Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Feb 14, 2020
Delhi assembly elections: A reinforcement of electoral federalism in India?

The recently declared Delhi Assembly elections results have unfolded a significant dimension in the Indian political discourse.  Hardly more than a half decade old political party, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which emerged out of the anti-corruption movement of 2012, came back to power for the  third consecutive time in the state of Delhi. The results of this recent election bears enormous repercussions for the political dynamics of not only Delhi  but also for the rest of India as the politically ascendant national ruling party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been defeated once again by the AAP in the national capital which happens to be the India’s national ruling dispensation’s seat of power. The elections for Delhi’s 70-member state assembly saw a bitter campaign fight which was turned out into a two cornered fight between AAP and BJP despite Congress Party also being on the electoral fray. As AAP has swept the polls with over 60 seats with a 53.4 % vote share, BJP could garner only around 8 seats with a considerably vote share of 39 %. The INC while ruled Delhi for a long time till 2013 ended up winning zero seats and  a miserably reduced vote share in this elections.

The Imperative of Electoral Federalism

The results clearly manifested a palpable trend in the voting pattern of the Indian electorate which differs both in terms of their preference for parties as well as the salient issues that seems to strike a chord with the people in the national elections and state elections respectively. Hence, this election results reinforces the process of federalisation  of the Indian political discourse in which, on one hand the BJP remains the most dominant and powerful political force at the national level, but on the other hand, at the provincial level, a slew of regional parties are giving a formidable political challenge to the BJP in the respective state elections and retaining their political clout by raking up the local and regional pressing issues of development. Despite BJP’s mammoth political maneuvering towards more pan-India issues of cultural nationalism and citizenship.

The Resilience of Regional Forces

The recent win of a regional political outfit like AAP in the Assembly elections reinforces a political trajectory which has emerged to become the modus operandi of Indian electoral politics. BJP’s loss in the states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Delhi immediately before and after its spectacular victory in the 2019 national elections, clearly suggests that the Indian electorates have developed the political sagacity that enables them to clearly differentiate between the national and the regional elections. In the national elections last year, BJP bagged all the seven parliamentary seats in Delhi with an impressive vote share of around 56 %.  Present scenario is reminiscent of how BJP was routed in the last Delhi Assembly elections in 2015 despite its impressive win in Delhi during the 2014 national elections. However, it also has to be borne in mind that the results might not suggest the possibility of an overall dwindling of the BJP, as the party seems to improve its vote share in Delhi this time in comparison to the 2015 elections. However, as the political developments of the past few years suggests that the electoral juggernaut of the BJP would dominate the Indian political in entirety and bring back days of ‘one party dominance’ similar to the erstwhile ‘Congress System’, the evolving political developments suggests otherwise. It now seems that there has been an overestimation of the enduring effectiveness of BJP’s political appeal and an underestimation of the political clout and electoral capital of the regional political forces. As the BJP seemed to embark upon an insatiable quest for political capture in almost all states and the national opposition party, INC appeared politically beleaguered to counter BJP, it is the regional leaders and parties that rose up to pose a challenge to the ascendant BJP in their respective regional turfs. This phenomenon in turn posited a federalized opposition comprising of various political forces at the state level to the centralizing demeanor of the national ruling dispensation.

‘Politics of Development’ Triumphs ‘Politics of Identity’

Apart from the political preponderance of the regional actors in the state elections, it is also the regional and the local issues of development and everyday necessities of a better life that have gained electoral traction in the recent state elections in general and in the Delhi elections in particular. The AAP’s electoral campaign in Delhi which was entirely premised upon what their leader Arvind Kejriwal calls the ‘politics of performance’ (“Kaam ki Rajniti”) that highlighted the work of the Delhi government in the realm of improving education infrastructure, health facilities, free electricity and better drinking water availability seemed to sway the voters in favour of AAP. While, the BJP which deployed its entire political machinery in terms of its organization and leadership in order to further its political agendas of national security, nationalism, dilution of Article 370 in Kashmir and its much discussed incessant attacks against the ongoing anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests taking place in Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, seemed to have limited electoral resonance with the people of Delhi. Hence, at least at the regional level, the ‘politics of performance’ appears to majorly dominate the political discourse over the ‘politics of identity’, deepening the federalisation of the Indian political narrative. However, it has to be noted with caution that the results also do not suggests that the BJP’s defeat in the elections in Delhi indicates a strong popular backlash against the controversial CAA or the attacks against students in the university campuses as AAP didn’t claim to fight the elections as a counter to BJP’s majoritarian policies and only focused on the issues of governance in Delhi. Hence, instead of directly fighting the policies of its major political adversary, AAP chose to overshadow those issues by sticking to its narratives of development. 

An Assurance and a Reminder

However, the differentiated approach of the Indian voters in the national and state elections is not an entirely unprecedented concept in the Indian political history. The politics of late 1960s and the entire 1970s and 1980s are replete with instances of intermittent rise of regional forces in the face of the erstwhile political dominance of the grand old party of India, INC. The present evolving discourse and today’s election results is a significant reminder to the votaries of centralizing political tendencies. And, it is also an assurance to the regional forces that the variegated diversity of India will insurmountably federalize its political landscape from time to time despite the attempts of all-encompassing centralized political dominance.

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Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Ambar Kumar Ghosh is an Associate Fellow under the Political Reforms and Governance Initiative at ORF Kolkata. His primary areas of research interest include studying ...

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