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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 10, March 9, 2024

Political Polarization on Citizen Amendment Act and Campaign Strategies in Delhi Assembly Elections, 2020 | V.K. Sridhar

Saturday 9 March 2024


Political Polarisation denotes a pronounced division of ideologies among opposing factions, accompanied by heightened partisanship and a breakdown in cross-party collaboration. The escalating religious polarisation in India’s election campaigns is characterised by divisive rhetoric and the integration of religion and identity politics. Propelled by the intricacies of caste-community-region dynamics, such polarisation impedes the mobilisation of these communities. When we examine the 2020 Delhi Assembly elections, we find that the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) accentuated the Shaheen Bagh protest, making it a central element of polarisation and its politics by recurrently referencing the Anti-CAA protests in their election campaigns. Conversely, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) focussed on its track record of development initiatives and people-friendly schemes implemented over the past five years. This paper aims to analyse the reasons behind the BJP’s limited success with a polarizing strategy in Delhi, India’s capital city. It delves into the consequences of political polarisation and extracts lessons from the Delhi elections. By addressing these inquires, the paper aims to provide nuanced insights into the intricacies and repercussions associated with such political polarisation, contributing to the academic discourse.


THE DELHI ASSEMBLY election in February 2020 stands out due to the unique setup where both the Central Government and State Government, both emphasised their specific policies, slogans, schemes, programmes to influence the electorate. The ‘election campaign’ serves as a bridge connecting voters to political content such as ideology, manifesto and leader’s charisma and are often used to convey messages or agendas. The polarisation of election campaigns have played a vital role in shaping Indian politics over the years, with outcomes ranging from parties winning elections based on effective campaigning to others failing to resonate with the electorate.

The BJP’s consolidation following the 2019 Lok Sabha elections resulted in the implementation of major citizenship-related policies, including the abrogation of triple Talaq, the scrapping of Article 370 and 35A (Special Autonomy Status for Jammu and Kashmir), the settlement of the Ayodhya dispute in favour of the Hindu party and the introduction of the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) along with the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). The Citizen Amendment Act, 2019 aims to grant citizenship to immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who belong to non-Muslim religions. It asserts that religious minorities in these countries face persecution, and those Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who entered India legally or illegally from these countries prior to 31 December 2014 will be eligible for Indian citizenship. The Bill excludes individual of the Muslim faith, victims of political persecution, and refugees from countries like Srilanka, Myanmar and other neighbours.

The passage of the bill led to protests at Shaheen Bagh in south Delhi, notably led by a group of resident Muslim women. Their indefinite protest called for the repeal of the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizen (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR), denouncing these as ‘anti-Muslim’ (Hassan, 2018). The anti-CAA protests contended that the Indian Constitution forms the basis for their resistance, citing Article 14, which ensures equal protection before the law for all citizens. They argued that the CA Act is discriminatory against the persecuted minorities in the country and expressed concerns about potential statelessness. The uniqueness of the resistance lies in its utilization of India’s Constitution preamble, speeches reaffirming citizenship and the signing of patriotic songs to challenge majoritarian politics with themes of love (mohabbat) and inclusivity in both discourse and practice (Basu and Amna Pathan, 2022; 301-336).

BJPs tenor of Campaign centred on CAA

The BJP strategically appealed to the ‘Hindu’ identity to evoke a majoritarian pro-Hindutva sentiment wherein the majority perceives the country as belonging to it. This is articulated through right-wing populism, with the Hindu majority forming the core, and the marginalising of particularly the Muslim community, lies at the heart of its pursuit for a Hindu Rashtra or State (Sahoo, 2023, 60-77). The BJP employs the identity of the Other by portraying the Muslim identity as a terrorist, religious extremist, Pakistan loyalist, anti-Hindu, and traitor to consolidate the Hindu vote. At the same time, it lambasts its opposition – during the 2020 assembly polls this was the Congress and AAP party, who it accused of ‘Muslim appeasement’ (Ali, 2020: 16-30).

