On 23 April 2017, nearly 54 percent of the registered voters in Delhi participated in the election to its three municipal corporations. The impending result of these municipal polls will reveal the party that will control the 104-ward north and south corporations and the 64-ward east corporation in Delhi. It will also be telling of the future of the Aam Aadmi Party, which is contesting a civic-body election for the first time. In March, the AAP’s national ambitions suffered a daunting setback after it was defeated in the recently-concluded assembly elections in Punjab and Goa. (The party did not secure a single seat in the Goa assembly and won 20 in the 117-seat Punjab assembly.) While the AAP’s leadership continues to insist that the results in Punjab were skewed because of faulty electronic voting machines, several among its members in the state have attributed the loss to a weak campaign. Given this history, the outcome of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) election will serve as a litmus test of the party—for both its cadre and the electorate.
The MCD election has emerged as a contest between the Congress, the AAP, and the Bharatiya Janata Party—which won the last two civic polls in the national capital. The Janata Dal United, the Shiv Sena, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the former AAP leader Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj India also fielded candidates for the polls. In the aftermath of its loss in Punjab and Goa, the AAP reportedly changed its strategy for the civic election, moving away from an approach that was centred on attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi to one that focussed on its achievements. The members of the party I spoke to were confident that it would win the MCD election because of the work that the AAP undertook since it came to power in Delhi in 2015.
However, this optimism might be misplaced. On 13 April, Harjeet Singh, the AAP’s candidate in Rajouri Garden, finished third in the by-poll election conducted there. The by-election was held because the AAP’s Jarnail Singh, Rajouri Garden’s former legislator, resigned from his position in January 2017 to stand against Parkash Singh Badal, the former chief minister of Punjab, in the Punjab assembly elections. While the BJP’s Manjinder Singh Sirsa won the by-election in Rajouri Garden with 40,602 votes, Harjeet Singh, who was got only 10,243 votes, had to forfeit his deposit. (A candidate must deposit Rs 5,000 to contest assembly elections. This amount is forfeited if the candidate gets less than one-sixth of the total valid votes polled in the election.)
Yogendra Yadav—whose party, Swaraj India, also made its debut in the MCD election—told me that the civic-body election is the last bastion for the AAP. A loss in these polls, he said, would mean that the people who had elected the AAP during the assembly elections in February 2015 were rejecting the party and its politics. Sanjay Kumar, the director of the research institute the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, also emphasised that for the contesting parties, the stakes in this MCD election are as high as they would be for an assembly election. “The BJP believes that a victory in this election could assist them in the next assembly election [in Delhi],” he said. A loss for the AAP, he added, “would pop the bubble that it was growing to become a party capable of making significant gains at the national level.” Kumar went on to say that although the AAP did not manage to win any of the recent assembly elections it contested, he believed its performance in Punjab was not as dismal as it had been portrayed to be.
According to Yadav, a significant amount of votes would move from the AAP to the BJP in this election. He said, “After travelling across the city for the past two months, I am convinced that the loss in votes for the AAP will cut across classes.” He elaborated on the reasons behind his forecast of the party’s performance. “The problem is that the AAP has raised expectations so much, that they are not being judged the way any other government would be,” he said. The BJP, he said, had a terrible record with governance “even by the most basic yardsticks one would use.” “The real scandal of the election is that they are in the fray,” he added.
Kumar also felt that the AAP had put itself in a difficult position because of the manner in which it had framed itself. He said, “Because they have raised expectations so much, even party workers will be of the opinion that they were badly defeated in Punjab.” Referring to the assembly elections in Goa and Punjab, he said that even though the AAP did not perform terribly, voters perceived that its stature was significantly affected. “Unfortunately, perception plays a much larger role than any of the work a party is able to achieve,” he told me, “and the perception the people have about the AAP being a strong alternative to the BJP is likely to be impacted negatively, should they lose the civic polls.”
Yadav said that the campaigns of both the AAP and the BJP moved away from the mandate of a civic election, and that the AAP should have focused on the poor governance of the BJP at the MCD level. The AAP’s half-hearted attempts to make the election about civic issues, Yadav told me, could cost it this election and cause the party irreparable damage. Describing the scenario that the AAP currently finds itself in, he said, “The situation is either one of murder or suicide.” Yadav told me that it is obvious that the BJP is doing everything possible to “finish the AAP,” both through legal and extra-constitutional means, “just like [the Russian president] Putin finishing his opponents.” He continued, “However, my fear is that the AAP leadership will get there quicker and commit suicide, before the murder takes place.”
