Few municipal elections get as much coverage as those to Delhi’s three municipal corporations, the results of which were announced on Wednesday. Some of this attention is simply because they are taking place in India’s capital, where much of the national media is located. But this year’s elections were deemed particularly significant because they were offering closure on a storyline that has been bubbling away since 2013: The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party.
With most figures in by Wednesday afternoon, it became clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party had retained all three of Delhi’s municipal corporations, with seat shares comfortably over the halfway mark. Almost as significantly, the results showed that AAP is now neck-and-neck with the Congress, the party that it trampled over while storming its way into power in the Delhi Assembly just two years ago.
Those gains by AAP appear to have been lost.
There are many caveats to that reading.
First, voters do not act in the same way in elections to different kinds of representative bodies. So while the all seven New Delhi Lok Sabha seats went to the BJP in 2014, AAP won an overwhelming 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly the very next year. Second, the results of the Uttar Pradesh elections, where the BJP routed all other contenders, and Punjab’s Assembly polls, where AAP came in second to the Congress despite going all-out, did have an outsize influence on the voter narrative in the capital.
Besides, anecdotal evidence suggested many voters were using this election to send an anti-incumbency message of unhappiness to the AAP government at the state level, even though the BJP has controlled all three Municipal Corporations of Delhi for a decade now.
To further complicate matters, AAP’s response to the election results was the same as Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati’s after her party was routed in Uttar Pradesh in March: “This is not a Modi wave, it is an EVM wave,” said Gopal Rai, a minister in the AAP government, referring to the Electronic Voting Machines that the party claims have been tampered with by the BJP. Despite those claims, the results tallied up reasonably well with the exit polls conducted on the day of the elections.
It should be noted that the polls to the three Municipal Corporations of Delhi are not exactly comparable to other Delhi elections, because they do not include voters in the central part of the city and the Delhi Cantonment, which are administered by other civic bodies. Yet a look at vote-shares across these elections over the last few years is nevertheless instructive.
It seems clear that voters are punishing the AAP state government, despite giving the party a giant mandate in 2015. No one expected AAP to retain the 54% vote share it achieved that year. Yet to drop from that to 25% is unusual and can only be read as a rebuke to the party.
Additionally, the graph also makes it evident that the BJP has not really expanded much. It has maintained its vote share in a comfortable range over the last half-decade. Most people forget that it technically won the 2013 Delhi state Assembly polls, although it did not have the number of seats necessary to form the government, giving way to an AAP-Congress alliance. It also took home all seven Lok Sabha seats in 2014 in the “Narendra Modi wave” election.
AAP does not seem to be ceding space to the BJP. Instead, those votes appear to be going back to the Congress, which had to dropped to an abysmal 9.6% vote share in the 2015 state Assembly polls. The 2017 Municipal Corporation of Delhi polls put both parties on a nearly equal footing, barely a month after Congress notched up a victory over AAP in Punjab.
This does not mean the AAP moment is over. It still has a huge majority in the Delhi state Assembly, although there are murmurs of some MLAs prepared to cross over to the BJP. It also put in a respectable first-time showing in Punjab’s Assembly polls, and is now the Opposition party there. But Kejriwal has not proven to be a leader with much patience. How will he handle being punished by Delhi’s voters?