Within hours of vote-counting in high-stake New Delhi state elections, it quickly became clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was facing a major defeat by the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
According to official results, the AAP secured over 60 out of the 70 seats, while Modi's BJP managed to win just 8 seats and the Indian National Congress drew at zero. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who launched the AAP in 2012, is set to continue his post.
During its election campaign, the AAP focused on combating graft in India's political system. The party also drew attention to its earlier efforts in improving public schools and healthcare. The AAP came to position itself as a party with pro-poor, welfare policies. Tuesday's results showed that the AAP's message has struck a chord with New Delhi voters.
Some believe voters turned to the AAP because they feel the BJP has exploited India's faultlines, exacerbating tensions between Muslims and Hindus.
"Finally, hate speeches, guns, bullets, fear-mongering, and targeting Muslims backfired so badly. People saw through their disruptive narrative and democracy has won,” AAP spokesperson Jasmine Shah told DW.
Critics say much of the BJP's campaign has sought to divide on the basis of religion in the hopes of consolidating Hindu voters behind it - a tactic that has worked for the BJP in other states. In 2019, the party secured a vast majority in parliament during the general elections.
"Delhi has protected the soul of India. It has exposed the machinations of the BJP and now people will see through the divisive agenda of the party," Pawan Verma of the Congress party told DW.
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Citizenship bill sparks mass protests
For BJP members, Delhi's election is a test of Modi's popularity after months of sometimes violent protests against the controversial citizenship law that passed in December last year.
Delhi has been at the center stage of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Shaheen Bagh, a predominantly Muslim middle-class locality in the city, has been the epicenter of Delhi's protests, inspiring copycat protests across India. At least 40 people have died in the protests.
The citizenship bill was widely viewed as discriminatory against India's Muslims, who make up nearly 15% of the country's population of 1.3 billion. Indian Muslims feared the law could be used in combination with the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) to harass and disenfranchise them. Critics say the citizenship law, which fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslims from three neighboring countries, goes against the country's secular constitution.
"This result in Delhi is not a referendum on the citizenship law. It will be carried out. We lost because of the local issues in the campaign," BJP's Seshadri Chari told DW.
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The BJP's election campaign was primarily spearheaded by Interior Minister Amit Shah. The former BJP president held a record 47 election campaign events that included 35 rallies and nine road shows.
Some political analysts believe that the BJP began deploying methods to mobilize hardline supporters when it sensed success at the election campaign evaporating. Analysts say the tactics included boosting Hindu nationalism and anti-Pakistan rhetoric in BJP campaigns.
Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Hindu nationalist Yogi Adityanath stated during his campaign that while the government fed "bullets to traitors," Kejriwal from the AAP treated them with "biryani" [mixed rice dish].
During his campaign, BJP MP Anurag Thakur referred to the anti-citizenship protesters as the "country's traitors," prompting crowds to chant back "shoot them."
In June last year, a US State Department report on international religious freedom documented in India cases of religiously motivated killings, discrimination, vandalism and restrictions on individuals to practice their religious beliefs.
"The ideologues of the BJP are not interested in winning Delhi but in cementing the core Hindu vote and then similarly across India to launch its Hindu nation project," said political analyst Meghnad Desai.
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BJP popularity wanes
The Delhi elections are likely to further damage Modi following a slew of electoral losses in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand states polls.
Political analysts believe the high-profile Delhi verdict could be a wake-up call for the BJP to reassess its strategy in light of the upcoming assembly elections in Bihar and West Bengal.
"It was the dirtiest election campaign ever witnessed in India's electoral history. It was toxic and I hope there is some introspection in the BJP," political analyst Sudheendra Kulkarni told DW.
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