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The Big Story: Capital test

Why isn’t the Bharatiya Janata Party the front-runner in the elections scheduled for the Delhi Assembly in two weeks’ time, on Feburary 8?

The BJP in 2017 won control of all three municipal corporations in the capital. In 2019, the party picked up all seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi with a shopping 56% of the vote share.

And it is going up against the Aam Aadmi Party, which has been in power, on and off, since December 2013 – allowing the BJP to play the anti-incumbency card. Moreover, after five years of squabbling between the Delhi government and the centre, the party can promise better coordination if it is voted in.

Yet a poll by CVoter on January 21 found that 53% of people in the capital intend to vote for AAP in the upcoming elections, compared to just 29% for the BJP. Less than 4% of those surveyed said they planned to vote for Congress.

Why is that?

The answer, as far as can be gleaned, is three-fold.

First is the Delhi government’s performance.

AAP is the rare political party that relies almost entirely on urban voters and yet is not reliant on identity politics. This, as well as the spirit that influenced its creation, has meant that the party has leaned heavily on its governance record as a selling point.

Four issues in particular take centre-stage: Electricity, water, education, healthcare. For the first two, AAP has increased subsidies and improved delivery. Education through government schools has been one of its major selling points, with Maharashtra saying earlier this year that it would emulate the Delhi model. And the mohalla clinic model pushed by AAP has received praise from independent experts.

A survey by the reliable Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in December 2019 found 86% satisfied with AAP’s performance.

Then there is the political narrative.

In 2013 and 2015, Kejriwal sold himself as the anti-corruption crusader, ready to take on the system represented by both the BJP and the Congress. He had built up an activist image, taking to the streets to protest against the BJP even when he was chief minister.

And he took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly, first by actually contesting against him in Varanasi in 2014, and then by constantly picking fights in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. After the massive verdict to the BJP in those elections, however, Kejriwal changed tack.

As Scroll.in’s Vijayta Lalwani explains in this report, AAP realised it would need to pull in even BJP voters in the Delhi elections, and so focused almost entirely on its governance record. Kejriwal has mostly avoided getting into Congress-BJP debates, except to insist that these are all distractions from development.

With the help of the Indian Political Action Committee – the country’s pre-eminent political strategy consultancy – AAP has sought to reshape Kejriwal from the perpetual protester into the smiling elder brother who delivers on his promises.

Finally, there is the competition – or lack thereof.

The Congress, which ruled Delhi for 15 years, may have done better than AAP in the 2019 elections, but only because it was sen as a better national alternative. It appears to be a non-entity in the upcoming polls.

The BJP, meanwhile, which ought to be the front-runner, has been unable to figure out its state unit leadership. In 2015, former police officer Kiran Bedi was imposed as a chief ministerial candidate at the last minute in the hope that the squabbling factions would unite behind her.

Instead, the party was nearly wiped out, winning just three out of 70 seats, with all others going to AAP. Since then, it has tried to cultivate the image of Bhojpuri film star Manoj Tiwari, who was appointed the president of its Delhi unit, but earlier this month former BJP President Amit Shah announced that the party would be fighting under the leadership of Narendra Modi – with no chief ministerial candidate.

Vijatya Lalwani took a look at this as well, in another report:

Not declaring its candidate for the top post in Delhi is also a sign that the BJP’s Delhi unit is still rife with infighting. “There is still a lot of factionalism within the party,” said a party leader who did not wish to be identified.

Satish Upadhyay, who was BJP Delhi chief before Tiwari and is convenor of the party’s poll management committees acknowledge the internal differences, though he tried to downplay them. “There is no party or family where two people do not have a difference of opinion,” he said. 

Of course, things can still change between now and February 8.

Already AAP seems to have decided it can be a little more critical of the BJP on the Citizenship Act protests, where earlier it seemed reluctant to get drawn into the debate. Meanwhile, the online battles – spurred by BJP proxies – are only getting nastier.

But as it stands, Delhi seems set to add to the impression that the BJP’s performance in state elections under Modi and Shah is poor. And if the polls are accurate, and AAP repeats its landslide victory from 2015, people will start to ask yet again: Where does Kejriwal go from here?


India marked 70 years of being a Republic on January 26, on the day that the Constitution was adopted back in 1950. Alongside the usual parades and flag hoisting, 2020’s Republic Day brought with it protests around the country in opposition to the government’s Citizenship Act amendments that many see as being against India’s secular fabric.

Citizenship Act Protest Watch: Rajasthan became the third state to have its assembly pass a resolution against the amendments. After a court permitted him to go, Bhima Army Chief Chandrashekhar Azad turned up at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh protest, electrifying the crowds gathered there, who later hoisted the flag and read out the preamble on Republic Day. Every week day, Scroll.in gives you a glimpse of nation-wide protests against the Citizenship Act amendments here. And if you missed it, we took a close look at the protests in last week’s newsletter.

