Politics 2020, Telegraph Calcutta

A ‘prayog’ against polarisation

Twice in successive Lok Sabha and Assembly rounds, Delhi has voted with instructive schizophrenia, endorsing Narendra Modi unreservedly at the Centre, effusively rejecting him in favour of Arvind Kejriwal for the state.

The number of those who vote bigamously depending on the election must remain astoundingly high.

Tuesday’s resounding verdict for the AAP suggests that while Modi remains unchallenged by party or person nationally, a credible regional dare to him can hold ground. And handsomely, as Kejriwal’s second sweep of Delhi demonstrates.

It probably also suggests, not for the first time, that an established governance record, tempered with the right political strategy, can defeat the most blatant and belligerent attempts to polarise the electorate and extract majoritarian victories.

This is how the first electoral shock was delivered to Modi post his 2014 steamroll — working to strategies worked out by strategist Prashant Kishor, Nitish Kumar deftly joined hands with arch rival Lalu Prasad and punched Modi down in the 2015 Assembly elections.

Just as in Bihar in 2015, the BJP appeared desperate enough to grab Delhi to resort to the ugliest tricks in the book; its campaign was littered with personal slander against opponents, unembarrassed attempts to communalise the campaign, bellicose intimidation of the minorities who were, through the canvassing, also the lead act of the anti-CAA protests in various parts of this city.

Okhla’s Shaheen Bagh, where ladies have led a defiant picket for close to two months now, became the central metaphor of the BJP’s campaign, an omnibus code-word for pinioning the minorities as troublemakers, anti-nationals and card-carriers of Pakistan.

Amit Shah exhorted Delhi to vote with a vehemence that would send electric currents to Shaheen Bagh. Modi warned ominously that Shaheen Bagh was an “experiment, not a coincidence” — “sanyog nahin, prayog hai”.

The shrill “goli maaro saalon ko” cry resounded from many a BJP stage. Kejriwal was labelled a terrorist and the battle for Delhi itself was projected by some BJP leaders as a battle between India and Pakistan.

Delhi spurned that. The biggest victory the AAP recorded was on the Shaheen Bagh seat. But that only tells part of the story of how the BJP’s bid to polarise the vote has failed. Handier proof is probably this: the Muslim population of Delhi is shy of 13 per cent; the AAP’s total vote share was nearly 54 per cent, the BJP scored 38 and a few decimal per cent.

But there is another way of looking at this. The Congress has lost more than half of its 2015 vote share; the BJP has gained, most likely at the Congress’s expense.

The exhilaration in the AAP camp, and the fervid felicitation of Kejriwal from the likes of Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu, Jagan Mohan Reddy, Hemant Soren, M.K. Stalin, Akhilesh Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav might suggest that the non-BJP, non-Congress parties are probably drawing a fresh breath of hope from how Delhi has voted. But there is very little to suggest that the AAP’s victory can be interpreted as a sign of a larger political shift.

The Congress, drastically reduced but yet the only Opposition party with a national footprint, is leaderless and directionless. It lacks a narrative, it makes no pretence of working on one. Today, it was left trying to derive solace from the defeat of the BJP’s divisive campaign, but it is not the party that was even able to play a minimal role in that. Strong regional groups are unable to agree on an umbrella under which they can gather with common purposes; each is busy trying to survive in its bastion.

Bihar, which is the next big stage for electoral duelling, itself offers reasons why the opposition to Modi and his BJP should remain wary of over-reading the meaning of its victories.

The Nitish-led Mahagathbandhan’s victory in Bihar had held out hope for a wider formation that could credibly take on Modi. But it was short-lived; the BJP was able to lure Nitish away from Lalu Prasad and now dominates the course of the coalition in the state.

Modi has suffered reverses in many states since he came to the helm in 2014, most famously at the hands of the Congress in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan just months ahead of the 2019 election. But when Modi himself came onto the poll ticket as prime ministerial candidate, he faced no competition.

As one Congress leader said privately as he watched his party washed out a second time and the AAP cadres exhort Kejriwal to higher ambitions with cries of “PM! PM!” at his victory appearance: “Kejriwal himself would do well to remember what happened when he tried to expand his footprint the last time. He quickly became wise to the idea that he better stick to Delhi.”

But who’s to prevent a renewal of wider ambitions on the anvil of such a spectacular victory? Especially with the likes of Prashant Kishor juggling away with the poll Rubik in the backrooms.

His recent ouster from Nitish’s JDU notwithstanding, Kishor remains a strategist at play with envious cross-connections and influences. He began to work for Kejriwal a few months ahead of the elections. He has been micro-managing strategy for Mamata Banerjee. He plotted Jagan Reddy’s march to power in Andhra and remains in close touch. He has active links with the ruling family of Maharashtra, the Thackerays. He remains fired by the imagination of fashioning a political alternative to the Modi-Shah project.

As the AAP celebrates, Kishor would most likely have moved to mulling what next.

2013, Journalism, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Kejriwal: Not About Where He Came From But Where He Could Go

New Delhi, Dec. 8: The question quite suddenly is not where Arvind Kejriwal came from to slay a three-term giant and threaten conquest of her kingdom. The question quite suddenly is where Arvind Kejriwal can go from here.

