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.