The Aam Aadmi Party's victory in the Bawana by-poll is being exaggerated as a comeback for the party, as proof of success of the AAP's new strategy of lying low and focusing on governance in Delhi.
It does show the AAP has fighting spirit left in it. The result is a morale booster for the party after it lost Punjab and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections. It will also deter other AAP MLAs from defecting to the BJP, knowing that victory in a by-poll is not guaranteed.
By-polls are too minute, too local. Drawing larger political inferences from it is a mistake committed by the media after every by-poll.
The Bawana result does not mean that after defeat in municipal elections in May, the AAP is back in favour with voters. Here's why.
1.Back the ruling party. The party in power usually wins by-polls. It is the aberration that is noteworthy. The by-polls in Nandyal in Andhra Pradesh, and in two constituencies in Goa, have also gone to the ruling parties in the two states. The AAP's own pitch in Bawana was 'we are the party in power, we're best placed to bring you benefits from the Delhi government'.
2.One seat only. It is not a reflection of what all of Delhi thinks about the AAP. It is only what one hard-fought constituency thinks. If a Delhi assembly election were to be held today, it is still likely the BJP may do better than AAP. The Congress and AAP would be fighting for the number 2 and 3 slot. After all, the MCD elections the BJP won were just three months ago.
3.MLA anti-incumbency. It helped that AAP didn't face MLA-level anti-incumbency in Bawana. That was because the by-poll was held in the first place because their MLA had defected to the BJP, and hence was disqualified under the anti-defection law.
The AAP campaign made the defecting MLA, now the BJP candidate, the villain. In other words, the AAP campaign admitted their MLA hadn't done much in the 2.5 years he was in charge. If anything, this proves how unpopular AAP MLAs are. Whenever the next Delhi assembly elections are held — due in 2020 — MLA anti-incumbency will indeed be a big problem for the AAP. In 67 of 70 seats, no less.
4.Still no narrative in Delhi. The AAP wants us to believe the Bawana by-poll victory is proof of the success of chief minister Arvind Kejriwal's new strategy of lying low. The idea is that the AAP would eschew national politics, give up targeting Narendra Modi, and instead focus on building its image as a performer in Delhi. However, a hard-fought Bawana by-poll victory is not proof of the success of this strategy.
The AAP government is seen as trying, but incremental achievements in health and education are not enough. The man on the street in Delhi is still talking only about Modi, not about any great turnaround of Delhi by the Kejriwal government. The Congress candidate in Bawana, locally popular, lost because the Congress has no popular narrative for Delhi, or India.
5.Still no national narrative. It is a mistake for the AAP to think it can retain Delhi, an urban megapolis, without setting a national narrative. It was through national agenda setting that the AAP had presented itself to Delhi's voters. It is through Narendra Modi's national agenda-setting that the BJP is winning elections from panchayat to Parliament.
Just as putting all eggs in the Punjab basket was a mistake, putting all eggs in the Delhi basket is a mistake. The big question is, what does the AAP stand for? Voters still don't have an answer — and no, there is no Delhi model of governance yet to serve as an answer to that question.
6.Will Modi let AAP succeed in governance? The Modi government has stymied the Aam Aadmi Party's government in Delhi, using Delhi's status as half-state and half-union territory to make the Lt Governor's office more powerful than it used to be. The trouble with AAP trying to create a Delhi model of governance is that the central government won't let it. Through CBI and courts, LG's office and the central government itself, the AAP's grand plans at governance and advertising them will be prevented. After the Bawana victory, expect renewed vigour on that front.
This is another reason why putting all eggs in the Delhi basket is a mistake. You can use incumbency to win Bawana but the anti-incumbency AAP will face in 2019 and 2020 in Delhi will be something else.