A formidable political reputation has been notarised by the public in the capital; the country’s attentions lie riveted. Are these the first steps towards a wider trampling of the existing political template? Is this the clarion of a new manifesto of change? Not from this party to that, or from one “ism” to another, but a fundamental change in the rules of the game, the overlaying of a new political ethic being righteously proclaimed as the only pure one, a takht badal do, taj badal do, beimaanon ka raaj badal do ethic.

Knowing him, Kejriwal probably isn’t terribly ruing he didn’t win Delhi; knowing him, he’s probably elated he has been spared the reins and afforded the freedom to travel beyond with the message of his big-bang debut.

It was not merely Delhi he had set out to take, it was always a place called India. That objective lies plainly stated on his Twitter handle for anyone to grasp. “Political revolution in India has begun,” it goes, “Bharat jaldi badlega.” (India will soon change.)

Among the more popular descriptors used for Kejriwal by AAP peers is “lambi race ka ghoda”, a man who’s in for the long haul. Delhi, even if captured, was never going to contain Kejriwal. Delhi unconquered is going to leave him free to run more ambitious missions.

There were those who rushed to annotate Kejriwal’s stunning step onto the centrestage with unsolicited notes of caution against casting ambitions wider. Like the BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad whose compliments at AAP’s heady hour came clipped with advice it shouldn’t hurry to look farther afield: “Delhi is one thing, India quite another.”

That may have left Kejriwal amused, had he found time from the chaotic jubilation around him to listen in.

The AAP boss framed his thoughts on that way back in 1999 when he launched Parivartan, a public-assistance NGO. Parivartan’s credo was, and remains: change begins with small things. AAP’s run on Delhi, it has been ungrudgingly conceded by the entire competing field, is no small thing.

Consider that Kejriwal hadn’t even a registered political party to call his own until eight months ago. Consider that it had no office, no office-bearer, no worker, not even a thought-out name. All it had was a cap and a credo — main aam aadmi hoon, I am the aam aadmi — but it stained by disapproval from its moral fount, Anna Hazare, who only wished a movement and never a political party.

Consider then, that Kejriwal’s AAP came close as a coat of varnish to taking Delhi, a rookie barging through veteran playmakers of the Congress and the BJP. More than 30 per cent of the vote share, 28 seats in the Assembly, a whopping 20 more than the Congress which, until today, had ruled Delhi for 15 years.

Consider also that when AAP came to be and announced its intention to contest Delhi it couldn’t name a dozen candidates it could hand out tickets to. It found 70 of them, one for each seat in the Delhi legislature, and nearly half of them won.

Many of them, like party spokesperson Shazia Ilmi, lost very narrowly; Shazia by a mere 300-odd votes. It’s not a scenario most in the party had even dared dream a couple of months ago. Shazia often tells the story of the first discussions that took within AAP.

“Most of us used to say ours is going to be a symbolic fight, we were not in it to win but to spread our message, create a base. But this man Kejriwal would always disagree, and disagree angrily. Why contest, he would ask us, if not to win? We knew Kejriwal had nothing to back him other than conviction but he infected all of us with it. We came to believe it was possible to win, very quickly he taught us that ambition.”

Delhi has now given that ambition legs, and Kejriwal will bid it to rove. A more widespread itinerary already lies signposted. AAP units in 350-odd districts across 19 states in the country — that is the party’s annexure to its sterling Delhi report card.

Don’t miss the expanded parameters of Kejriwal’s stated dare: “This is just the beginning,” he said as exhort to fellow celebrants at AAP’s camp headquarters in central Delhi as his numbers teased an unlikely majority. “I have said this is not an election but a movement, a revolution. We are going to finish this politics of caste, creed, corruption and crime, we are going to bring a new order. This is just the beginning.”

It’s clearly a whetted appetite Kejriwal speaks from, an appetite that wants to move on from the devoured Delhi table and nibble at others. It is an appetite fed by happy takeaways. Delhi has not bothered with widely articulated scepticism about Kejriwal and AAP. That they are untested. That they didn’t have a chance in hell of taking the Delhi Assembly; a vote for them would be a vote wasted. That they spoke a language too idealistic, if not also too self-righteous.

In that language, it would now appear, Delhiites chose to dissolve both their cynicism and their weariness with the big two taking turns in power, and chose AAP as warning wand.

It remains true that AAP and Kejriwal are untested and Delhi has not offered them an opportunity. It remains equally true that their first outing has offered no evidence the party has the ability to break into the great rural heartland.

But while the substance of AAP’s promise awaits demonstration in the crucible of power politics, what the IIT-trained former income-tax officer has come to display is a new style cross sections of people — patricians and plebeians alike — may have found refreshing.

Its two key elements are participation and proximity. AAP’s campaign became evidence the leader had returned among the people — no commando rings, no bullet-proof insulation, no security moat between the leader and led. Its pick of candidates was, equally, an exercise conducted with far greater democracy and embrace. It succeeded in creating some sense among people they had a greater role than just voting candidates imposed upon them.

Such participation may not be an easy thing to replicate elsewhere, and power will inevitably, bring trappings that will create distance between the ruler and the ruled. But then, Kejriwal has only just set out, and he has a blaze following in his wake. It’s begun with small things, who knows how big it could become?