The results of the Delhi elections demonstrate that communally divisive rhetoric does not win at the ballot box any more and that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s appeal has peaked – or so believe several observers. The state’s voters have chosen pragmatism over ideology, these commentators say, and they have begun to extrapolate the lessons of the Delhi elections to the national level.

However, caution is necessary while considering what conclusions to draw from this exercise. It is worth noting that the BJP’s vote share went up 8 percentage points to 40% from 32% in the 2015 Delhi election. Although most of the increase came at the expense of the Congress, it clearly displays the attractiveness of Hindutva.

Moreover, anecdotal evidence shows that though many Delhi voters chose the Aam Aadmi Party in the state elections because of its developmental work, they indicated that they would vote for the BJP in the national elections. Split voting has now become a recognised phenomenon in Indian elections.

Another thing to consider: the AAP heavyweights did not directly confront the BJP’s divisive rhetoric about the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens and the long-running protest in Shaheen Bagh. They ran a campaign that put electricity and schools at the centre and pretended that the definition of citizenship did not really matter.

The AAP’s decision to avoid engaging with important issues that have the potential to divide the nation may have been politically expedient in the context of the Delhi elections. But it meant that the electorate was not presented with clear ideological choices. The legitimacy of the BJP’s ideology was not challenged, just ignored.

Voters in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. Credit: Anushre Fadnavis/Reuters

Credit where it’s due

Nonetheless, it would not be completely wrong to draw the conclusion that the AAP’s non-confrontational campaign, which emphasised its achievements in the fields of education and social welfare, won at the state level over the BJP’s attempt to portray its opponents as anti-nationals and terrorists who were serving up biryani to the Shaheen Bagh protestors. The BJP’s opponents in other states, especially in Bihar and Bengal, which are scheduled to go to the polls in the near future, should learn from the AAP strategy.

A confrontationist, negative campaign plays into the BJP’s hands, which could use it to make the point that its opponents are totally bereft of programmes and policies. The Congress fell into this trap in the last parliamentary elections and as a consequence was almost wiped off the political map.

One of the main reasons why the BJP did not perform well in Delhi was its inability to project a credible chief ministerial candidate who could pose as an alternative to Arvind Kejriwal. The BJP turned the Delhi elections into a referendum between Kejriwal and BJP strongman Amit Shah. This was a strategic error.

So was its decision to involve the Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a star campaigner. Modi and Shah, between them, addressed numerous rallies in the run-up to the elections, apparently to little effect. This has meant that the BJP’s defeat is likely to have damaged the image of the two leading national figures of the ruling party to some extent.

The popularity of Arvind Kejriwal as the chief ministerial candidate played a huge role in the election outcome. Credit: Money Sharma/AFP

The AAP victory has revealed that neither Modi nor Shah is invincible as long as their opponents devise their electoral strategy intelligently. It has demonstrated that the BJP’s hyper-nationalism and divisive agenda can be neutralised, at least at the state level, if the Opposition can pitch its agenda in developmental terms – what Kejriwal has called “kam ki rajniti” or “the politics of service”.

Lessons for Opposition

It is important for the Opposition to follow the AAP model in the forthcoming state elections, especially in Bengal where the Trinamool Congress has been in power for several years, and emphasise achievements, project developmental goals, and not merely run a confrontational and negative campaign based on empty sloganeering and emotional appeals to identity.

At the national level, the Opposition boils down mainly to the Congress. It is still the only party with a national base and in power in some states in the Hindi heartland. But what it needs desperately is a fresh and credible face, which is both charismatic and pragmatic, as an alternative to Prime Minister Modi. The Congress needs a credible economic and social programme that the voters can understand and relate to. The latter is very important when most indicators show that the economy is in the doldrums and new strategies are essential to stop its decline.

This may be asking too much of the Congress because it would entail a total overhaul of the party’s power structure, including the removal of the dynasty and the firing of the Congress Working Committee. However, this is the only way that the Congress can stop the BJP juggernaut at the national level. Otherwise, the Indian polity will continue to be divided, with the BJP out of power in many, probably most, states but still comfortably ensconced at the Centre for the lack of a credible national alternative, as long as it can attract about one-third of the national vote share as it did in the past two elections.

It would also mean that regardless of what happens at the state level, the BJP’s ideology will continue to be dominant nationally and determine the Centre’s policies on controversial issues, affecting the definition of citizenship and national identity.

If the Congress is unable to reform itself soon, others who are opposed to the BJP must seriously begin to search for an alternative political formation. A breakaway faction of the Congress consisting of its more intellectually inclined and politically sharp members, many of whom have been sidelined by the Gandhi dynasty so far, could form the nucleus of such a formation.