No matter how it is packaged, the Delhi government’s proposal offering free rides to women on metro and city buses has elections written all over it. But the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government would have us believe that the move is aimed at ensuring women’s safety, besides providing them free access to public transport. The proposal came days after the AAP suffered a drubbing in the recent Lok Sabha polls, with the BJP winning all seven seats in Delhi. For a party which won 67 out of 70 seats in the 2015 assembly polls, the alarm bells are ringing too loud to ignore with less than a year before the city-state votes to elect a new government.
The highly populist move has elicited mixed reaction from the public—from cheers to outright incredulity. Questions ranging from its feasibility to gender bias to the timing have also been raised by the BJP and other political parties. But the AAP says it is confident of implementing the scheme that will cost the Delhi government an estimated Rs 750 crore every year.
Poll sops often defy logic but chief minister Kejriwal appears to have planned his move carefully. Wooing Delhi’s politically aware woman voters could be a game-changer for the AAP next year. Bihar chief minister and JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar had done it successfully in the 2015 assembly polls; his promise of total prohibition had such a big impact that the JD(U)-led alliance of RJD and Congress had exceeded predictions to trump the BJP, mainly due to overwhelming support of woman voters.
Political analyst and psephologist Sanjay Kumar says the move will definitely help the AAP. “A large section of women will vote for AAP because of this initiative,” he tells Outlook. But he is quick to add that it was not clear if “only this effort can actually help them win another assembly elections in Delhi”. In the recent Lok Sabha polls, a majority of Delhi’s woman voters are believed to have voted the Narendra Modi-led BJP.
Hard data shows why Delhi’s 64-lakh woman voters in a 1.40-crore electorate are crucial; they outnumbered male voters in at least three out of seven parliamentary constituencies. In state polls, this could mean several assembly segments. AAP strategists would also have been swayed by the fact that in the recent Lok Sabha polls, the party didn’t manage to win even a single assembly segment—the BJP was on top in 65 assembly segments and the Congress in five.
AAP leader Saurabh Bharadwaj, however, plays down the results as an aberration, saying that the polls turned into a personality battle between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. “Those who opted BJP, voted for Modi and those who didn’t want BJP, voted for Congress,” he says. “However, Kejriwal will be their first option for Delhi.” It’s this belief that is behind the AAP’s strategy for next year’s crucial polls, including coining a new slogan, “Kejriwal for Delhi”.
Political analyst Praveen Rai also feels that the free ride scheme for women could benefit the party. “Looks like AAP has woken up after the massive defeat. If the plan is implemented properly, it will translate into votes. (But) I feel that it came a little late. It would have fetched better results, had the plan been implemented earlier,” Rai says.
But AAP’s problems are much bigger than just holding on to power in Delhi. For the party, it’s now a matter of survival. Once seen as an alternative to mainstream parties like the Congress and BJP, the AAP’s fortunes have dipped drastically in recent times. In the recent elections, it won just one seat—in Punjab—out of 40 it had contested. The party’s vote share also dipped to 18 per cent from 32.9 per cent in the 2014 general elections. Infighting in state units and its inability to cobble up an alliance with the Congress, despite long-drawn talks, in Delhi also played a big part in the AAP’s performance. Party leaders, however, point out that even if the two parties had fought together, their cumulative vote share would have still fallen short of the BJP. That perhaps explains the shock loss of its star candidates like Atishi Marlena and Raghav Chadha.
Despite the promise of freebies and the early start, Sanjay Kumar has a grim warning for the party. “AAP cannot perform the way it performed in 2015. I don’t see them completely being marginalised in Delhi politics but they would find it difficult to hold on to power in Delhi,” he says “It will be a three-way fight and again the BJP will be the beneficiary.”
- Delhi’s 64-lakh woman voters are crucial—they outnumber male voters in three out of seven LS constituencies.
- But AAP’s problems are much bigger than just holding on to power in Delhi; it’s now a matter of survival.