The 2014 campaign was a pulsating and historic one but its essential architecture was unorthodox.
One of the reasons for the BJP’s victory in the Delhi municipal elections was its willingness to dump incumbent councillors. A massive 267 of the party’s 272 candidates in 2012 were changed. A majority had, of course, won the previous election. It was not as if all of them had done poorly as councillors. Some had creditable records but suffered due to the impatient mood of the capital — known to have a volatile electoral history, prone to dramatic swings — and the general perception that the BJP-run councils had severely underperformed.
In removing the 2012 candidates, the BJP achieved two things. First, it negated the anti-incumbency sentiment to quite a degree and facilitated a narrative whereby it asked voters to select not indifferent to poor local representatives but a national sentiment in favour of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Second, it achieved a generational shift in Delhi politics, a process that had been unduly delayed since 2008, when the party old guard nominated Vijay Kumar Malhotra (born 1931) as the chief ministerial candidate for the Assembly election.
That nomination had a cascading effect. It meant veterans of a similar generation dominated the 2008 campaign, rather than gently retired into the night. Consequently, the best of the municipal councillors couldn’t graduate to MLA status, and new faces, among younger party workers, couldn’t be placed in municipal politics. The long-term legacy of the 2008 campaign was felt as recently as 2015, when the Aam Aadmi Party thrashed the BJP in the Assembly election.
It left the party extremely factionalised: 70- and 80-somethings were hanging on tightly and seeking comfortable berths for their children as part of a pension plan; 50- and 60-somethings were the cheated generation of the Delhi BJP, having never been allowed a free hand, described as “youth leaders” into their mid-40s and then suddenly finding themselves too old; 40-somethings and younger party workers were itching to get into the big league, in a city driven by youth and aspirational voters.
After the debacle of 2015, Amit Shah, as president of the BJP, began an overhaul of the party’s Delhi unit. The recent set of municipal elections was a milestone in this journey, but much ground remains to be covered.
The quest is on for a chief ministerial candidate and for a new generation of acceptable Punjabi leaders, to match the party’s thrust towards the Purbaiyya (Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh) voters as well as Jat and Gujjar voters, among other communities that make up Delhi. The search is for a face (or faces) that can reflect identity loyalties but still rise above them and represent the post-identity urges of a metropolis. The route to the next Assembly election is still being charted.
While Delhi politics has its own dynamics, as does politics anywhere, in any city, any state, any region, there is one lesson from the municipal elections that can become a template for the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
A substantial if not wholesale change of sitting candidates and legislators has been attempted by Mr Modi in Gujarat more than once, in Assembly as well as local-bodies’ elections. It was part of his strategy to convert an electoral contest into a referendum on his chief ministry and an affirmation of faith in him personally, and in his individual integrity.
The formula was experimented with in Delhi, and Mr Modi’s party celebrated its success. Some people may have worried though: BJP members in the Lok Sabha. How many of the 282 elected in 2014 are going to be re-nominated and how many are going to get a Delhi-style guillotine treatment?
Especially in Uttar Pradesh which sent 71 BJP members to the Lok Sabha three years ago, there are already rumours of a majority of current MPs not being given tickets for 2019. Those who won because a wave election carried them to Parliament, and have done little since to be regarded as deserving constituency MPs, will have a reason for concern. In Bihar too, a few high-profile MPs look appropriate for retirement.
The 2014 campaign was a pulsating and historic one but its essential architecture was unorthodox. Mr Modi had little control of the party bureaucracy or organisation in Delhi. The incremental campaign and support systems he brought in had to be superimposed on an existing but underprepared infrastructure or gently introduced to complement it. Consequently, when it came to candidate selection, Mr Modi had to compromise and give in to others in many cases.
In all of those senses, 2019 will be different. Mr Modi and Amit Shah are in complete charge and, following the big win in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, should be in position to have their say. This will result in individual MPs with a poor track record being dropped. It will also mean that some of the gimmicky exercises of 2014 will be avoided. Back then, there were constituencies where film stars were given a free ride to Parliament by the Modi juggernaut, even as low-profile but long-time and dedicated party workers were not blooded in mass politics.
Finally, Mr Modi will have the opportunity of finding suitable people from outside conventional politics and having them fight relatively safer Lok Sabha seats so that he can use them in an executive role — not as lateral-entrant technocrats or Rajya Sabha inductees but as democratically elected members of the Lower House.
Here too, some existing MPs may have to yield place. As such, two years from now, the “Delhi model” is certain to leave its impact on national politics.