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Victory of the gnat: Kejriwal’s return proves that a believable story, with evidence that substantiates it, is critical

There is a fable in it somewhere. Like a pesky gnat that lives under the nose of a mighty emperor and takes delight in annoying him, Arvind Kejriwal is the one person who has the otherwise intimidating BJP’s number. No matter how hard the party tries, they simply cannot seem to get past him. At one level, politically Delhi is not a particularly significant battleground, but BJP has chosen to make it so. The ruling party tried so desperately in so many different ways to neutralise Kejriwal, and yet here he is, back in office, and reciting the Hanuman Chalisa to boot.

His administration was thwarted using a variety of means, legal action was taken against many AAP leaders, and the media was mobilised against the government all through its tenure. And then in this election, BJP’s campaign touched new lows. The attempt to polarise voters has never been as naked as it was this time around. BJP tried its level best to characterise the anti-CAA protest as being anti-national and worked hard to try and connect Kejriwal with those. On his part, Kejriwal was very careful to steer clear of all the potentially polarising issues – JNU, Jamia and Shaheen Bagh, making the BJP campaign look increasingly desperate.

The margin of victory is what is particularly significant. For an incumbent government to come back to office in such a dominant fashion is remarkable. To be able to more or less maintain the almost unreal margin of victory that it had won five years ago is even more special. To be sure, BJP has improved its vote share and has improved its tally. But a 4-5 seat increment in an election involving an incumbent government, and that too after such a concerted effort from none other than Amit Shah is nothing to feel even marginally satisfied about.

This result undermines BJP’s claims of being a strategic party that plays the long game. It had five years to create a viable alternative in Delhi, but it did little to bolster its own local organisation and spent all its energies in trying to disrupt and frustrate the AAP government. In 2020, it had no local leader, no platform, and it had no choice but to go back to the one thing it knows well – using the nationalism card to demonise a community and hope to consolidate the Hindu vote. Measured against the strong development and welfare pitch that the AAP government was able to mount thanks to its efforts on the ground, BJP’s campaign felt shrill and hollow.

Three things are clear from this emphatic mandate. That the nationalism plank not only has limits, but that it can backfire. It can win a few incremental votes, but so can it feel stale and desperate, and serve to communicate an absence of any real vision. Second, a party needs a story to win an election. It cannot rely exclusively on the old variables – caste arithmetic, patchwork alliances and election time promises are no longer enough. A believable story with evidence that substantiates it is critical. BJP has such a story as has AAP; in this case the latter was far more relevant to the voter.

And finally, while a story is necessary, it is not sufficient. AAP’s victory has a lot to do with the maturing of Arvind Kejriwal as a politician. It is only in the last part of his tenure that he found his voice as a leader. He stopped attacking Modi and picking fights with the Centre, realised that constantly complaining about being thwarted by the Centre was undercutting his development narrative and making him look weak, did not shy away from openly embracing his Hindu identity, framed himself in emotionally resonant terms – as a ‘son’, and made more conscious efforts to come through as a leader and chief minister rather than as an activist.

The decision to steer clear of BJP laid traps was adhered to without faltering even once, and as a result, the AAP narrative was delivered to the electorate without any muddling. Kejriwal denied BJP the ammunition that it thrives on while keeping his story intact; BJP had no real argument to offer against his core pitch.

The Delhi result throws up some interesting implications for the future. Kejriwal has shown that even when BJP does its worst it can be defeated. However, while now there is a template of sorts for being able to challenge BJP, not many parties have the capability to adopt it. For BJP, it was clear once it had failed to build the local unit that winning Delhi was always going to be difficult, but it would have hoped to have received a more reassuring validation of the strategy that it will almost certainly employ in Bihar and Bengal.

One does not have to be a supporter of Kejriwal to feel good about this result. The fact that AAP focussed so resolutely, not just at election time, but all through its tenure, on small, almost municipal acts of governance is a new and encouraging sign for politics in India. BJP’s campaign, on the other hand, was so toxic and cynical that its resounding defeat gives some much needed breathing space to a democracy that is under attack. Till the next elections.

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