S. Nihal Singh
The AAP victory in Delhi has wider political repercussions for the country’s polity. It represents, to an extent, the first signs of disillusionment of the middle classes with some aspects of the Modi government.
Many things went wrong with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Delhi Assembly elections. The party leadership changed tack far too often and ultimately made the wrong choice to match the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, Arvind Kejriwal. First, the party’s watchword was to ride on the “Modi magic” to take the party past the winning post. Soon enough, the shrewd party strategist Amit Shah realised that, making the Prime Minister the sole party mascot in the Assembly elections would expose him to unacceptable risk. Further, it was recognised by the party leadership that there was nobody in the Delhi ranks who could match the appeal of Mr Kejriwal.
One person loomed large in the search for someone to take on the AAP leader. Kiran Bedi, a woman of some experience in the public arena through the Anna Hazare movement, had the reputation of being a competent police officer. Besides, she had been sending out unsubtle signals to the BJP that she was willing to contest elections. After much discussion, the BJP decided that it had no option but to parachute her into the election as its chief ministerial candidate. The leadership underestimated the heartburn it would cause among the party’s ranks on the assumption that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres, who form the bulk of the BJP’s foot soldiers at election time, pride themselves on their discipline and devotion.
To accentuate the problem, Ms Bedi proved to be her own worst enemy. The attributes that attracted the BJP to opt for her were her self-confidence, her ability to communicate and her good work in the cause of the less fortunate. But, soon enough, the BJP discovered that it had bargained for a different persona. In truth, she could not handle the immense challenge she had been handed. Ms Bedi’s self-confidence translated into boastfulness. She did not know how to handle the question of giving Delhi full statehood, a promise her party had reneged on.
Besides, Ms Bedi’s gaffes on television perhaps the most important aspect of campaigning in today’s television age — went on multiplying, with her imperious view of her own abilities, her assertion of full knowledge of how to solve all of Delhi’s problems and impatience with the media and her opponents for projecting a wrong image of her.
To the contrary, her main opponent, Mr Kejriwal, was cleverly modifying his public persona. To begin with, he realised that he was foolish and unwise to have given up his stint as chief minister after 49 days on an unattainable issue. He, therefore, gave a litany of speeches apologising profusely for his resignation, subtly implying that a human being can make a mistake.
A second correction Mr Kejriwal made came from his realisation that there has to be a dividing line between governance and agitation, that his act in conducting a dharna at India Gate, while being Delhi’s chief minister, did not make sense to the majority of citizens. He, therefore, promised not to repeat the exercise, except as a very last resort. A third feather in Mr Kejriwal’s cap was his emphasis on the people’s basic necessities such as water and electricity, which struck a chord.
In sum, Mr Kejriwal gave the impression of being a sincere person seeking to change the country’s political culture, particularly in controlling corruption and the long-sanctified ways of doing business of established parties, including the BJP. The AAP leader was lucky inasmuch as the Congress had become a marginal force in Delhi, to the extent that the former Delhi chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, publicly acknowledged her party’s plight long ago.
The AAP victory in Delhi has wider political repercussions for the country’s polity. It represents, to an extent, the first signs of disillusionment of the middle classes with some aspects of the Modi government. There is mounting anger over a continuing stream of outrageous statements by members of the ruling party, including legislators, too numerous to be called fringe elements, that constitute an assault on modernity and civilised conduct.
Prime Minister Modi’s inability or reluctance to take them on directly underlines his limitation in curbing the philosophical ideas of his mentor, the RSS. Prime Minister’s penchant for embracing both, the digital age as well as hoary mythology and medieval ideas, continues to throw up contradictions the middle class finds hard to swallow.
In political terms, the BJP’s great reverse in Delhi comes after a string of state Assembly triumphs, which gave the impression that the Modi juggernaut was unstoppable. Contrary to Indian political practice, the Prime Minister himself vigorously campaigned for his party in the Delhi Assembly elections. There was, thus, an incentive for the middle class to deny him complete political sway over the national landscape, given his centralisation tendencies.
Overall, the Delhi results are a healthy reminder to the BJP that the ruling party should face a vigorous Opposition in governing the country. The Congress Party having virtually vacated the space for an effective Opposition, Mr Kejriwal has smartly filled it in, in Delhi. Whether he will succeed in doing so on a broader national scale is an open question. One must exercise a note of caution, given the scale of the AAP rout in the last Lok Sabha election, but for four seats in Punjab.
Besides, it is too early to write the obituary of the Congress party just yet. The tragedy is that the party suffers from the crippling dilemma of the heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, failing to measure up and a party bereft of a Nehru-Gandhi family unable to navigate the political waters, as the history of the two splits in 1967 and 1999, so clearly shows. Some of the younger Congressmen, particularly in Rajasthan, are showing signs of sprouting new shoots at the basic political level, although a rejuvenation of the party is a long-haul venture.
Overall, the Delhi result has sprung a healthy corrective to the BJP’s sway over the country