By evening yesterday, the Delhi Chief Election Officer recorded the voter turnout to be at 60% over 5% less than 2014 Lok Sabha election and over 7% less than 2015 assembly election. The dip is even more striking when one considers the fact that the election day was a Sunday, which should have ideally boosted electoral turnout.
A general wisdom that political pundits on newspapers and TV shows repeat ad nauseam is that a significant dip in voter turnout is supposed to indicate a pro-incumbency trend. If one were to take this wisdom at its face value, the question that begs to be asked is who is the incumbent that will benefit here?
This is a difficult question to answer, with the fact that both the central and the state government have more or less an equal say on matters of Delhi. As the capital of a nation and as an entity with its own localised set of issues and administrative concerns. As a national capital territory it is neither a state nor so much a union territory. And what’s more? The residents look at both these levels of government as equally responsible for their city, like a form of diarchy of the central government and the state.
So who is the incumbent for Delhi? The Aam Aadmi Party that runs the state government or the Bharatiya Janata Party that leads the centre? Arvind Kejriwal or Narendra Modi?
This question has played out quite elaborately with no right answers in the current election season. Two national parties and a quasi-regional party are fighting a three-cornered contest over the 7 seats it returns to the Parliament.
Let’s begin with a look at the campaigns of the three parties that are relevant in Delhi. While the national parties, BJP and Congress have almost entirely addressed the people of Delhi as a microcosm of the whole of India, AAP focused quite a lot on the matters that specifically affect the national capital territory.
BJP leaders talked about national security and extolled the supposed successes of prime minister Modi. The Congress countered that with the promises of NYAY and focused on the failures of the prime minister. But the AAP candidates took a different route. They promised to push for full statehood, talked about Delhi’s latest progress in public education and the party manifesto also promised quotas to reserve most of the seats in higher education and government jobs to the “residents” of Delhi.
For the BJP and Congress, their treatment of Delhi is not new. For them Delhi has always been more of a capital or a mini representation of the whole of India, unlike other states which are treated quite distinct from each other. So if the two parties fight the left government in Kerala over Sabarimala, they are now talking down Naveen Patnaik government in Odisha over what they claim to be a mismanagement of relief operations in the aftermath of cyclone Fani. All of this is done while also foregrounding the national battle between the ruling party and the opposition. But in Delhi they never seem to or do not feel the need to pay attention to the ‘local’, during a Lok Sabha election (lack of better words since regional consciousness is yet to be developed in Delhi).
While AAP’s demand for full statehood for Delhi is an old one, the language of residents of Delhi being “second-class” citizens is new. So are the promises of a domicile quota and boasting of the achievements of the state in public education, the urban infrastructure, etc., indicating a certain push towards a regionalist identity that is yet to take shape.
What is also notable is the stark difference between AAP’s campaign in 2014, where it tried to present itself as a national alternative to both the BJP and the Congress, and right now. Five years later it has come to limiting itself as a cluster of individual state parties operating largely in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. Realistically it barely has any presence beyond the three, even though it tries to expand. But it is increasingly making peace with the idea of being a regional party for now rather than a national party.
Local issues have always been at the centre of political discourse in the Vidhan Sabha elections, since the formation of the first state government in 1993, rarely ever spilling over to the next national election. It was this focus on local issues by the Congress in assembly election, that gave Sheila Dikshit three consecutive terms as the Chief Minister.
AAP shift to a more regional approach has also pushed the other parties to try to account for what could be a changing political landscape. Bringing back of Dikshit at the helm of the Delhi Congress, after a brief retirement from active electoral politics since her defeat in 2013, and a circulation of a peculiar slogans and WhatsApp forwards from the usual Sanghi quarters, on the line of “Kendra me Modi, Dilli me Kejriwal” (Kejriwal in Delhi, but Modi at the Centre) can be seen.
This development is nevertheless alarming to the two national parties. For one it has to do with the general trend that emergence of regional parties or alternatives have had on both their prospects in several other states. More often than not, they eat into Congress’ votes and sometimes leadership, while attracting a cross-section of vote base along linguistic or ethnic lines that can act as a formidable electoral alternative to the BJP’s communal and ultra-nationalist attitude. In the case of AAP has definitely become a formidable force standing against the BJP in Delhi having replaced the Congress.
In the elections of 2013, 2014 and 2015, the Congress has a seen a continuous decline from 25% to 15% to 9% of the votes, while having won none of the seats in the latter two. AAP on the other had began with 30% and went upwards to 33% to eventually 54% of the votes, in the same. The BJP, in the meanwhile, got 33%, 46% and 32% of the total votes polled.
For BJP which has more or less maintained a third of the votes in Delhi, with the only exception being 2014 when it was riding on the ‘Modi wave’, seems to be set to do only marginally better and very unlikely to get more than 40% of the vote share. But whether or not it performs badly in the number of seats, would depend on how well the AAP can consolidate the rest of the votes in its favour. If the Congress can boost its performance by bringing back Dikshit, it is still less likely to actually win seats and more likely to cut down the winning chances of AAP and help the BJP sweep again. If the Congress performs as poorly as it did in 2014 and 2015, there is a good chance AAP can win 3-4 or even more seats, depending on how much the latter can eat into BJP’s potential votes.
This seesaw act between Congress and AAP was best demonstrated in the 2017 municipal elections, when Congress regained a lot of ground by securing 21% of the votes, with AAP 26% and BJP 37%. While the BJP did not make any significant gains, it swept the election because of the divided votes and won a two-thirds majority in the corporation.
Although one might argue with the difference of voting in local, state and national-level elections, one can not undermine the very consistent voting pattern. And with that one can safely assume that if the Congress manages to make further gains and split more anti-BJP, there is a good chance for the BJP to win 5 or more seats, candidates notwithstanding. Eitherway, this will indicate a shifting narrative in the anti-BJP political parties, because any major gains Congress will make would be because it is led by Sheila Dikshit, who even though is contesting for the parliament has a very limited national profile but enjoys a great deal of popularity in Delhi. This can push the Congress to change its electoral strategy in Delhi to being more centred around Delhi, than as a mere microcosm of the nation.
Author is a Delhi based Journalist.