Delhi Elections — A well-crafted social experiment

In November 2019, BJP had no illusions about an imminent defeat in the upcoming Delhi elections. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and its leader Arvind Kejriwal were not facing any anti-incumbency, their war-preparations were already afoot, and they had hired the services of Prashant Kishore who has an exceptional track record in making parties win elections. BJP on the other hand, had no clear chief ministerial candidate — at least none who could match the popularity of Kejriwal; their MPs from Delhi had no track record of performance; and BJP led MCD, one of the worst performing municipalities in India, was a liability.

By January, early opinion polls such as the ABP/C-Voter poll, were already predicting a complete rout for BJP. These were the adverse circumstances that Amit Shah had the near impossible task of reversing. And thus, was conceived one of most well-crafted social experiments India has ever seen.

With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Amit Shah decided to test BJPs ‘Hindutva’ plank to its limit. There were three simple components of this plank — establish an enemy, evoke fear and turn that fear into anger — thus turning the majority against the minority. The success of the experiment would be evaluated based on the conversion of that hate into votes. It was a brilliant plan. In brief, what Amit Shah wanted to test was whether people can be polarized enough to create a swing in the vote share.

Delhi elections, as any good researcher will confirm, had all the elements of a perfect test bed for polarization led politics — (a) it is a unique collection of all ‘tribes’, ‘castes’, religions and regional affiliations of India (b) It is a small geography to implement a controlled pilot where BJP had no other agenda to dilute the narrative © the elections were in the public eye across the country and would have ripple effect across India. It was the third point that made this a high stakes game, but Amit Shah is not known to be fearful. With high stakes elections coming up in larger states like Bihar, West Bengal and Assam, a successful test would provide a template for the future. He decided to go all in.

What followed was one of most vitriolic campaigns in the history of India. It started with the prime minster launching an attack on CAA/NRC protesters by saying that they can be identified by their clothes. Following the lead from the script written at the top, several BJP leaders such as Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Sahib, made scathing remarks and speeches, inciting fear, hatred and negativity. Goli Maro became the chant of choice by BJP cadres, Shaheen Bagh became the target of hate and Arvind Kejriwal became a ‘Pakistan agent’ and ‘terrorist’. The entire elections were dubbed by BJP as Hindustan-Pakistan match and for the first time in the history of Delhi elections college violence was used as a tool. The experiment crafted by Mr. Shah was to test the limits of the Hindutva narrative and they brought every big gun (from PM to CMs of other states, from 200 MPs to union ministers) to reiterate that narrative. These big guns were not brought in to win a small election. They were brought in to test the color of litmus. Will it turn saffron and to what degree? But we all know this already. The big question is — did the experiment work?

On the face of it, it would appear from the huge defeat that BJP faced in Delhi, that the experiment failed. But it is not as simple as that. Several analysists felt that BJP could have slid to a 25–28% vote share had Amit Shah not unleashed the divisive campaign. Instead what he managed to achieve was a 40% share, a 7% + increase for BJP from its historical 32–33% stable base. In many of the larger states, a 7% swing can mean a huge victory for BJP. While Amit Shah admitted at an event a couple of days back that the language used by BJP leaders might have contributed to BJP’s loss, I think, he and his analysts would be quite satisfied with the outcome.

The credit of success of the Delhi elections, of course, goes to Arvind Kejriwal (and partly to Prashant Kishore). Kejriwal did not deviate from his development narrative and did not allow his vote base to get diluted by divisiveness. The AAP narrative is a brilliant example of a simple story told well, of not being drawn into the narrative of the opposition and of winner’s mindset of laser sharp focus. The AAP strategy of development-based campaign and late stage tactic of what is being dubbed as “soft Hindutva” baffled BJP. While Kejriwal’s oration of Hanuman Chalisa established him as a devout Hindu, it did not instill fear in the muslims. In fact, AAP fared best in terms of vote share in Muslim dominated constituencies such as Okhla and Babarpur. This is where Amit Shah’s experiment started to falter a bit. Dubbing Kejriwal first as a Pakistani and terrorist and then in the same breath as a beneficiary of ‘soft hindutva’ confused the audience.

But BJP is not a loser in these elections. Amit Shah would be a happy man today. His experiment may not have won him Delhi, but it has helped him lay the blueprint for a more refined Hindutva narrative for the future and we will see it play out at mild level in Bihar and and at an exponential level in West Bengal. There a few lessons too. When you have a undeniably popular leader (be it Modi at National level or Arvind Kejriwal at state level), it does not pay off to attack that leader. AAP learnt that lesson well and BJP would have learnt it the hard way this time. At any rate, what is clear is that Delhi Election has proven that Hindutva based divisiveness (polarization) can work with up to 40% of electorate. And in some states, that is enough to win.

It is now up to India to decide. Will the future of Indian politics be divisive or inclusive, based on fear or hope, rooted in religion or development? The ball is in our court.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in this article are personal opinions of the author and not influenced by any political or non-political organization.

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A communication specialist, an entrepreneur, writer and a serial innovator. An MBA by education, he has worked across 17 countries in 5 continents.

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Siddhartha Swarup

Siddhartha Swarup

A communication specialist, an entrepreneur, writer and a serial innovator. An MBA by education, he has worked across 17 countries in 5 continents.

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