When Prashant Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) teams fanned out across the national capital in the aftermath of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it found the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in a rather dismal shape.
The party had not only lost all seven seats in Delhi, “but had barely managed to win 400-500 odd booths, out of over 15,000,” recalls Rishi Raj Singh, Director and Co-Founder at I-PAC, a political advocacy that has steered successful campaigns and was later signed on by the AAP.
However, just a year after its Lok Sabha debacle, Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP returned to power for a third time, winning 62 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly, restricting BJP to a single digit win of 8 seats.
This, after the party ‘shifted focus to communicating the work done by it in the last five years’ while abandoning its erstwhile policy of criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janta Party-led central government, said a source who closely worked on AAP’s campaign.
Go Local, I-PAC’s Advice to AAP
Shortly after May 2019, when I-PAC members reached out to voters across all 70 Assembly Constituencies, they discovered a strange fact.
Although the party had gathered only 18.10 percent votes in Delhi, its welfare polices were immensely popular among people. “We had never had such a high degree of approval for work done by a government,” said Singh.
In other states, said Singh, the political advisory group usually suggests a party to go to the people with its promises. However, this wasn’t the case in Delhi, where the party’s work was already popular and, hence, it was felt that AAP must first communicate its work. This was done in three ways.
- The party first released ‘AAP Ka Report Card’, which was delivered at the doorsteps of voters.
- Town Hall meetings with television news networks were planned.
- Mohalla Sabhas (neighbourhood meetings) were organised.
After the initial groundwork was done, the party was then advised to release a guarantee card, which made a number of promises. Now, the strategy changed from “credibility to hope, from acche beete to acche beetnge paanch saal.”
The Shaheen Bagh Factor
While Kejriwal had decided to focus on good governance and a positive mode of campaigning, he was also questioned for being relatively silent on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the protests that ensued its notification.
Even the rival BJP (with the exception of Kapil Mishra) had initially limited its attack on Kejriwal to water quality, unauthorised colonies and to schools.
However, in the evening of 26 January, Union Home Minister Amit Shah became the first among BJP bigwigs to utter the words ‘Shaheen Bagh’ and set the stage for a deeply polarised election campaign by the BJP.
Following this, multiple BJP leaders claimed that Shaheen Bagh protesters had the backing of AAP and Congress and that the parties were feeding biriyani to the those picketing at the southeast Delhi locality. The BJP, it seemed, wanted to drag the AAP into the debate over Shaheen Bagh.
“But because all major BJP leaders, MPs and CMs, were taking about it and because Delhi is home to national media houses, the attention that Shaheen Bagh garnered in national discourse was disproportionately high. In reality, voters in Delhi still wanted bijli and paani,” said a source who closely worked on AAP campaign.
However, when BJP’s West Delhi MP Parvesh Singh Verma called Arvind Kejriwal a “terrorist”, there was a change in strategy.
“You cannot call a sitting CM a terrorist. We decided to go to the people and ask them to decide if Kejriwal is Delhi’s son or a terrorist. Until then, all that biriyani chatter didn’t matter to us.”Source who worked closely on the campaign
Following this attack on Kejriwal, I-PAC, says the party source, also advised AAP to organise silent protests in each and every constituency.
Nationalism at the National Level?
In the final tally, the BJP won eight seats in Delhi, five more than its 2015 performance. A majority of these seats are East and Northeast Delhi and it is these regions that the BJP’s polarisation seems to have worked the best.
“These seats are almost on the outskirts, where temples display pro-CAA banners and where the BJP held several polarising rallies,” said a party source.
One AAP candidate who won with a relatively thin margin from the east Delhi seat of Patparganj is Manish Sisodia.
While many in AAP admit behind closed doors that this was due to Sisodia’s support for Shaheen Bagh protesters, which the BJP used to further polarise voters, this source feels that “it was the BJP’s divisive campaign in East Delhi in general and the use of UP CM Yogi Adityanath, that led to a close shave for Sisodia,” the source said.
Speaking on the AAP’s new definition of nationalism, where love for the nation lies in “better public schools, transportation and free-electricity,” a party source said that for a long time it was decided within the party that no single political entity should have the right to dictate nationalism and, hence, we decided to put forward what we think constitutes real nationalism.”
When asked if this was an attempt to project AAP on the national stage, the source said that “the government must at least work on coming to power for the fourth time, should it want to play nationals.But can, very well, look at neighboring states, before that.”