LAST MAY Narendra Modi won a triumphant second term as India’s prime minister, with a thumping majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. The showing by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was particularly strong in Delhi, the capital. It grabbed all seven of the National Capital Territory’s parliamentary seats. Yet just nine months later, results pouring in from elections to the capital region’s assembly on February 11th show the BJP winning a scant eight out of its 70 seats. In other words, its take might be said to have dropped from 100% to just 11%.
This drubbing may be dismissed as a small dent in the Modi juggernaut: Delhi’s 20m people amount to less than 2% of India’s population, and the party that thrashed the BJP is politically irrelevant beyond the city limits. Even so, the vote represented an early plebiscite, in a part of India where the BJP has particularly deep roots, over the divisive social policies Mr Modi has adopted in his second term, as well as over his handling of an increasingly shaky economy. It also represented a test for a new, more aggressive style of BJP campaigning: at the Delhi hustings the Hindu-nationalist party dropped any pretence of inclusive statesmanship, engaging instead in one of the loudest and ugliest displays of raw sectarian bigotry ever witnessed in Indian politics.
There are two obvious explanations for the party’s slide. The one Mr Modi might prefer is that Delhi’s voters draw an unusually stark distinction between national and local elections. There is much truth to this. The local Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a newish political force that grew out of a popular anti-corruption movement and has run the city since 2015, has done a creditable job improving basic services. It has cleaned up schools, built dozens of affordable local health centres and curtailed petty graft. The image it projects is of folksy modesty with a social conscience. But although the AAP symbol of a broom suggests better housekeeping, it does not inspire voters, as Mr Modi does, with visions of India’s national grandeur.
The fact is that the last time Delhi-wallahs voted for their local assembly, in 2015, AAP did even better, taking 67 out of 70 seats, again just months after the BJP had snatched all seven of the city’s parliamentary seats. And it is true that despite its failure to increase its seat tally substantially in the latest election, the BJP did strongly boost its vote share, from just 32% to 38.5%*. The AAP’s remained much the same, at 54%.
Yet a world of difference separates the two Delhi polls. In 2015 Mr Modi’s party was also relatively fresh and inexperienced. Now it is a behemoth. Not only does the BJP enjoy the lion’s share of Indian political funding, and command a pack of gleefully partisan television stations. Its control of central ministries gives it bullying rights over such key institutions as the Delhi police and the national election commission. The party’s Delhi campaign, overseen by Amit Shah, the home minister and Mr Modi’s closest henchman, put all this vigorously into play. The other explanation for the BJP’s failure to make ground in Delhi this time is that many citizens were simply disgusted by its campaign.
The contest took place against the backdrop of broad national unrest. This was precipitated by Mr Modi’s determination to push through new citizenship rules that many Indians, especially minorities, fear will ultimately strip them of rights and erode the secular principle of equality before the law. Among many forms of protest, one particularly noisy challenge has been mounted by hundreds of women in Shaheen Bagh, a working-class, largely Muslim neighbourhood of Delhi, who since mid-December have occupied a busy thoroughfare, refusing to move until Mr Modi backs down. Thousands of others have joined their round-the-clock vigil, turning it into a carnival of opprobrium that has spawned scores of copycat sit-ins across the country.
In its campaign, the BJP insistently strove to depict Shaheen Bagh’s mothers and housewives as dangerous incubators of treachery and terrorism. “This fire can anytime reach the households of Delhi,” fulminated Parvesh Verma, one of the party’s MPs. “These people will enter your house, will abduct your sisters and mothers, rape them, kill them, that’s why today is the moment!” Mr Verma even screeched that Arvind Kejriwal, the bespectacled, cardigan-wearing former tax inspector who heads the AAP, was a dangerous terrorist. Another MP, who happens to be the junior minister of finance in Mr Modi’s government, whipped a rally into a frenzy against the prime minister’s critics, leading the crowd to chant, “Shoot the bastards, shoot the bastards!”
Such excesses sparked little adverse comment from the fawning television channels that dominate Hindi-language broadcasting. So tilted was the coverage on Republic TV that when cameras caught a pro-government vigilante firing a pistol at protesters in broad daylight, it first screamed that such imagery proved the protests had turned violent, then moderated this to an “analysis” that blamed the protesters for “provoking” the shooter.
It is telling that in the wake of the poll results, such outlets changed their tune again. Commenting on the BJP’s defeat, Sudhir Chaudhary, an anchor on Zee TV, launched a tirade against the voters of Delhi, using coded slurs against the country’s 14% Muslim minority. “They do not care that Mughal rule will return…nor are they worried that the country will break up,” he lamented. “The people of Delhi are completely caught up in their daily lives and don’t care two hoots for what happens to the rest of the country.” Mr Chaudhary may have it wrong. If the rest of the country was watching the BJP’s effort to pump up sectarian fury in Delhi, it might get different ideas about who is trying to break the country.
* Since publication, this figure was updated in step with the election commission’s final count.