also showed great wisdom in recognising the Shahi Imam's support for the poisoned chalice it was and rejecting it out of hand.

Kejriwal's message, of course, was not just development but development with equity, something the AAP was able to reinforce through hundreds of mohalla meetings where its campaigners drew attention to the manner in which the Modi sarkari has been changing environmental and land use laws to favour big companies. If the exit polls are right and the AAP wins, it would be worth analyzing whether the party took away just the new voters Modi had mobilized for the BJP in 2014 or also managed to bring over to its side a section of Delhi's 'traditional' BJP voters. It's over to the 10th now.

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