Kashmir gets a Chinese-style internet. The government announced that it was restoring 2G data services in the valley, which has had civil liberties suspended since August 2019, but only permitted people to access around 300 of the billions of websites online. And on Republic Day, those too were blocked. Also see: A startling image of former chief minister Omar Abdullah, under arrest for six months for no valid reason, has emerged.

179 people in Kerala are under observation for Coronavirus. India has also requested China to permit over 250 Indian students in Wuhan to leave the city.

After Maharashtra said it would take a re-look at the Bhima Koregaon case, it was promptly moved to a Central agency. This is the case in which activists critical of the Central government have been arrested for allegedly being “Urban Naxals” and supporting anti-national activity. The state is claiming the transfer was done without its consent.

Political tid-bits: Amit Shah handed over the presidency of the BJP to JP Nadda, in a largely ceremonial gesture, since the latter had been acting president for some time. The Shiromani Akali Dal split off with the BJP in Delhi over the Citizenship Act (but really because of political calculations in Punjab). Andhra Pradesh wants three different capitals, one each for the legislature, executive and judiciary (and the three regions of the state). Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has rubbished talk of concerns within the Janata Dal (United), despite a letter from a senior leader questioning his actions. Rajinikanth is refusing to apologise over comments about Tamil social reformer Periyar.

Recommendation Corner

Pranay Kotasthane, a fellow of the Takshashila Institute, co-host of the Puliyabaazi podcast and writer of Anticipating the Unintended, a weekly newsletter on public policy writes in with a recommendation in response to The Political Fix’s issue from two weeks ago which focused on how federal debates will dominate India in the 2020s:

Fiscal Federalism – another highly used but less understood phrase. So if you really want to know what it means look up A Review of Indian Fiscal Federalism by Dr M Govinda Rao, which gives a comprehensive overview of the theories of fiscal federalism and the unique characteristics of its Indian variant. 

If you are hungry for more, pick this book ‘Indian Fiscal Federalism by YV Reddy and GR Reddy. 

If you are unable to read any of these, listen in to a Fiscal Federalism 101 episode I recorded with my colleague Pavan Srinath on The Pragati Podcast. 

Have recommendations for an article, book, podcast or academic paper that deals with Indian politics or policy? Send it to rohan@scroll.in

Last week on Scroll.in:

Poll toon

Reports & Op-Eds

Read this piece on India’s current moment by Suhas Palshikar in the Indian Express: “The country is at a dangerous cusp, politically. It has chosen to undermine most institutions of prestige – in fact, its democracy itself. It has a regime that relies on surveillance and suppression. The “emperor” appears devoid of the clothing of compassion and concern. From the surge of hope and expectation that marked 2014, India has dipped to a resigned nothingness.

Narendra Modi helped make the myth of Amit Shah more than the other way around. DK Singh argues in The Print that Shah’s biggest contribution to the BJP has been to eradicate any claims it had of being a party with a difference, rather than just another organisation bent on grabbing power.

The Supreme Court is to blame for the NRC-CAA mess. So say Faizan Mustafa and Aymend Mohammed in the Hindu, explaining how this happened.

Have we taken a close look at how Indian TV media dehumanises its subjects? Newslaundry’s Manisha Pande takes a look at coverage of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh as an example.

Understanding the ‘public sphere’ through water infrastructure in Mumbai. Anthropology scholar Nikhil Anand writes for e-flux on public water and the “intimacy of hydraulics.”

Don’t blame GST for the failings of GST. V Anantha Nageswaran says, in Mint, that the criticism of India’s Goods and Services Tax – the implementation of which is usually included as one of the reasons for the Great Indian Slowdown – is misguided.

The Washington Post looks back at Martin Luther King’s visit to India. “To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim,” the American told reporters as he embarked on a month-long trip after years of engaging with Mohandas Gandhi’s ideas.

Is caste to blame for poor political participation and low state capacity in India? NYU professor Arpit Gupta, via a Twitter thread, takes issue with an argument made in a recent book (that was in the recommendation corner a few weeks ago).

Not India-specific, but the WaPo has a list of the best political movies. Which gets full marks from TPF because it has Mean Girls in the top 10.

For more interesting links over the last week, click here.

Can’t make this up

Apparently poha, the beaten rice dish that is a staple in many parts of the country, is controversial (and not just because it is a delicacy in some parts of the country).

Bharatiya Janata Party General Secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said last week that he became suspicious of some of the labourers working on his house because of their eating habits.

“They were eating only poha [flattened rice]... I suspected these workers were residents of Bangladesh. Two days after I became suspicious, they stopped working at my house,” he said, while speaking in support of the Citizenship Act amendments.

That’s it for this week. Know the formula of how to identify nationality by eating habits? Just want to complain about what’s missing from the Political Fix or send in a recommendation for next week? Write to rohan@scroll.in