Delhi Elections: How Congress Went From Numero Uno To Third Wheel
DPCC leaders protest against Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, on Nov. 3, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Delhi Elections: How Congress Went From Numero Uno To Third Wheel


The first legislative assembly in Delhi was convened in 1952, following the first general and state elections held in independent India. In that 48-seat assembly, the Congress held 39 seats with 52 percent of the votes cast, and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (which later became the BJP) in second place with 21 percent, yielding five seats. However, with the passage of the States Reorganisation Act, 1956, Delhi was made a union territory and the assembly stood abolished.

The Delhi assembly was re-created with the passage of the 69th Constitutional Amendment and the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act, 1991, and elections were held in 1993.

Bipolar Contests, Sans One

Delhi has mostly witnessed bipolar contests since the assembly’s restoration in 1993. Out of the 3.6 crore votes cast in November 1993, the BJP garnered over 47 percent, winning 49 seats in the new 70-member assembly. However, chief minister Madan Lal Khurana was unable to complete a full term, and following charges of corruption he was replaced with Sahib Singh Verma in February 1996. When onion prices surged in 1998, the BJP attempted to arrest the fall in the government’s popularity by making Sushma Swaraj the chief minister just two months ahead of assembly polls.

From 1998 to 2013, the state was a Congress fiefdom with the charismatic Shiela Dixit at the helm. Much of Delhi’s transportation overhaul with flyovers and metro rail connectivity was achieved during her tenure.

E Sreedharan, Sheila Dikshit, Ananth Kumar, AB Vajpayee, LK Advani, and ML Khurana at the launch of the first line of the Delhi Metro, on Dec 24, 2002. (Photograph: PTI)
E Sreedharan, Sheila Dikshit, Ananth Kumar, AB Vajpayee, LK Advani, and ML Khurana at the launch of the first line of the Delhi Metro, on Dec 24, 2002. (Photograph: PTI)

But all the goodwill earned with the upgrade the city-state went through ahead of the Commonwealth Games of 2010, evaporated as Congress leaders were accused of corruption at the turn of the last decade.

Rapid Slide

The capital city was gripped by the ‘India Against Corruption’ wave of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal in 2012, which targeted the UPA central government for alleged corruption in the allocation of 2G spectrum and coal mines, as well as the state government for the conduct of the 2010 CWG.

In the elections which followed in 2013, the Delhi electorate rendered a hung verdict. While the BJP emerged as the single-largest party, Arvind Kejriwal’s newly-formed Aam Aadmi Party formed the government with the Congress support. After lasting only a couple of months in its first stint, AAP swept the state in the 2015 elections, which followed a period of President’s Rule.

The 2015 vote share data shows that almost the entire voter base of the Congress (that dropped 15 percent) and smaller parties (down 10 percent) shifted to AAP (up 25 percent). An AAP victory to the scale of 67 out of 70 seats was not foreseen by any opinion poll and had not earlier been witnessed in any Hindi-speaking state.

Data suggests that whichever party clears the 40 percent vote-share mark in the state ends up winning more than 60 percent of the seats.

Independents and regional parties from the Hindi belt like the BSP, the RJD, and the JD(U) have had some influence in the past, but that’s been on a downward trend over the last few years.

Caste Versus Class: Complex Interplay

Caste and community-based identity politics and voting have been prevalent across India, and Delhi is no different. Upper castes account for 40 percent of the state’s population, with OBCs at 24 percent, Scheduled Castes at 17 percent, and Muslims at 13 percent. Traditionally, upper castes have voted for the BJP while Dalits and Muslims vote for the Congress. In the 2015 election, AAP made serious inroads into BJP’s Khatris and Bania votes, and the Congress’ Dalit-Muslim vote bank.

While Jats and Gujjars hold keys to power in south Delhi, Jats and Sikhs dominate West Delhi. The bulk of the Muslim, Dalits and Bania communities reside in North Delhi. East Delhi is dominated by Purvanchalis.

My research indicates that Purvanchalis and lower class have a dominating influence in 27 seats, Punjabis dominate in 16 seats, Muslims could influence the outcome in 13 seats, whereas slum dwellers in 28 seats. Dalits and Muslims together could be the deciding factor in 40-odd seats including the 12 seats reserved for SCs.

There is also a clear socio-economic divide in the national capital. Upper class and upper-middle-class account for 31 percent, poor and lower economic classes make up 24 percent of the population. Lower middle-class voters, who are 45 percent of Delhi’s population, could well emerge as the kingmakers. Upper class and Upper middle class have historically voted for the BJP while lower class and the poor for the Congress. The the Congress’ lower class vote somewhat shifted to the BSP during 2000-2010 and almost completely shifted to AAP in 2015 polls.

In 2015, AAP was able to form an all-encompassing umbrella of poor, lower class, lower middle class, minorities, baniyas, dalits and migrants through its social engineering efforts. It created a targeted messaging for each segment of voters and also an over-arching message. A 50 percent cut in electricity tariffs and free water appealed to the poor. AAP’s pitch of corruption-free governance attracted middle-class voters.

Strategy Gone Wrong?

There was a lot of talk last year of an AAP-Congress alliance for the Lok Sabha elections. Both parties blamed each other for talks failing over many rounds. Had the Congress secured an alliance for the general elections, it could have bargained for a few winnable seats to contest in the Vidhan Sabha elections. The party would have benefited in Delhi just like it did in Jharkhand riding on Hemant Soren’s popularity. This way it could have rejuvenated its cadre and increased its chances of sharing power.

Rahul Gandhi with Babulal Marandi and Hemant Soren  in Simdega, Jharkhand. (Photograph: PTI) 
Rahul Gandhi with Babulal Marandi and Hemant Soren in Simdega, Jharkhand. (Photograph: PTI) 

The Congress bettered its performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections recording 22-percent vote share, higher than the AAP. A majority of AAP voters chose either the BJP or the Congress at the Centre, which means that they see it largely as a regional party or a person-centric party and not a national option. On the flip side, one-fourth of Congress’ 2019 Lok Sabha voters said in a CSDS survey that they plan to vote for AAP at the state level.

The Congress hopes to bounce back from the blank it drew in 2015 by exploiting AAP’s reluctance to join the anti-CAA protests. It is eyeing the 13 seats where minority votes influence results. When Congress won 8 seats in 2013, half of them were such seats. However, anti-BJP voters may find that AAP is in a better position to take on the Modi-Shah duo, and not turn to the Congress. While pundits agree that the Congress will do better than its performance in 2015, the degree is uncertain. But, the better the Congress does, the worse it is for the Aam Aadmi party, as their vote blocks overlap.

This sets us up for an interesting election in Delhi, where the BJP is experimenting with a new hybrid strategy, AAP is coming to terms with the transition from insurgent to incumbent, and the Congress is hoping to recover after bottoming out in 2015.

Amitabh Tiwari is a political commentator, strategist, and consultant advising political parties and leaders. He was a corporate and investment banker.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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