On July 22nd 2008, the first UPA government faced its biggest challenge after the communists had withdrawn their support owing to the Indo-US nuclear deal and the opposition had moved a no-confidence motion. The situation was quite fluid then and many political pundits believed that the no-confidence motion could go to the wires like the Vajpayee trust vote of 1996 and 1999. The debate preceding the no-confidence motion is usually crucial under these circumstances and so the UPA managers were working overtime to find the right mix of the eclectic and the earthy among its ranks. Sonia Gandhi, who was then supposed to rule the Congress party with an iron fist, finally came up with a list of Congress speakers just a day before the confidence vote. Among stalwarts like Pranab Mukherjee, Kapil Sibal and her own not so politically savvy son, Rahul Gandhi, there was one curious name in that list. A first time Dalit woman MP from Delhi, Krishna Tirath was one of the anointed speakers by Sonia Gandhi on the no-trust motion debate.
An out and out Congresswoman since the Indira days and a four time MLA in the Delhi Vidhan Sabha, Krishna Tirath was one of those women leaders in the party who were often described as “close confidantes” of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Indeed, Mrs. Gandhi had bestowed this Delhi MP with a free 5-year reign when she was appointed the minister of Women and Child Development in 2009 as soon as the UPA government came back to power. Despite a lackluster performance as a minister and many gaffes which included publishing a Pakistani Air Force Chief’s photograph in an Indian government advert and arbitrarily appointing her daughter as a DD news anchor, Krishna Tirath was never in danger of losing her ministry. Even the massive protests of December 2012 after the Delhi gang rape incident did not shake the Women and Child Development minister’s questionable position.
The fact that the same Krishna Tirath has joined the BJP just days ahead of Delhi assembly elections imparts two important political lessons. The primary lesson is that Congress is a sinking ship and even ultra-Gandhi family loyalists are abandoning it at such speed that the grand old party may actually collapse under its own weight much before 2019. The second lesson is that BJP, in a hurry to paint India saffron, is building an edifice that is made up of many gaps and hollow bricks.
The completely opposite path on which the fate of the two national parties is traversing is a unique political phenomena of recent history. Even when Congress’s star was on ascendance over the last decade, BJP was not so atrociously mauled at the state level where the party still had a robust support base. The present state of Congress is very close to being in the realm of what can only be described as “doomed”. Delhi would be the fifth straight state after Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir, where the Congress party would not be in contention even for the Leader of the Opposition’s place, let alone any chance of forming a government! In all these states, lest you forget, Congress was the previous ruling party (except for a brief 49-day interlude in Delhi, where too Congress had provided outside support to AAP).
The speed at which Congress is disappearing from the political mind-space is breathtaking. In Delhi, APP and BJP campaigns are attacking each other’s leaders in public rallies but neither expends any energy in taking on the Congress party. Even Narendra Modi, who had taken the whole attack on Congress to an art form in his speeches during the summer campaign last year when he would utter in a whispering voice dripping with mock respect “Shehzaade” to loud cheers from the gathered audience, did not even mention either the Congress party or its first family in his Ramlila Maidan rally this month. When we asked the question “Who is your favourite political leader in India today”, in our survey in Delhi, less than 3% of the respondents picked Rahul Gandhi as a voluntary choice! This is how inconsequential the Gandhi scion is in today’s India in a city of which he is a permanent resident. Even when explicitly given a choice, Rahul Gandhi as an option was chosen by less than 10% respondents. Compare that to the overall share of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the people’s choice and it becomes clear why Congress is facing doom while BJP is virtually undefeatable in India today.
This response from Delhi voters is consistent with another finding. When asked which would they rate higher, “the 7-month old BJP government at the center” scored 41%, while “the 49-day AAP government came a distant second at 19%” and “the 15-year old Sheila Dixit government” was not even in the race at 6% (34% of respondents did not think highly of any of the governments but that is consistent with what we term as “regularly anti-establishment” crowd in a democracy). More worryingly for AAP, 53% of respondents think that Kejriwal made a mistake by not running a government in Delhi beyond 49 days while only 22% approved of that decision which means a big chunk of AAP voters did not approve of the Kejriwal shenanigans.
