Continuity vs neglect: AAP, BJP’s narrative battle shapes Delhi bypoll contest

Major elections in Delhi since 2014 have thrown up clear winners, with the BJP winning all seven Lok Sabha seats in the last two general elections and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sweeping the last two Vidhan Sabha polls by winning 67 and 62 of the 70 Assembly seats respectively. But when it comes to bypolls in the same period, Delhi has tended to not follow the script and has thrown up surprises.

Later this month, another high-profile bypoll awaits the national Capital. On June 26, voters in Rajinder Nagar will head to the polls necessitated by the elevation of the AAP’s Raghav Chadha to the Rajya Sabha. The ruling party has fielded Durgesh Pathak for the bypoll and is banking on Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s popularity and “continuity for development” poll plank to see it through.

“The message is simple — that CM Arvind Kejriwal has taken Delhi to new heights of development and we will ask for public support so that continuity is maintained. People have seen how BJP has targeted poor people using bulldozers. They do not want such a model in Rajinder Nagar. The BJP is so terrified of the Kejriwal model of governance that they ran from the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) elections,” Pathak said.

Some in the BJP are hoping for a repeat of the two 2017 bypolls in which the parties whose actions necessitated the elections ended up losing. “The AAP MLA not just left people, despite being in the Delhi Jal Board (Chadha is its vice-chairman) there is water scarcity,” said BJP spokesperson Praveen Shankar Kapoor. Pathak dismissed the claims.

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In April 2017, two years after its emphatic victory in the Assembly elections, the AAP faced a bypoll in Rajouri Garden after its MLA Jarnail Singh stepped down to contest the Punjab Assembly poll against then Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. But Singh ended up losing the election. In the Delhi bypoll, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, the joint candidate of the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), triumphed by more than 10,000 votes while the AAP’s Harjeet Singh ended a distant third, behind the Congress, by polling just 10,243 votes.

At the time, BJP supporters were quick to interpret the AAP’s 2015 victory as a fluke, while Congress supporters saw it as an indication of their revival as the saffron party’s principal challenger. “Neither of it was true,” said a senior AAP leader. “The AAP had lost the Rajouri bypoll because there was anger against Jarnail Singh for leaving the voters within a year and going to Punjab. It looked arrogant that if the people had shown so much support, then one should have held on to the post.”

A few months down the road, in August, another bypoll followed after the AAP MLA from Bawana, Ved Parkash, resigned from the Assembly and joined the BJP. In a blow to the Opposition party, Parkash failed to retain the seat that he had won comfortably two years earlier. The AAP won by 24,052 votes while the BJP, which came second, saw its votes drop by almost half compared to the 2015 elections.

“In two years’ time, the people of Bawana saw the same person fighting from two different parties. This had not just upset the people but also our own candidate (in 2013 and 2015 Assembly polls) Gugan Singh had been a long-time party worker,” said a BJP leader.

But the narrative of Chadha abandoning the constituency will not be enough to counter the AAP, feel some BJP insiders. “One, you will have to field a local, and second the message has to be taken to the village level. The odds are equal because the general perception in the bypolls is to give a chance to the party in power, while in the past candidates who left caused resentment,” said a Delhi BJP office-bearer.

The leader added, “However, the reason why bypoll elections become a different ballgame in Delhi is also because people know that their vote will not change anything at the top … that is, the chief minister will not be changed. They know that they will continue to get free water and electricity. As a reason, issues like local candidates and local issues become more important.”

Not just elections to the Assembly, recent civic body bypolls have also seen surprising results. In March 2021, the AAP won four of the five by-elections in the MCD. But the ruling party lost its Chauhan Banger seat to the Congress. The BJP, despite having a majority in the three civic bodies that were reunified as MCD last month, lost its stronghold of Shalimar Bagh.

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