The BJP campaigns centred around the Shaheen Bagh protest are not viewed as mere ‘coincidence’ but a well-thought out ‘experiment’ npainting it as a cover for jihadis, anarchists and urban Naxals. It has been flagged as a threat to the nation’s security or a potential cause of disintegration of India (Vivek, 2020). The BJP’s campaign featured the infamous election slogan urging voters to ‘press the button (of the electronic voting machine) with such anger that Shaheen Bagh feels the current (electric shock)’ and along with the slogan, Desh Ke Gaddaron ko goli maro salon ko (traitors of the country, shoot the bastards). Expressions like Hindu Rashtra Zindabad and Humare Desh Mein Kisi ki nahi chalegi, sirf Hinduon ki chalegi (In our country, only Hindus will have their way, no one else) were prevalent (Vivek, 2020).

The 2020 campaign, thus, highlights instances of ‘Hate speech against minorities’ in election speeches, coupled with stigmatisation based on religious attire, further exacerbating the Muslim community’s marginalisation in the eyes of the Hindu majority. The vocalisation of the socio-cultural differences created lack of empathy or emotional support for the Muslims from other communities (Aeijaz, 2023).

The BJP relies ideologically on political polarisation, reducing national and policy issues to two extreme opposing views. It actively promotes the Hindu vision and Majoritarian path, defining itself primarily in exclusion or opposition to Muslims, rather than focusing solely on electoral outcomes. The BJP has strategically positioned the Muslim community as props for liberals, portraying all liberal-socialist framework as those embedded with Western values and undermining Indian ethos, thereby labelling all ideologies left of their own as ‘internal enemies’ of the country.

The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) the parent body of BJP, advocates for Hindu majoritarianism and nationalism through their various wings such as women, students, schools and temples, with dedicated cadres supporting the party. The RSS aversion towards Islam and Christianity stems from the perceived inability of these religious groups to assimilate into the chaturvarna social order. The BJP’s anti-Muslim campaigns during every election stem from the parent ideology. Golwalkar in his book, We or Our Nationhood Defined, emphasises the assimilation of people who have migrated from outside into the national race, urging them to lose consciousness of their separate existence and adopt the national culture (Mahadeva, 2022), meaning the ‘Hindu’ culture, which it defined as Hindutva.
Media Support

The lack of empowerment and equal treatment of Muslims, coupled with the BJP’s commitment to development, has resulted in the detachment and distancing of strong political entities like the AAP and Congress from the Muslim community to avoid the appeasement label. Though the Congress politically took the position of supporting the anti-CAA movement, its lack of effective communication strategy contributed to a triangular contest that favoured the BJP. The Congress party criticized the BJP’s approach to granting citizenship based on religion, language, and country of origin, deeming it retrogressive and instigating communal conflict. The BJP called the protest movement at Shaheen Bagh violent, conspiratorial and communal, attributing selective Islamic terror by Indian Muslims. It also alleged the helping hand of hidden co-conspirators and demonised political opposition as ‘radicals seeking to undermine traditional Indian values’ (Maidual islam, 2022; 59-87). Primetime shows by news media channels like Halla Bol (Aaj Tak), The Debate (Republic TV) and India Upfront (Times Now) and information aligned with the BJP’s campaign and shared information, created a symbiotic relationship (Uncertain Justice, 2020) between the media and the Hindutva campaign.

Social media has become a significant space for political parties to propagate views and engage in debates. Platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook (now X), twitter and You Tube serve as major forums for sharing information, publish content, opinions, videos, and sharing hate messages (Neyazi, 2017). Tweets posted on 23 January 2020 suggested a contest between Hindustan and Pakistan on the streets of Delhi and the alleged creation of mini-Pakistans in various areas of Delhi, pointing clearly to the BJP’s attempt to turn the assembly election into an anti-Muslim vote. The BJP, in its 2020 campaign, sought to convince the public of its unwavering commitment to its agenda, criticising other parties for compromising their Hindu identity for electoral gains.