On the Modi government at the center, two important issues came out of our survey. The one big disappointment for 26% voters has been the perceived “U-turn” on the black money issue – all of these responses were voluntary in nature with no multiple choice options which makes it more ominous for the BJP government. The one big achievement of Modi government, picked up by 29% of the voters of Delhi voluntarily has been “inflation”. Yes, for the first time in almost two decades, the voters in Delhi actually seem to be happy about the way the government has handled the “price rise” issue. We consider this a very significant finding. We have often seen in the past that one of the primary causes of anti-incumbency always tends to be the price rise issue (which had actually defeated the BJP government in Delhi over onion prices in 1998).
The sudden and steep fall in oil prices and the consequent sub-5% CPI inflation has really come as a boon to the Modi government and BJP is reaping a huge benefit from this. In fact, if anything, BJP is not really making as big a brouhaha about its inflationary track record as it probably should, with Delhi being an essentially middle class city-state where the price rise issue can make a big difference on the eventual outcome. This is actually a continuing phenomenon for the BJP in the last few months that most political pundits are missing out as they continue to be overwhelmed by the NaMo popularity.
Now consider this; the population of Delhi that is measured as “affluent” is 60%, i.e. people with a monthly household consumer expenditure above national urban average as per the NSSO. It is this core constituency that spends the most on buying goods and services every month and is consequently most affected by inflation. The last few months have been a dream run for this so called “affluent” class that has in turn led to BJP’s dream run in the electoral arena. Take the ordinarily most complained about criterion – retail petrol prices – the decline of which has been so acute that it has actually made a big impact on average monthly budgets of almost every middle class household in Delhi. A consistent decline over the last 6 months has turned the clock back by almost 4 years to 2011 which was when retail petrol was sold at 58 rupees in Delhi – such a reversal is unprecedented in the inflationary history of a liberalized India. Similar is the case of Diesel which has also fallen some 18% in the last 6 months from 58 to 48 rupees, thereby decreasing the prices of a host of consumer goods because of lower transportation costs.
That Delhi is essentially a middle class state is a given, but what is even more important are the kind of issues that are affecting Delhi. We had deliberately not provided options for respondents to pick in terms of “issues” on which they are likely to exercise their franchise and instead solicited a voluntary response. The responses that we received were not at all surprising. 31% of Delhi wants to vote on “security for women”; in raw vote terms, a whopping 1020 respondents in Delhi picked “women’s security” (or one of its variants like “crimes against women”) as the number one issue for Delhi assembly elections, of whom 642 were women and 378 were men.
This is where the survey findings become even more interesting. When asked who the voters of Delhi consider as the most competent leader to tackle the women’s security issues, a whopping 51% chose “Kiran Bedi” while only 24% voted for Arvind Kejriwal. That huge, almost 30% gap gives us a great insight on how voters still perceive Kiran Bedi as the “tough cop” who can make a big difference to the ever-rising crime graph of Delhi. What is more, women outnumber men by almost 3:1 in their perception of Kiran Bedi being the chosen one to tackle this issue.
The second most important problem identified by Delhi voters is the usual suspect of corruption. Here the views are quite different as 47% voters believe Kejriwal is best suited to take on corruption followed by 31% expressing confidence on Ms. Bedi. 18% of the respondents picked civic issues like “sewage, sanitation and water supply” as the primary problem facing Delhi but were deeply fragmented along localized lines in picking up a leader who can solve this problem.
At many levels, the decision to field Kiran Bedi as the leader has really paid rich dividends to BJP which was otherwise facing some competition from the Kejriwal challenge, albeit not as blown out of proportions as some of the media noise had wanted us to believe. Although this is our first real survey on the ground in Delhi and we do not have any tracker data to compare our findings, there are enough indications to believe that Kejriwal does not really have such a huge traction as was previously being claimed. One of the major pointers that we received was what can be termed as “voter fatigue”. Contrary to the high pitched media-TRP narrative, the actual ground situation in Delhi is not really as conducive for a stirring electoral battle.
