The Delhi elections have only underlined the vast gulf between the national power centre and the regional state.
BEING both the symbolic space that holds the reins of power over the nation-state and a geographical place that hosts millions of everyday lives, Delhi is politically split. Local elections in Delhi are neither simply provincial nor straightforwardly national. The Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya’s famous words, ‘Hunooz Dilli door ast’ (Delhi is distant yet), apply to the city itself. Though they co-exist in the same city, the different avatars of Delhi can be quite far from each other. The elections to the Delhi State Assembly have underlined as never before the vast gulf between the national power centre and the regional state.
Study in contrasts
THE Bharatiya Janata Party contested the Delhi election as though it was an extension of the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign. The Aam Aadmi Party fought the election as though it was about municipal matters such as water and electricity and nothing else. The Indian National Congress pretended that it was not pretending to fight the election. These contrasting styles of campaigning point to the larger challenges facing not just our polity but the very idea of India today. But before looking at the reasons why this is so, a quick look at the result.
The Aam Aadmi Party won 62 of 70 Assembly seats, with the BJP bagging 8, while the Indian National Congress experienced an even more emphatic whitewash than in 2015. But do these results support the swift and sure conclusions that are already being drawn by the pundits? Has achieving a second landslide win truly vindicated the Aam Aadmi Party strategy of presenting itself as a non-ideological management consultancy that refuses to engage with the burning political issues of the day?
Does a second successive defeat in its Lok Sabha stronghold — where it won all seven seats in the past two general elections — mean that the BJP’s politics of hate has finally failed? And does a repeat rout in a state that it ruled for 15 years imply that the Indian National Congress must now be issued a political death certificate? Though the details will become clear only later, it does look like the immediate answer to each of these questions must be a qualified no.
Even before the results were declared, it was clear that this was an election where the manner in which the BJP conducted its campaign was more important — almost — than the outcome. It is hard to come up with another state election where electioneering has been so full of shrill, hate-filled aggression designed to incite violence.
In fact, the BJP tried its hardest to make this election into an anti-minority vendetta centred on the protests at Shaheen Bagh. Its formidable media resources were deployed to paint all opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and the National Register of Citizens as anti-national, terrorist-inspired, and based on paid protesters. The public language of politics was made to plumb new depths as senior leaders repeatedly said and did things that violated every norm of basic decency. The eventual outcome of this contest seemed to pale into insignificance in the face of the new norms of political engagement that were being enforced.
But the defeat of the BJP in Delhi does not necessarily mean that these tactics have backfired, or even that they have failed. It only means that they did not succeed in this place at this time. The big bonus for the BJP is that its strongest opponent did not oppose these tactics. In fact, the Aam Aadmi Party often seemed as if it was playing a different kind of dog whistle politics that was saying, in effect, ‘Don’t worry, we have no problem with communal politics, but please don’t ask us to say it openly.’
Now that it has won big, this policy of non-engagement is being presented as an astute strategy. But its short-term electoral gains need to be compared to its medium-term political costs. The BJP has been so successful in redrawing the terms of political discourse that not only the Aam Aadmi Party but most other political parties have been forced to take a few steps in the same direction to polish their majoritarian credentials.
Regional versus national
THE consequences of this play-it-electorally-safe strategy are visible in the impasses of a polity split between the regional and national levels. A party with local roots strong enough to sweep two assembly elections could not even get to second place in the parliamentary elections — the Aam Aadmi Party placed third in the Lok Sabha polls, behind the Indian National Congress. On the other hand, despite having lost several state elections, the BJP continues to have an iron grip on the national polity and enjoys an unchallenged monopoly over agenda-setting at this level. In the past, our psephologist pundits nodded wisely at this emerging split in our electoral system and told us that it showed the shrewdness of the Indian voter who was pursuing different priorities at the two levels. Today, when all our institutions are being undermined and a pervasive climate of impunity for bigotry is being established, this interpretation seems not just unhelpful but dangerous in its complacency.
The irony is that the last two months have witnessed the emergence of a remarkable political effervescence that defies all the usual frameworks of definition. It cannot be called a movement for that word suggests something coordinated and planned. Nor are its objectives classifiable in the usual terms. Having crystallised around opposition to the CAA and NRC, this new energy and socially-rooted resolve is visible not only in named places such as Shaheen Bagh but also in numerous un-famous locations in campuses, neighbourhoods, towns and cities across India. This amazing political effervescence is raising questions about politics with a capital P, reminding us that the bedrock of citizenship is a shared sovereignty that we all inherit from the founding moment of our republic. Because it has successfully mobilised this hitherto untouched yet priceless political capital, this moment demands engagement in terms far more serious than those allowed by pragmatic self-preserving electoralism.
THIS remarkable moment is also one which ought to encourage the Indian National Congres to take more risks, since it is now a party with little left to lose. Its tale is perhaps without precedent in modern world history — a party which could effortlessly command a 25 per cent voteshare in the world’s largest electorate, is now on the verge of political irrelevance. If it is able to draw energy from this moment to remake itself, it may reclaim its rightful place in our polity.
If they want to remain relevant in the India of tomorrow, all the non-BJP parties have to remind themselves that politics has to be about more than winning the next election, however important that may be as an immediate goal. Formulas that win elections may not ensure long-term relevance. After all, fascists can also make trains run on time and provide regular supplies of water and power. So, as we celebrate the well-deserved victory of the Aam Aadmi Party, we must remind ourselves that the other Delhi is still far away.
TheHindu.com, February 12. Satish Deshpande teaches sociology at Delhi University.
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