InternationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 14

Modi’s Delhi debacle

A crushing defeat to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Delhi’s legislative elections is being seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist agenda. The victory of the Aam Aadmi Party shows the rising popularity of ideas of religious coexistence and diversity and the failure of Modi’s narrative at the local level.

The BJP’s sixth consecutive loss in an assembly polls, though the party managed to form a government in Haryana, points out the failure of its narrative at the local level. It was a major setback for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though the ruling party of India picked up five more seats in the assembly than it won in the last election in 2015. Still, it was humiliated by the opposition, which took over the critical office of chief minister for Delhi. Taking over the office was a priority for the BJP, amid nationwide anti-government protests against Modi’s policies that are now entering their third month. He swept national elections last year and quickly set his sights on winning big in the capital. The protests are directed at the citizenship law passed by Modi’s government that opponents say discriminates against Muslims. The unrest has posed the biggest challenge yet to the prime minister and has taken on more issues, evolving into an expression of resistance against what many demonstrators see as a long-term plan by his party to redefine India’s secular foundation and turn it into a Hindu-centric state, , the New York Times observed.

The AAP has a wide base of support, cutting across India’s religious and class divides. It includes many voters who support Modi’s party in national elections. During the campaign, the AAP emphasized economic development issues, like health care and education, and it appeared voters rewarded the party for its track record of delivering better services. On the other hand, the BJP’s main strategy was to relentlessly focus on issues of sectarian identity, doubling down on the citizenship law and other Hindu-centric initiatives rather than on issues specific to the capital city. Top officials from the BJP told Delhi’s voters that a vote for the opposition was tantamount to a vote for Pakistan, the Islamic republic and archrival next door. It also tried to brand AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal as a Pakistani agent who was secretly supporting the protests, working to help Muslims while holding India’s Hindu population back. Indian Information Minister Prakash Javadekar went even further and called Kejriwal a “terrorist” during a news conference. The defeat becomes more embarrassing for the BJP as Modi’s cabinet ministers came out in full force during the campaign, using starkly sectarian language to imply that support for the opposition was like supporting Islamist “terrorism” or committing treason, the newspaper noted.

According to analysts, the defeat points out real problems for the party going into assembly polls. Whether in a direct fight with the Congress or a regional player like the Aam Aadmi Party, the BJP’s performance in state elections has been poor. The Indian voter across states seems to be making a very clear distinction between state and national-level elections, as made clear even by the assembly polls in Odisha, where the Biju Janata Dal’s (BJD) Naveen Patnaik won a record fifth term in the midst of a Modi wave, The Hindu newspaper noted.

The AAP swept legislative elections in Delhi with 62 seats out of 70, while the BJP won only eight seats. The AAP got the lion’s share of the Muslim vote, significant in a city-state with 13pc Muslims. However, some analysts say the results of state elections should not be seen as a test of Modi’s popularity and electability in India, which is now under the spell of majoritarian machismo. As a recent survey found, Modi continues to be India’s most popular leader today. The world will make a mistake in considering the result of the Delhi election as a loss for Modi or his brand of right-wing majoritarianism, warned Ashok Swain, a professor at Uppsala University, Sweden. In Delhi, the BJP actually improved the number of seats it won, up from three in 2015. More significantly, its vote share went up from 32pc to almost 39pc. This is the highest the BJP has had in Delhi since 1993. The vote share of its main opposition at the national level, the Congress Party, fell from 9.7pc to 4.3pc. This does not sound like a total defeat for Modi, he argues.

Modi’s popularity among the majority Hindu population in the country is so high that many opposition leaders, even during a serious economic slowdown and massive unemployment crisis, are afraid of criticizing him. His bill to prevent Muslim immigrants from certain countries attaining Indian citizenship has been well-received by most Indians. Except for Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, no opposition leader openly targeted Modi while campaigning in Delhi. AAP also refrained from criticizing him or his majoritarian policies. Instead, its strategy was to make the election about securing another term for Arvind Kejriwal as Delhi’s Chief Minister, so he can continue his welfare policies.

Indian politics has become polarized on the basis of religion, and Modi continues to control political narratives in the country. He is seen by many Hindus as a strong and incorruptible leader who takes brave decisions to protect their interests. They might vote for other parties to run state-level governments, but they see Modi as the only leader capable of leading a Hindu-India. To Modi’s base, fanned by the prime minister, Muslims are not loyal to the country and are responsible for hindering India’s progress toward becoming a global power. In their minds, the disputed territory of Kashmir belongs not to Pakistan but to India — and not even to Kashmiris themselves, as they are Muslims. Meanwhile, for political reasons, Modi has realized it is better to overplay the conflict with Pakistan and to downgrade the rivalry with China, where it finds it harder to compete, not least because of its own economic slowdown. Modi has been smart in using the Muslim, Kashmir and Pakistan cards to outwit his opponents, the professor noted.

Experts say Modi’s anti-Muslim policies have invited international criticism and loud protests in India, but have also enhanced his stature as a leader who can protect the interest of the Hindu majority and put Muslims and other minorities in their place. Kejriwal won the election, peddling a softer version of Modi’s Hindu nationalism. His win offers hopes to minorities in India.