An Article by Praful Shankar Narendra Modi remains the most popular politician in the country today and if the BJP is able to blend his popularity with sound local leadership and organizational effectiveness, the Modi Rath will continue to run for some more time to come One of the side effects of high voltage election campaigns and striking electoral verdicts is that critical analysis is almost impossible in the short term. This is evident more so in the case of the recently concluded Delhi elections because of the sheer stupendous nature of the mandate and the media hyperbole that has sought to cast Arvind Kejriwal and AAP as the force that would halt Prime Minister Modi and his ‘Ashwamedha Yagna’. Now that Arvind Kejriwal has been sworn in as Chief Minister and the dust would have begun to settle around the media circus – unless Somnath Bharathi decides to go on one more of his nightly jaunts – it would be worth reflecting on what the AAP mandate actually is and what it certainly is not. The Vote Was Not For a ‘Positive Campaign’ For some strange reason, as soon as the results began to come in last Tuesday, the national media arrived at the conclusion that one of the major reasons AAP won was because Kejriwal ran a positive campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Kejriwal did run an efficient and effective campaign, it was by no means a positive one. In fact, the AAP campaign was every bit as negative and cynical as the one they ran in November 2013 and again in May 2014. It might be difficult to remember now but Kejriwal flagged of his election campaign by pasting unflattering pictures of BJP leader Jagdish Mukhi all over Delhi and unilaterally announcing him as the BJP’s Chief Ministerial candidate. Shortly after, he alleged that the BJP state chief was corrupt and in his inimitable style, left the burden of proof to the accused. Also worth mentioning would be the personal attacks and negative posters directed at Kiran Bedi which AAP had plastered across the city. Let us also not forget that the AAP campaign was marked by some of the most effective dissemination of falsehoods seen in recent times. Kejriwal was vigorously supported in this endeavor by a pliant media which wanted to see the BJP defeated at any cost. In addition to spreading lies about the cost of the Prime Minister’s bandhgala suits, Kejriwal routinely misrepresented facts on a range of topics, from the sources of his party’s funding to the prices of essential commodities in Delhi. For reasons more than obvious, the same agencies which nitpicked on each of Kiran Bedi’s statements chose to look the other way and not challenge Kejriwal on his falsehoods. While AAP has a right to fight elections any which was they want, let us also realize that a positive campaign this was certainly not. Anti-BJP Vote Consolidation Was a Bigger Factor than a Pro-AAP Sentiment Vote share figures released by the Election Commission clearly indicate that almost the entire non-BJP vote migrated from the Congress and BSP to the AAP – a clear case of tactical voting. While the BJP vote share hovered around 32 percent (similar to its November 2013 figures), the vote consolidation enabled AAP to leapfrog the BJP and end up with almost 55 percent of the popular vote. Such levels of vote transfers and consolidation are extremely rare and can be seen as the result of two major factors – the astonishing collapse of the Congress as an electoral challenger and the desperation of the anti-BJP electorate to grab what it saw as its best opportunity to peg the saffron party back. Proof of the latter can be seen in the fact that, during the election campaign, the AAP was the beneficiary of overt and covert support from rival parties of the BJP and the New Delhi establishment. Several of these groups have their own issues with Kejriwal but as noted journalist and historian Swapan Dasgupta put it so precisely, the establishment may not exactly love AAP but they certainly hate Modi. And in the larger interest of their ‘Idea of India’, they were ready to side with Kejriwal this one time. It would not be surprising if deeper analysis revealed some of the core Congress vote migration was a one-time event, likely to be reversed if the Congress achieves some semblance of revival. Additionally, the BJP would have expected and factored-in the minority consolidation into their electoral calculations. This is a trend which has been on the rise ever since AAP emerged as a serious electoral factor simultaneously with the growing minority disillusionment with the Congress. What would be worrying for the BJP is the transfer of the entire BSP and youth vote to the AAP (contributing to the almost 10% drop from their May 2014 vote share). The Dalits and youth were two demographics which had supported the BJP in May 2014 but drifted towards the AAP in January 2015. If the BJP looks to revive itself in Delhi (and it seriously should), it would need to begin by weaning away these two demographics away from the AAP and back to the saffron fold. The Verdict Had Little To Do With The Prime Minister And AAP Knows It As hard as the Delhi media and some Opposition Parties tried to position the verdict as an indictment of