Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal reminded residents of the Capital that he still has the capacity to surprise. On Monday, he announced that women would be allowed to travel for free on the Delhi Metro and the city’s public bus system.
The decision, which immediately provoked reactions both positive and critical, echoes earlier policy moves by his Aam Aadmi Party government that created waves, such as halving electricity bills and the odd/even car operation rule to reduce air pollution.
While Kejriwal said that the free transport plan was aimed at improving women’s safety and increasing access to transport, it also reflects AAP’s determination to seize the initiative ahead of the Assembly elections due in 2020.
Kejriwal’s announcement came less than two weeks after the Bharatiya Janata Party swept all of Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha seats. The results concealed another storyline: less than six years after it made a stunning debut in the Delhi state elections to win 67 of the 70 seats, AAP was relegated to third place in the national elections in the Capital with a vote share of 18.1%. At the Lok Sabha level, even the Congress had moved ahead of AAP.
Ahead of the 2020 elections, AAP is putting together a game plan to rally voters and ensure it remains in position to retain Delhi, the only state where it is a significant player.
‘Not Kejriwal’s election’
On May 27, the day after the election-time Model Code of Conduct was lifted, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, held a meeting with his ministers to discuss speeding up development works such as installing CCTV cameras and opening mohalla clinics around the city, The Times of India reported.
The previous day, Kejriwal had addressed party workers in Delhi and attempted to draw a distinction between how voters behaved in the general election and how they would make their choices in next year’s Assembly elections. “Many people said it is a big election, election of Rahul [Gandhi] ji and [Narendra] Modi ji, it isn’t Kejriwal’s election,” he said. “Let your election come and we will vote for you based on your work.”
What went wrong for AAP? The party fought the election promising to win full statehood for Delhi – but that did not resonate with voters, senior party leaders admitted. Delhi’s peculiar administrative arrangements means that the Central government still controls public order, police and land in the Capital. AAP wants the state to have those powers.
“We were not successful in explaining its [statehood] message to people,” AAP Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh told Scroll.in.
Besides, AAP locked itself into long-drawn negotiations with the Congress about forming an alliance to take on the BJP – an exercise that proved to be futile. Still, poll data showed that even if the two parties had fought the election as allies, their combined vote share would not have been adequate to beat most BJP candidates in Delhi.
AAP’s Sanjay Singh echoed Kejriwal’s feelings that voters did not perceive the party as one of the main contenders in the elections. “The media showed only two faces – Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi,” Singh said. “The people did not see AAP as the party that could form the government at the Centre or for the post of prime minister either.”
So how exactly does AAP plan to reassert its presence in Delhi before the 2020 Assembly elections?
Since its resounding victory in the 2015 state elections, AAP’s vote share has decreased. In the 2017 municipal corporation polls that were swept by the BJP, The party was down to 26.2%.
But AAP leaders are sure that their party will make a comeback in 2020.
While Delhi Social Welfare Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam was confident of the party’s victory next year, he admitted that the party may not win the brute majority it did in 2015. “Winning 67 seats happens only once in a while,” he said. “We may get around 50 this time.”
Analysts, though, are more sceptical. According to Praveen Rai, a political analyst at Centre for Study of Developing Societies, AAP’s poor performance in the national election could send a negative signal to its voters.
“The Congress has positioned itself as the main challenger to the BJP in the next elections, which could further erode the vote share of AAP,” Rai said.
He pointed to the Assembly-wise polling data for the national elections where the BJP was first in 65 of the 70 assembly constituencies, while Congress took the lead in the remaining five.
However, other analysts disagreed. They contended that voters were viewing the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections differently, and that Kejriwal continues to be popular.
“The important issue is that of identification of party by people,” said Biswajit Mohanty, associate professor in the political science department at Deshbandhu College, Delhi.
He added: “People identified the BJP as the ruling party for the Center, but for the state it is Kejriwal. Kejriwal is very popular in Delhi and people are very satisfied with his work. The lower class and caste votes would go up him.”