Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party suffered a humiliating defeat in a prestigious election for the local government in the capital, New Delhi – the first held since widespread protests erupted against a new citizenship law that critics say is anti-Muslim.
It is another setback for the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, that has suffered a series of electoral reversals in state polls despite its commanding victory in parliamentary elections last May.
The Aam Aadmi or Common Man’s party that was founded seven years ago on an anti-corruption platform secured a sweeping win, taking 62 of the 70 seats in the Delhi legislature. The BJP trailed with only eight seats, although that was a slight improvement on its previous tally.
The Aam Aadmi party had wooed voters on its record of improving schools and health care facilities in the city of 20 million people, providing subsidized electricity for low-income families and free bus rides for women.
The Hindu nationalist BJP, meanwhile, had focused a polarizing campaign on a nearly two-month long sit-in in a Muslim neighborhood. Protesters have demanded the rollback of the citizenship law that excludes Muslim immigrants from three neighboring countries - Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan - from becoming citizens in a fast-track process.
Making nationalism its poll plank, senior BJP ministers had called protesters unpatriotic and traitors who wanted to break up the country.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal pitched his party’s electoral success as the start of a new type of politics. “This is a vote for schools and neighborhood clinics,” he told cheering supporters. “Only this can carry us into the 21st century. This is a victory for India.”
Political analysts said the Hindu nationalist BJP’s defeat should not be interpreted as a rejection of its ideological platform but rather as an endorsement by voters of the Aam Aadmi Party’s focus on issues of development. The party had steered away from the divisive issue of protests against the citizenship law.
“My feeling is that a lot of those who voted for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) would be OK with the BJP’s ideological plank. They voted for the AAP because they got benefits from the government,” according to Rahul Verma at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
Modi’s BJP won a huge victory in national elections in May but has fared poorly in regional elections – since December 2018, it has lost six state polls, shrinking its footprint across the country.
Political analysts say those losses are a reflection of local issues of governance and despite the setback in state polls, Prime Minister Modi remains a popular leader at the national level.
The BJP has said there is no question of backtracking on the citizenship law which it says is meant to help persecuted religious minorities such as Hindus and Christians from the three neighboring countries. “I would say BJP will keep pushing their ideological plank because they do not see this defeat as a rejection of their policies,” according to Verma.
There were huge celebrations at the office of the Aam Aadmi Party, as workers wearing the party’s trade mark, white boat shaped caps, danced for hours and distributed sweets.
The opposition Congress Party was facing a major loss having failed to win a single seat in the city – another sign of the decline of the party which dominated Indian politics for decades and had led Delhi’s local government for 15 years before the Aam Aadmi Party came to power.