AAP’s Campaign on Performance

The key feature of the AAP campaign in the 2020 Assembly election was its deliberate avoidance of any anti-Modi tirade throughout the election, maintain a clear distinction between the national general and the State-local elections. The party focused on urging voters to support Chief Minster Arvind Kejriwal for his demonstrated performance and improved facilities without antagonising the Hindu majority (Waghmore, 2020). AAP said it believed that the State level elections should be fought on local issues, and it strategically refrained from engaging in ideological confrontations, unlike the BJP, which did not announce or project a Chief Minister candidate, framing the election as, Kejriwal vs Who?

The election strategy of AAP focused on governance and its delivery mechanisms, emphasising achievements such as Mohalla Clinics, Government Schools, Free Electricity and Water, Free Bus Rides for Women. Traditional public address was replaced with Jan Samvad (public dialogue) and Mohalla Sabhas, fostering direct communication with residents to discuss local issues, challenges, and areas requiring attention. AAP consciously avoided ideological debates on the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) during the elections, recognising the potential risk of being perceived as pro-Muslim in the context of BJP’s emphasis on the sentiments of the Hindu Majority (Patnaik, 2020). AAP distanced itself from the CAA protests, recognising the futility of competing with the BJP on issues of nationalism and Hindutva.

The party acknowledged that maintaining a calculated distance allowed it to criticise the Central Government’s incapability to maintain law and order, citing incidents like violence in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia Islamia. While not adopting an anti-Muslim stance, AAPs pragmatic approach involved maintaining silence towards the Shaheen Bagh protests, avoiding contentious politics and positioning itself as a principled opponent with ideological convenience in contemporary India.

The bottom-up approach adopted by AAP prioritises local issues that resonate with the daily struggles of the people of Delhi. Despite BJP allegations that AAP has neglected Central Government Schemes for the poor, AAP strategically presents its own welfare schemes, such as Mohalla Clinic and Government Schools, as distinct initiatives that cater to the unique needs of Delhi. These social welfares serve as a potent strategy against the majoritarianism of Hindutva, focusing on citizen well-being rather than engaging in religious discourse or framing debates around secularism vs communalism. The success of welfare programmes, including electricity, free bus ride for women, Mohalla Clinics within their reach, has played a crucial role in ignoring hysteria and securing electoral support (Gudavarty, 2022).


The Delhi Assembly elections highlight the potential and limitations of polarisation as a potent campaign tool. Despite the BJP’s campaign on the Citizen Amendment Act, the results did not favour the party, and the AAP secured a significant victory, winning 62 out of 70 assembly seats with a marginal reduction in vote share from 54.3% to 53.6% in the 2020 election. The BJP’s seat tally increased from three to eight, and the vote percentage improved from 32.2% in 2015 to 38.49% in 2020.

The Congress failed to create a triangular contest and this benefited the BJP. Instead of supporting AAP as an ally, the Congress party criticised the AAP as being BJP’s B team, alleging the party’s silence during the post-election riots in North East Delhi.

The BJP’s prolonged absence from power in Delhi, spanning over 26 years, is attributed to weak leadership, factionalism and an over-reliance on national leaders and issues for electoral success. Post-election polarisation on the CAA resulted in extreme viewpoints, leading to violence against Muslims in East Delhi. Riots concentrated in areas such as Seelampur-Jaffrabad-Maujpur Road, Gautampuri, Chandbagh, Jafferabad, Gokulpuri resulted in 53 fatalities, over 200 injuries, and extensive damage to places of worship, homes, schools and commercial establishments.

The alarming rise of hate speeches across India during public rallies, inciting violence, has become a regular occurrence in recent years. Despite the Election Commission’s limited actions, such as banning political leaders, no substantial measures have been taken. The reputation of the Election Commission has been questioned due to perceived biases in issuing notices to speakers during the election campaign, raising concerns about its impartiality Hate speeches, including calls for genocide by fringe elements, continue to be a prevalent issue and this expected to be repeated in the forthcoming general elections in summer. Legislators and even ministers openly speak against minority communities, highlighting the need for stricter regulations. However, it remains a complex political problem, and any solution must be sought through political means. The Delhi Assembly elections in 2020 succeeded in pushing the political opponents to the right, and compelling them to engage on those terms,

(Author: V K Sridhar is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi, 110021. Email: vksridhar19[at]


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