Modi’s party concedes defeat in Delhi after polarising campaign

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party has suffered a major defeat in another key state election, after failing to win over voters in Delhi with a campaign that was one of its most polarising yet.

The anti-establishment Aam Aadmi party (AAP), which has governed the capital for the past five years, is on course to win 62 seats in the 70-seat assembly after running on an agenda centred on anti-corruption, healthcare and education, which have hugely improved during its time in power.

The BJP, meanwhile, will probably take just eight seats, only a small increase from the three seats it held previously, after a campaign that played heavily on its Hindu nationalist agenda and fearmongering against the Muslim community.

With over half the results in, the BJP national president, JP Nadda, conceded defeat. “The BJP respects the mandate given by the people of Delhi,” he said. “The BJP will play the role of a constructive opposition and will prominently raise every issue related to the development of the state.”

The prime minister, Narendra Modi, also tweeted his congratulations to the AAP.

Much of AAP’s popularity is centred on its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, once a self-confessed anarchist and anti-corruption activist, who has been highly critical of the BJP government during his time as Delhi chief minister. Speaking at a press conference after his party’s victory was assured, a visibly emotional Kejriwal said: “It is a victory of people of Delhi who considered me their son.”

While the Delhi polls are always among the most closely contested elections in India, determining who will control India’s capital city of more than 20 million people, this year felt particularly heated due to the protests that have rocked Delhi and the rest of the country in response to Modi’s new citizenship law (CAA), which critics say is prejudicial against Muslims.

Multiple AAP MPs celebrated the party’s predicted victory. “This is the victory of work over hatred,” said Amanatullah Khan, who was elected MLA for Delhi’s Okhla constituency.

The senior AAP MLA Sanjay Singh thanked Delhi’s voters for the “historic mandate”. “It took them [the BJP] the whole cabinet, 300 MPs, five chief ministers, many ex-chief ministers, their whole power but still they failed to defeat Kejriwal,” said Singh.

It appears that Congress, India’s oldest party, which had ruled Delhi for 15 years until 2013, once again failed to win a single seat.

The defeat constitutes another setback for Modi’s party, which faces the worst unrest in more than four decades.

While Modi was re-elected with a huge majority in the May 2019 national elections, at state level the BJP has not fared so well and, since December 2018, it has lost power in five states: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Jharkhand.

Much of the focus of the BJP Delhi campaign was on the female-led protests in the Muslim-majority Delhi suburb of Shaheen Bagh against the CAA. In some of their most anti-Muslim rhetoric yet, senior BJP figures out on the campaign trail frequently referred to the women as “terrorists” and anti-nationals in an attempt to pitch the election as a battle for the “unity of India”. The BJP minister Giriraj Singh said Shaheen Bagh was a “breeding ground for suicide bombers”.

The protests in Shaheen Bagh and beyond had put the BJP on the back foot for the first time, and a win in Delhi had been seen as a crucial way to recapture the narrative in its favour and demonstrate wide support for CAA.

Yogendra Yadav, an academic who was a member of the AAP executive until 2015 and now has his own party, said the result was a clear rejection of Modi and his party’s angry campaign.

“The BJP indulged in one of the most vitriolic, communal hate mongering campaigns as a desperate electoral gamble,” he told Agence France-Presse. “If this succeeded, it would have become a template for everyone else to follow.

The protests and clashes between police and demonstrators have continued. In Delhi on Monday night, students at the Muslim-majority Jamia Millia Islamia University were beaten with batons by police as they marched through the capital in protest against CAA, and there are reports the police released toxic gas to disperse the crowds.

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