Prime Minister Modi, the AAP has carefully avoided taking the bait. And with good reason. An opinion poll conducted with the same Delhi electorate by the generally well regarded CSDS group and at roughly the same time as the Assembly Polls showed that the Modi Government still enjoys large public support, with almost two-thirds of respondents having a favorable view of the PM and his government. The biggest validation of the Prime Minister’s popularity can be seen in the conduct of the AAP campaign itself. Unlike the Lokh Sabha elections, when Kejriwal went hammer and tongs at Modi (and ended up being humiliated in Varanasi), in the Delhi campaign both Kejriwal and AAP stayed carefully away from taking on the PM directly. In fact, as some AAP’s initial campaign slogans revealed, the AAP campaign began with an attempt at casting Kejriwal as a Delhi-state version of PM Modi. Even the cynical attempt to fashion Jagdish Mukhi as the CM contender and then attacking the BJP Delhi President was an attempt by AAP to localize the election and minimize confrontation with a popular Prime Minister. In some ways, the BJP played into the AAP game-plan once Kiran Bedi entered the fray and gave Kejriwal a clear target to attack. This is not to say that the PM will be immune from criticism post the Delhi result. His detractors will cast this as the beginning of the end of the Modi-era while his supporters will use the result – perhaps rightly – to prod him into accelerating his reform push. The BJP Should Go Back To The Basics The unavoidable truth of this result is AAP ran a much better campaign than the BJP. Electoral contest are won on two factors – the creation of a larger message which captures the imagination of the electorate and an effective ground game rooted in ground-level organizational rigor. The best example of this would be the BJP’s own General Election campaign last year – where the BJP identified a leader early on, synergized a national message with the image of the leader and invested in developing an effective ground game. The AAP scored above the BJP in all of these points when it came to Delhi. While the BJP was fighting elections across the country, AAP devoted their time and effort in rebuilding Kejriwal as leader, connecting with the electorate and putting their party organization in place. In some respects, AAP was helped by the BJP’s reluctance to go in for early elections in Delhi – a decision the BJP leadership will be seriously regretting now. To add to this, after 16 years of being out of power, the BJP local unit appeared to be extremely disorganized, insipid and fragmented cutting a stark contrast with the AAP campaign which appeared to be both focused and vibrant. The next two years will see major states like Bihar, Assam, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bengal and Uttar Pradesh go to polls. With the exception of Punjab, the BJP is not part of the power structure in any of these states. Yet, the political dynamics of the country post the rise of Narendra Modi are such that the BJP will expect wins in Bihar, Assam and UP along with a rise to the post of primary opposition in Bengal. Not only are good performances in these states critical for the Prime Minister to keep his political capital intact, control of these State Legislatures and the Rajya Sabha numbers that come with them are critical for PM Modi to push through his development agenda. In all of these states, opposition parties are likely to look at the Delhi verdict and see a glimmer of hope that the Modi-Shah juggernaut can be halted with a deft combination of negative messaging and vote consolidation. The success of these arrangements will depend on the performance of the Modi Government and local conditions that prevail in each of these states. Yet, at the moment, it is clear is that the ball is still in the BJP’s court. As the leading party in the incumbent government at the Centre, the BJP has ability to set the national narrative and force its opponents into areas of discomfort. A key part of this plan would be a continuation and, if possible, acceleration of the Modi government’s reform program. The public may have accepted that it would take the new government a considerable part of its first year to clear the mess that was created by the UPA. Yet, as the New Year beckons, the electorate’s patience will begin to wane and public demand for the change Modi promised will become more and more pronounced. The Prime Minister rode into power on the back of his image as a disruptive reformer with not just the ability to charter new legislative directions but also to ensure that legislative change translates to ground-level implementation. And as long as the Prime Minister rediscovers his reformist verve with the upcoming budget and ensures effective implementation of his flagship programs, he will continue to defy the critics who find a new reason every few months to predict his doom. Unfortunately for them, Narendra Modi remains the most popular politician in the country today and if the BJP is able to blend his popularity with sound local leadership and organizational effectiveness, the Modi Rath will continue to run for some more time to come.