Call it "tyranny of distance” or simply the nature of the Delhi-centric 24x7 “national” media, but a day after Arvind Kejriwal’s famous win, the BJP swept the local body elections in Assam — only there were no bold headlines or screaming breaking news to announce the results.
With assembly polls in Assam just over a year away, there is every reason to believe that the BJP is poised for a major breakthrough in a state it has never ruled and the Congress is set to lose another bastion. However, such is the euphoria over the Kejriwal success that it almost seems as if the juggernaut of Narendra Modi has been permanently halted. Indeed, one of the more amusing sidelights of AAP’s triumph in the capital was to watch the Trinamool Congress take out a victory procession in distant Asansol.
The fact is, Delhi is not India and an election to 70 assembly seats in a city-state cannot be compared to a conquest of the country. While Kejriwal’s dominant triumph has punctured the aura of invincibility created around Mr Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, it would be a grave mistake to expect Kejriwal to almost overnight become a magnet for anti-Modi forces, or for AAP to now challenge the BJP in other parts of the country.
At a seminar in Mumbai the day after the verdict, a stockbroker asked me if I expected Kejriwal to now contest and win the 2017 Mumbai municipal corporation elections. When I replied in the negative, I noticed a tinge of disappointment. “The BMC is one of the most corrupt bodies in the country, why can’t Kejriwal come and clean it up?” he firmly asked. My reply: Because Mumbai is not Delhi.
Delhi today is a city like no other: It doesn’t have Mumbai’s sense of Maharashtrian regional pride; Chennai’s Tamil cultural exclusivity; Bengaluru’s Kannada ethos or Kolkata’s Bengali identity.
Delhi belongs to everyone and yet no one. The old Delhi of the Mathur-Kayasthas and Punjabi refugees is now a city of 21st century robust cosmopolitanism, driven forward by rootless migrants and aspirational groups fiercely competing with each other. There is a broad north Indian Hindi idiom that might bond the city but the local identity isn’t as sharp as it is in other metropolises. In this vacuum, AAP has stepped in to become Delhi’s regional party created around the idea of equal access to resources and opportunity in an unequal society.
In the 1960s, Bal Thackeray created the Shiv Sena in Mumbai around the idea of the so-called ‘outsiders’ having taken jobs from the local Maharashtrians. Now, in Delhi, a city where the lal batti culture of the VIP has powerful symbolism, Kejriwal has tapped into a growing anger against elite privilege. The magnitude of the win might suggest that AAP has transcended caste, class and religious barriers, but the fact is that the poor and lower income groups now form the core of AAP’s political constituency.
A CSDS post-poll survey shows that while 65% of the poor voted with AAP and just 22% for the BJP, the gap in the upper middle and rich was just two per cent: 44% for BJP and 46% for AAP.
Could then AAP create a nationwide support base among the poor, the marginal and minorities: In other words, a centre-left party to replace the Congress nationally? Attractive as this may sound to those who believe Rahul Gandhi is the Bahadur Shah Zafar of the Congress, the fact is, AAP still doesn’t have the organisational muscle, resources or ideological coherence to become a truly pan-Indian party yet as its disastrous debut in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections exposed.
An anti-corruption plank might provide temporary gains in a state like Punjab, but it can’t become a permanent success formula. A party which has members as diverse as a Kumar Vishwas, a Yogendra Yadav and a Prashant Bhushan is, in Kejriwal’s own words, a bit like a “Shivji ki Baaraat’’, held together for now by the persona of its leadership.
That leadership is rooted in Delhi’s political culture: it draws its sustenance from the credibility which Kejriwal has built in this city, first as an NGO activist and then an anti-corruption campaigner. When he tried to replicate it in Varanasi during the Lok Sabha elections, for example, he struggled to make a mark because the political context was different.
If any strategy worked for Kejriwal in this election, it was his underlying message: “Kejriwal for CM, Modi for PM.” A CSDS survey in October 2013 had shown that almost half of Kejriwal’s supporters said they would vote for Modi in the general elections.
Which is why AAP needs to spend the next five years governing Delhi instead of attempting to spread its net far and wide. Kejriwal needs to demonstrate a Delhi model of governance that can fulfil at least part of AAP’s rather ambitious manifesto.
Kejriwal 2.0 has to get down to the nitty gritty of administration and show the capacity to deliver on its bijli-paani promises and make the law and order machinery more accountable. This won’t happen overnight: Governance is not a one-day or even a 49-day match, but a five-year long commitment.
The Delhi electorate has voted on the slogan “Paanch Saal Kejriwal”. If he delivers an effective government over those five years, Kejriwal could be a potential challenger to Modi in 2019. If he tries to scale up too soon without delivery, then he may well find himself caught in the oldest political game: Snakes and ladders!
Post-script: A publisher rang me up to suggest that I now write a sequel to my 2014 election book and call it 2015: The Election that Changed Delhi. Alluring though it is, I just wonder whether like Kejriwal, authors too need to resist the temptation for a quickie!
This article first appeared in Hindustan Times