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Going back to the drawing board

Going back to the drawing board
The Bharatiya Janata Party is all set to retain the three municipal corporations in the national capital for a third consecutive term, soundly defeating the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress. For the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP, which currently runs the Delhi government, this defeat is indeed a setback. As argued in these columns earlier, it is not as if the party was sound favourites to win in the first place. A massive defeat in the recent Rajouri Garden by-poll, where its candidate lost his deposit, besides losses in the Punjab and Goa Assembly elections, had stifled the AAP's electoral momentum. What does this loss mean for the AAP government? Governance becomes a lot easier for parties that can leverage their authority of state governments into controlling local municipalities. This is a luxury that the AAP government will not have going into 2020. It will evidently hamper the party's efforts towards encouraging positive development in Delhi, especially with a BJP-appointed Lieutenant Governor standing in the way of every administrative decision.

As argued in these columns earlier, it is not as if the party was sound favourites to win in the first place. A massive defeat in the recent Rajouri Garden by-poll, where its candidate lost his deposit, besides losses in the Punjab and Goa Assembly elections, had stifled the AAP's electoral momentum. What does this loss mean for the AAP government? Governance becomes a lot easier for parties that can leverage their authority of state governments into controlling local municipalities. This is a luxury that the AAP government will not have going into 2020. It will evidently hamper the party's efforts towards encouraging positive development in Delhi, especially with a BJP-appointed Lieutenant Governor standing in the way of every administrative decision.

Despite these hurdles, its leaders must not fall back on this complaint every time and must find a way to overcome them. There are some who argue that there are different dynamics at play when it comes to Assembly and municipal elections. Under Sheila Dikshit, the Congress had lost municipal elections to the BJP twice, while continuing to garner a majority in the Delhi Assembly. One can apply the same logic to Kejriwal. Moreover, these polls do not include voters from the NDMC area and Delhi Cantonment, which are governed by other civic bodies. Depending on which side of the political divide one falls on, voters can make a case for or against this assertion.

Why did AAP lose these elections, despite the BJP's terrible track record in running the MCDs riddled with corruption and mismanagement?

One of the BJP's major promises before the 2012 MCD elections was to fundamentally change and improve the sanitation system in the city, allied with a massive door-to-door garbage collection and waste segregation, and construction of public toilets at all busy spots, especially for women. In the five years since the elections and three years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, the sanitation system outside the confines of the NDMC area has gone from bad to worse. The past year, in fact, also saw Delhi in the throes of a chikungunya and dengue epidemic. The BJP-run MCDs have remained adamant in attributing its failures to the Delhi government's alleged attempts at denying critical resources. Even if that was the case, the MCDs did little to generate revenue through toll tax, parking and even advertisements. There are also over 1800 primary schools run by the MCDs that have seen a significant number of students applying to other Delhi government schools from class 6 onwards unable to even inculcate basic reading skills.

Some commentators argue that many voters were unable to differentiate between the responsibilities of its state government with those of the three municipal corporations. In other words, the failure to remove garbage from the streets of Delhi, contain and prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, and improve the state of sanitation were viewed as the failings of the Delhi government. Speaking to some voters, this seems like a plausible reason. Even if this is the case, as some votaries of the party suggest, it reflects a failure to communicate the BJP's obvious failings in running the municipal corporations. Some leaders in the party have also attributed the loss to faulty electronic voting machines. Unlike other regional parties, AAP derives its legitimacy from a social welfare platform that emerged from the anti-corruption movement, resulting in mass public support beyond the crude divisions of caste, class, and religion. Instead of responding to why public support for the party may have fallen, Kejriwal seems to suggest that EVMs were rigged to conceal it. Although there are some specific concerns about EVM manipulation and the need for these devices to undergo regular checks, faulty machines alone cannot result in such outcomes. Opposition leaders, meanwhile, believe that it is a clear sign that the party is unable to accept defeat.

In his recent column for an Indian news website, Yogendra Yadav, who was formerly with the AAP, presents another reason. "Clearly, those who voted for the BJP did not think they were rewarding the non-performing MCDs. The BJP managed to detach this election from the difficult municipal issues. Instead, it distracted the voters and the media into discussing nationalism, Kashmir, cow slaughter, and national security – issues that have no bearing on the MCDs. It also managed to deflect popular anger against its sitting councillors by deciding not to re-nominate any of them. The Aam Aadmi Party also contributed to this decoupling of the elections from the real municipal issues by making it a personality contest. The AAP campaign was all about turning this election into a personal referendum for Kejriwal. Some of the hoardings did not even carry the name of his party." It is imperative to note that his party, Swaraj India, failed even to make its presence felt in these elections, but that does not take anything away from his critique.

Evidently, the people were taken in by the BJP's campaign slogan, "Naye Chehre, Nayi Urja, Nayi Udan, Dilli Mange Kamal Nishan" (New faces, new energy, new aspirations, Delhi wants BJP). Yadav's assessment supports this claim. Making Prime Minister Narendra Modi the centrepiece of their campaign, and the AAP's decision to take the bait may have turned the tide in the BJP's favour. Whitewashing the party's terrible track record in the municipal corporations by, for example, denying tickets to sitting councillors has seemingly paid dividends. Votaries of the BJP have even pointed to the appointment of Manoj Tiwari as the state unit chief in garnering the support of the Poorvanchali community (immigrants from eastern UP and western Bihar), which makes up 32% of the Delhi's population. However, vote share figures also indicate that it was not the BJP's popularity that has surged ahead as much as an even split of the anti-BJP votes between the Congress and the AAP. It's hard to tell how much truth rides on these assertions, but the inability to project the BJP's failures in running the three MCDs and convince the voter of the same may take pole position among reasons for the AAP's defeat. Despite what some may desire, this does not spell the end of AAP.

It remains popular with the underclass. The party in government has done a lot to improve the state of public healthcare and education. There has also been a real drop in petty corruption under this administration. Given AAP's background in the anti-corruption movement, and the party's ability to agitate and organise, it must go back to the drawing board and honestly assess what went wrong in these elections. If the people are unhappy with their record in governance, it must devise ways to improve. It still has a good three years to regain the faith of Delhi's voters. As it has done all throughout its time in politics, the party has come back from such setbacks before. Those writing the party's obituary are counting their chickens too soon.
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