Delhi Exit Polls Prove That BJP Desperately Needs a New Strategy
A look at what worked for AAP, what didn’t work for BJP, and what they now need to do to regain footing.
Exit polls on television channels, from those considered aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party to those seen as relatively neutral, were consistent in forecasting a virtual landslide for the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi assembly elections, which were conducted on 8 February.
BJP leaders, from those who briefed media after the end of a party meeting on Saturday, to the ones who turned up at TV channels to represent the party, were consistent in saying that "exit polls were not exact polls", that the sample size was minuscule and did not factor the late evening spike in voter turnout.
Yet, public denial of the inevitable by these BJP leaders was matched by admissions in private that the party’s vanvas (exile) in Delhi is set to continue. Already, it has been 22 years since the BJP lost power in this mini-‘state’ and it appears set to be extended for another five years.
The BJP may wish to make light of a likely defeat by citing its hundred percent strike rate in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and 2019, but in politics, there are no consolation prizes.
Delhi Exit Polls Should Set BJP's Alarm Bells Ringing
If the exit poll results are proved correct, it would be the third successive setback for the BJP after Maharashtra and Jharkhand. If one adds Haryana where the party's fortunes dipped from the levels of 2015 and the parliamentary election last summer, the loss is even more humiliating.
Coming within nine months of Modi securing an unprecedented mandate in the Lok Sabha despite being down in the dumps barely months before the polls, alarm bells should be ringing in the private chambers of the party leadership (although this is unlikely to become public).
The exit polls have come up with a forecast which is more or less on expected lines. If these projections turn out to be true, it can be attributed mainly to Kejriwal's success in reading the people's mood.
In comparison, the BJP top brass, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Home Minister Amit Shah, failed to connect with the pulse of the people. It appears that what made the difference between the two parties, is what they went to the people with.
The AAP and its leadership stuck to local issues and highlighted its socio-economic deliveries, be it the free bijli-paani (electricity and water) package or efforts to improve school education and provide accident insurance. Kejriwal has indeed shown himself as a leader who has learned from past mistakes. It is necessary to recall that he started out as the 'angry young man' in politics and wore it on his sleeve with the "yes, I am an anarchist" brand.
But he soon realised that in the era of BJP-propelled oversimplification, it did not take much for Modi to make anarchism appear synonymous with terrorism or anti-nationalism.
As a result, after his initial conflicts with the Centre, Kejriwal put his head down and focused entirely on delivering promises and rolling out policies as announced. He did this even more after the July 2018 Supreme Court judgment, saying that the capital's lieutenant governor cannot act independently, does not have the right to obstruct the AAP government's policy decisions and is bound by the state government's aid and advice.
The verdict was a huge shot in the arm for the AAP which was beleaguered at that time, especially as it had performed poorly in the municipal elections in April 2017. While Kejriwal decided to focus on what people would assess at the time of the next polls – performance – the BJP took AAP's defeat for granted, assuming that the gains in municipal polls would translate into a victory in these polls.
If the exit polls turn out to be true, Delhi would be Amit Shah's biggest electoral failure.
BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ Narrative Not Working?
Besides keeping the polls local, Kejriwal steered clear of taking a public stand on polarising events in the run-up to the polls. He did not go to express solidarity with either JNU students and faculty, or the protesters at Shaheen Bagh. Despite repeated efforts of the BJP to get him into the polarisation ring, Kejriwal's refrain was that the CAA was a national issue and not relevant in the Delhi election narrative.
The BJP was the challenger in this election, and ended up being handicapped by the AAP using its own template – showcasing micro-economic and social deliveries.
A few years ago, Arun Shourie described the Modi government as ‘Congress Plus Cow’. Likewise, Kejriwal has now fashioned himself as ‘Modi Minus Hindutva’.
The AAP highlighted that while the mantra of ‘Vikas’ (development) has dropped out of the BJP platform and the ‘Rashtra’ (nation) took precedence, the state government went about improving the lot of the people, especially that of its core constituency. Kejriwal with his Hanuman Chalisa chanting wore his cultural Hinduism on his sleeves yet delineated it from the BJP's political Hinduism or Hindutva.
BJP’s False Sense of Complacency
But, even if the final results mirror the findings of exit polls, it would not mean the rejection of the BJP's hyper nationalistic overdrive, be it on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or its move on Kashmir. Nationally, Modi remains the most popular leader and because of its ideology, the BJP decided to act swiftly on its political agenda after re-election in May last year.
As a result, the government successively diluted the Right to Information Act, made crucial amendments to Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), secured passage of the law criminalising instant divorce or triple talaq among Muslims before the most sensitive steps on Kashmir and citizenship.
The lack of visible opposition prior to the CAA being introduced lulled the BJP into complacency and the leadership did not begin its preparations for the Delhi polls in time – for which they now look likely to pay a price.
In the event of the exit polls getting it right, Modi shall have to personally take corrective steps, the urgency of which is only amplified as the crucial election in Bihar is barely months away and it has now become a must-win state. Delhi is likely to show that despite support, BJP's hyper-nationalistic thrust does not resonate among people in state elections.
BJP Needs To Rethink Their Strategy
Within the party, a sullen section exists which has been marginalised as most decisions are taken by a duopoly. The disarray within the Delhi unit is one of the causes of the likely defeat and it will become all the more imperative to unite factions within.
To prevent the BJP from being sucked out from the bulk of India over the next couple of years, it is necessary for the leaders to take remedial action. Action is required on the governance front as well as within the organisation. With a new party president in office, the Modi-Shah duo cannot remain the sole deciding voices.
In the coming weeks, Modi will have to take a call on how to set the house in order and regain momentum. Will scapegoats be found to put the blame or will the leadership admit that it led the party up the wrong street? An indication of this shall become evident within weeks.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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