One of the very first questions we asked respondents in our survey was whether they would be voting in the upcoming elections. A solid 9% of the respondents who had actually voted in at least one of the two elections in the last year seemed to be disinterested in exercising their voting rights this time around. This is quite an unusually high number, especially so close to the polls, considering the fact that in surveys voters tend to answer in the affirmative almost always when it comes to the question of exercising the democratic franchise. AAP’s non-governance of 49 days has probably left a bitter after-taste on the Delhi voters’ palate. Also, interestingly, almost 60% of this section of voters who were uninterested in elections belonged to what is usually described as the core-AAP vote-bank of Muslims and poorer sections of Delhi. Yet, we are currently projecting a 60%+ voter turnout in Delhi because the campaign is likely to pick-up in the next fortnight.
This is again where Kiran Bedi seems to have made the difference to the campaign. Conventional political logic in India has always been that the party which starts the campaign first and announces its candidate list at the earliest opportunity receives greater traction due to longer campaign time. In a small city-state like Delhi with assembly constituencies of as small as 2 kilometer ranges and, more importantly, with an electorate increasingly suffering from political fatigue, Kiran Bedi and BJP’s shorter campaign trail may actually prove to be a blessing in disguise, unlike the incessant AAP campaign.
Therefore, the timing of Amit Shah’s move to induct the former top-cop was likely a well thought out process as on the one hand it has probably stemmed the internal strife within BJP’s quarrelling Delhi unit because of such little time to react despite of the reservations against an outsider sidelining the original motley crowd, while on the other hand it has added a breath of fresh air just when the campaign of Delhi was going stale. Although our actual survey began just 1 day after the induction of Kiran Bedi into BJP, Delhi voters had already started associating her with Modi and Lotus probably because of unprecedented media coverage. In fact, in the last 2 days of our survey, when Ms. Bedi had been anointed as the official CM candidate she received even greater traction as the choice of CM. This is why we think she actually has the momentum on her side while Arvind may be stagnating as a political brand. The anointing of Bedi as the CM candidate by BJP also marks a significant shift in the BJP strategy vis-à-vis other state elections conducted in the last 3-odd months which tells us that Amit Shah doesn’t have just one hard and fast template and instead believes in absolute flexibility based on ground realities
Having a 1% actual lead over Kejriwal at such short notice is indeed an achievement for Kiran Bedi in Delhi and a major warning bell for AAP. If the Bedi momentum continues, one suspects that in the coming days she will end up gobbling up a lion’s share from the “others” and “don’t know” votes which together account for some 17% of the votes as of now.
Thus, as far as the leadership contest is concerned, BJP now has an upper-hand with Bedi challenging and possibly vanquishing Kejriwal, while Narendra Modi, the most popular leader in India today had already provided a solid base to wage the battle from. In all probability, Arvind Kejriwal’s inability to develop popular parallel leadership within AAP and instead having a one-man party has outlived its sell-by date. Today, the irony is that a civil-society inspired AAP is facing a severe shortage of leaders beyond Kejriwal because of his autocratic style, while Modi who was supposed to be a dictator has given space to a cop in his party despite her past antagonism towards him!
This is how carefully constructed media narratives crumble in India every day, but the intelligentsia shamelessly continue to peddle newer sets of lies after unceremoniously burying the older set.
[Tomorrow in Part 2, we shall see how Delhi is likely to vote in the upcoming elections based on our survey]
Note: Our poll survey was conducted in 381 locations of carefully chosen 121 swing polling stations spread across 42 representative assembly segments. We had a target sample-size of 3260, but were able to achieve 2945 pre-determined respondents derived from Delhi voter-rolls using our path-breaking filtering mechanisms. Of these, 1360 respondents were female and 1585 respondents were male. Adequate representation was given to all castes/religions and different economic classes of the Delhi society. While deriving the final numbers from our survey findings, proper statistical modelling techniques were followed giving requisite weightage to modified census data based on our own methodologies. All our interviewees went to the homes/places of dwelling of the respondents to conduct the interview in a clear language that all Delhi citizens could understand. We incurred a cost-per-response rate of 90 rupees including all the overheads. Part of the capital was raised through crowd-sourcing, but mostly was met through self-funding by Swarajya-5Forty3.