NEW DELHI - A small party helmed by a social activist-turned-politician returned to power in India’s capital city Delhi, defeating the well-entrenched Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was the latest electoral setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, which had staked its campaign on a controversial citizenship act.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, won or was leading in 62 seats, while the BJP was ahead in eight in a bitterly contested election.
The BJP made those protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – which fast-tracks Indian citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – its target in a polarising campaign fronted by federal Home Minister Amit Shah.
But the national party was unable to make a convincing case against the AAP, a seven-year-old party with limited resources, which countered the BJP’s mammoth election machinery with its governance record, particularly in improving education and health infrastructure in the capital city.
The Congress, once a dominant presence in Delhi, faced a total rout with a vote share of about 4 per cent following a lacklustre campaign.
Mr Kejriwal addressed Delhi and then offered prayers at a local temple. “People of Delhi, you have been amazing... We will change the face of Delhi,’’ he said, flanked by his wife at the party headquarters.
“Residents of Delhi have given the message.. that votes go to those who build schools, clinics, roads and provide water and electricity. This new kind of politics is a good omen for the country."
The AAP was created seven years ago when Mr Kejriwal, a former bureaucrat who had left his job to become a social activist, took a plunge into politics, attracting hundreds of professionals frustrated with entrenched corruption.
But it has been a bumpy ride for Mr Kejriwal, who angered Delhi residents by quitting as chief minister in 2014 after just 49 days in power, when he was unable to bring in an anti-corruption law.
He also went on a protest, presenting the unique sight of the chief minister of a state on the streets, and even slept on a pavement as part of his protest.
He apologised for his impetuousness and returned to power in 2015 on a massive mandate, winning 67 out of 70 seats. The BJP won three seats.
Over the last few years, amid infighting, the departure of high-profile colleagues and multiple run-ins with the federal government, Mr Kejriwal appears to have matured as a politician and is focused on improving amenities and schools, setting up local clinics and fulfilling the promise of subsidised electricity and water.
In these elections, he stayed away from criticising Mr Modi, who remains popular, and asked BJP supporters to support him in Delhi to continue his party’s work in improving social infrastructure.
Analyst said the message had clearly gone across to voters.
“I would see the verdict as a verdict for AAP, in favour of governance over the last five years and not a verdict against the BJP nationally. CAA wasn’t an issue in the campaign (for voters),’’ said Dr Sandeep Shastri, political scientist and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Jain University.
The BJP in its campaign asked voters to choose national security over development.
Its leaders denied it had indulged in hate politics and highlighted its vote share had gone beyond 40 per cent, compared with 32.1 per cent in the previous elections. Some 63 per cent of 14.7 million eligible voters voted in the election.
The BJP ran a high-octane campaign with many of its leaders making polarising statements including calling Mr Kejriwal a terrorist.
Analysts said that the BJP, which has suffered a string of losses in state elections in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, would need to go back to the drawing board on its election campaign in upcoming state elections in West Bengal and Bihar.
“They (AAP) have stuck to the same template (as Mr Modi) --smart deliverables on the socio economic front. He has nicely borrowed a tactic of Modi and won,” said Mr Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Delhi-based political analyst and journalist.