Arvind Kejriwal wins, CAA doesn’t lose

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Arvind Kejriwal’s decisive triumph in Delhi after the most ugly and polarised campaign the national capital has seen in recent memory holds several lessons for national politics. In an election where the chief minister was called a terrorist, where a Union minister raised slogans of “goli maaro”, a sitting BJP MP raised fears of anti-CAA Shaheen Bagh protesters coming to “rape your sisters” and the narrative became about delivering a “current” to Shaheen Bagh, it is tempting to see Kejriwal’s second successive sweep in Delhi as a clear repudiation of the pro-CAA protests and as a larger national message from Delhi’s voters.

The politics of resistance will be hugely enthused by this result but the underlying political messages in this verdict may be a bit more complicated. First, Kejriwal’s decisive sweep is a clear thumbs up for his model of governance, the “bijli half, paani maaf” model, coupled with revitalising government schools and hospitals. When AAP swept Delhi in 2015, it was still riding anti-corruption movement’s momentum. Kejriwal’s big repeat now is a victory for his government’s track record in office.

Second, while BJP will be disappointed by the steep fall in its vote share from 56.9% in 2019 when it swept all seven parliamentary seats in the city, Delhi in recent years has been characterised by what can be called the Modi-Kejriwal voter. This is a class of mobile voters who have tended to vote for Modi in national polls and for Kejriwal at the state level. Kejriwal understood this well. He totally reinvented his public communications turning away from the politics of confrontation against Modi to a gentler, more considered positioning.

When he was called a terrorist, he folded his hands and told voters, if you think I am a terrorist, please vote BJP. When home minister Amit Shah said that Delhi’s existing schools were in a shambles, he humbly responded by inviting him to see the schools for himself, saying “don’t make fun of the hard work put in by students, teachers, and parents of Delhi government schools.”

In that sense, Kejriwal took a leaf out of Narendra Modi’s original political playbook in Gujarat, when he would retort to every charge hurled at him by positioning it as an assault on five crore Gujaratis. If Modi made it about Gujarati ‘asmita’ then, Kejriwal has made it about respect for the work of Dilliwalas and keeping what he called “dirty politics” out of governance issues. If Modi once said that the system and the files remained the same, but he had changed the way they worked in Gujarat, Kejriwal has similarly tom-tommed the big changes he has made to the way once downtrodden government schools are run by changing the ways they are managed.

Third, Kejriwal clearly kept his distance from the anti-CAA protests. For a political leader who forged his career in street protests, the Delhi CM’s refusal to engage with the protests was telling. Aside from one throw-away line by Manish Sisodia that he stood with Shaheen Bagh, AAP studiously avoided the issue though BJP tried to make the elections only about CAA.

Instead, Kejriwal laid claim to his own brand of religiosity. He merrily sang the Hanuman Chalisa when goaded by a TV anchor. He insisted that he and his party were “not soft nationalists” but “hardcore nationalists” even as he promised to start deshbhakti classes in schools. Both claims were aimed at puncturing the BJP’s political copyright on Hindu religiosity and the iconography of Bharat Mata.

The verdict is an affirmation of AAP’s governance successes, not a repudiation of CAA. AAP itself did not challenge the CAA in this election.

Fourth, the extremist language of some BJP leaders did not go down well with many Delhi voters. Yet, the party upped its vote share by several points above 32.2% it won in 2015, attracting more than its core vote bank. With no CM face and Manoj Tiwari’s many gaffes backfiring, BJP went all out with CAA messaging and didn’t have much else to offer. Delhi’s urban voters have chosen Kejriwal but this doesn’t settle the CAA debate. BJP is unlikely to back off from it.

Congress’s complete collapse also helped AAP. If Congress had not totally rolled over, BJP may well have done much better in a three-way contest.

Delhi has shown yet again that BJP’s nationalist positioning doesn’t cut it when it is confronted with a determined regional leader with a local message.

This blog appeared in the Print edition with the headline ‘AAP’s Delhi win a thumbs-up for school, bijli, paani model of politics but not necessarily a repudiation of CAA’





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