Dilip Pandey, the convenor of the AAP’s Delhi unit, acknowledged that there has been a “loss of morale” following the party’s successive defeats. However, he seemed confident that the AAP’s past performances would not damage its prospects in the MCD election. “What one has to understand,” he said, “is that civic-body elections are very different because the issues are very localised,” Ashish Talwar, a member of the AAP’s national executive and the party’s Delhi in-charge for the MCD election, said that the AAP’s defeat in the state assembly elections was a different matter entirely. According to him, drawing parallels between the MCD election and the party’s performance in Punjab and Goa was like comparing “apples and oranges.” Referring to the MCD as a “den of corruption,” Talwar claimed, “The people in the city believe that the MCD is even more corrupt than the Delhi Police.” The ruling BJP, he claimed, had accepted this as well. “They have not given any of their sitting councillors tickets. That is an acknowledgement of the fact that these people are corrupt and unpopular,” he told me.
According to Pandey, the popularity of a candidate within their constituency and their ability to deliver on the promises that they had made would play a much more important role in an election such as this one, than it had in the assembly or Lok Sabha polls. He said, “Given that the issues are so specific to the areas within the city, the effect of our performance in the other assembly elections will not affect these elections.”
Pandey cited the example of the Delhi Cantonment Board election in January 2015. The BJP won five seats out of eight, the Congress two, and the AAP one. He pointed out that despite its disappointing performance in that election, the AAP had managed to win 67 seats in the Delhi assembly election that followed, less than a month later. According to him, the results of the Delhi Cantonment Board election reflected that the voters placed their faith in those candidates who had solved, or attempted to solve the issues that were plaguing a specific area. He maintained that despite the disappointments the AAP has faced in the previous elections, the party is confident of the work it has done in areas such as education, healthcare and electricity since it has come to power in Delhi. Pandey said, “The biggest relief if the jhadoowala [the AAP’s election symbol is a broom, or jhaadoo] enters the municipality for the people will be that there is no longer an excuse for why something is not happening because both the assembly and the municipal body will be run by the same party.” Talwar echoed Pandey’s hopeful statement. He said that a victory for the AAP would ensure greater synergy between the state government and the municipal bodies, and by extension, greater accountability.
But, according to Yadav, the AAP has not made good on any of the promises that he felt the party had distinguished itself through—ethical politics, good governance and electoral viability. He mentioned the fact that the party had inducted several politicians of questionable repute, against whom criminal charges had been filed, resulting in their eventual expulsion from the AAP. Yadav also said that the party’s brazen use of advertisements to promote its leader and political achievements, along with the abandonment of the Lokpal Bill it had originally formulated, had tainted its claim of practising ethical politics. He noted that the AAP’s inability to understand the “grammar of governance” meant that it was incapable of delivering good governance. He referred to the party’s public tussle with Najeeb Jung, the former lieutenant governor of Delhi in this regard. Yadav also pointed to the findings of the Shunglu committee—which was constituted by Jung, and headed by VK Shunglu, the former comptroller and auditor general of India—according to which, Arvind Kejriwal, the national convenor of the AAP and the chief minister of Delhi, and his government were responsible for a “gross abuse of power.” The committee questioned practices such as the allotment of land to the AAP for building a party office; the government’s decisions on transfers and appointments of officers; and the foreign travel that ministers had undertaken without the sanction of the LG.
In Yadav’s assessment, although it is clear that the AAP has faltered on its promises of ethical politics and good governance, what makes it attractive is the same quality that is leveraged by Lalu Prasad Yadav, the head of the Rashtriya Janata Dal: the ability to challenge Modi. According to Yadav, this is why Kejriwal turned the MCD election “into a personal referendum on his popularity.” He noted that some of the hoardings for the civic election did not even have the name of the party—only Kejriwal’s face. He termed this “astonishing.” “Even Modi wouldn’t do that,” Yadav said.
However, Kumar did not think that the AAP’s regime in Delhi would invoke a response of anti-incumbency from its citizens. Reflecting on the possible result of the MCD election, he compared the effect that Modi has on a campaign to a magic show and said that voters seem to be of the opinion that “this man is going to deliver everything, from street lights to sanitation.” “When there is a magic show, people know that it is not real, but they still want to watch,” he told me. In Kumar’s opinion, the AAP, Congress and other parties will split the votes that the BJP will not be able to get, and that this will likely lead to a victory for the party. “People in the city do not see this as a debut for the AAP because there is almost no distinction between this election and an assembly election,” he told me. The nature of this election, he said, was such that people would vote against the AAP if they were dissatisfied with its performance since the assembly election, even though it is the BJP that has held power in the civic body for the last ten years. In the event of a defeat, Kumar said, the extent of the loss would define the impact it had on the AAP. “If it is a big loss—out of 270 seats if they end up with 40-50 seats, it will be considered a big defeat,” he said, “If they cross 100 seats, it will not have a demoralising effect, but if they do not, it will. That will have a big affect on the public perception, people will think that this party is not doing good work and that they have been rejected by the people.”