What a Regime Change Really Looks Like

Revati Laul


Have you ever made up your mind about someone based on the way the way their bathroom looked, their bed was mussed or their table was organized?

Over the weekend, if you were really looking, there was a lot you’d have been able to tell from two offices in New Delhi representing competing ideas of power and politics.

Both situated in the Delhi that the British architect Edwin Lutyens designed, both just a street away from each other, but claiming entirely separate worlds. 11 Ashoka Road – the office of the BJP, now ‘victory sthal’ – and 24 Akbar Road – the Congress party office, now land of the walking dead.

The way both spaces looked each time the regime changed – in 2004 and then on May 16, 2014, tell the story of who the respective claimants really are. But I am getting ahead of myself.

To tell you what I saw and how it nails the story of 2014, I must take you back to the last time these two spaces saw a regime change – 2004. The media had it all wrong, geared up as it was for a BJP victory. Back in 2004, even the Congress party had believed every word the media had trotted out in the run-up to that election and were all prepared to lose.

On May 13, 2004, by 9:30am, when the leads started to trickle in and the Congress party, along with its allies, managed to get 275 seats, office bearers scattered in a hundred different directions, hobbled by twin, opposing needs – one for speed and the other for the dignified appearance of having believed in themselves all along.

By noon a massive inflatable white hand – the party symbol – was successfully erected in the front lawn of 24 Akbar Road, right in front of the party poster of Rajiv Gandhi. Big and important party spokespersons made sure they got there, to be engulfed by one TV camera after another. “Ma’am, please, you have to speak to us,” I pleaded with an indifferent Ambika Soni on the Congress office lawn. But the channel I represented at the time – Headlines Today, wasn’t the brand name it is now and halfway through the live broadcast she walked out of the camera frame. Onto bigger, better.

That morning the media bosses had sent lesser mortals like me to the Congress party office, not expecting much to happen. But by noon, as the big white hand materialised, so did the divas of TV – from Rajdeep Sardesai to Barkha Dutt. (Times Now wasn’t born then.) Party spokesperson Oscar Fernandes was stuck in a labyrinthine maze of TV cameras. When I finally extricated him painfully towards my own crew, he remarked, “You’ve managed to drag me out of the well of death. Whenever you want an interview in the future, just introduce yourself as the ‘maut ke kooe wali reporter’ and I will respond immediately.”

By this time, the scene outside 24 Akbar Road was loud, incredulous and completely hysterical. There was a sea of humanity jostling with each other to push past the office gate and get a taste of power up close. One man climbed a tree and refused to get down until “Sonia-ji” declared she would become prime minister. When she didn’t, and no one was looking, he quietly scurried down without so much as a word.

At the end of the day, the road outside 24 Akbar Road was littered with the shrapnel of firecrackers, some half lit, and rubber chappals that had slid off so many shuffling feet. And by now, the Congress spokespersons had massaged their faces into the appropriate expression. Less shock. More entitlement. The “we always knew and always ruled and always will…” that stayed with them a full 10 years.

Until this weekend.

Meanwhile, 11 Ashoka Road looked like a tragi-comic cutout. The BJP had been prepped to be the natural heirs to power riding on their huge ‘India Shining’ campaign. The office with its spanking new pre-fab panels and granite-glass accouterments suddenly looked like a derelict shopping mall in a drought-stricken town.

What I failed to notice then – which was in fact the writing on the wall in 2004 – is how India Shining nearly did make it. The Congress party on its own had a mere 145 seats, just seven seats more than the BJP. Only, that time around, the UPA managed to cobble together an alliance that left their rivals behind. The numbers that separated the Congress from the BJP were very, very small. But the BJP was a party in transition. LK Advani was moving into the shadow or being forced into it and the next rung was too busy jousting with each other for the top spot to find a convincing story to entice voters with. The tide was already turning and the last thing India wanted was to be confronted with the self-satisfied expression that the Congress party wore: “We rule because we rule.”

Since the Congress party was blind to these rumblings under the surface (as were we, the media), we failed yet again to see that 2014 would not be an ambivalent, tentative move away from 24 Akbar Road, but a definitive denouncement by people who did not want to be patronized.

* * *

This year, 11 Ashoka Road was sure it was going their way. An enormous sleek black tent stretched across the BJP party office, large enough to house two big fat Indian weddings. Fitted with around 30 air-conditioners powered centrally, the tent was divided into two sections. One section was the media hub. Each news channel got its own booth custom-fitted with studio lights, the BJP party backdrop, cables, extension cords and one giant flat screen fitted with its individual set-top box. About 20 of these were divided into two neat rows, with the channel name for each printed on top. At either end were more private media rooms with roundtables and more plasma screens for journalists to have private conversations with some of Team Modi’s key figures – conversations not meant for the telly.

The other massive section of the tent was the food court. At one end was a caterer with the name, ‘Vitto, the Italia’ (let it never be said that the party that has passionately protested the rule of an Italian woman for a decade is too dogmatic). This counter served up pizza, Italian coffee and tea. The main fare was spread across two long tables making an L shape and had a large spread for breakfast, another for lunch and then one for high tea – in concrete anticipation of the day-long jollity to come.

In the rest of the courtyard were giant screens broadcasting the results live. One of these was flanked by a stage and massive concert speakers for anyone who cared to join in the reverie – dance, clap, throw gulaal in different colours onto each other’s faces and take selfies in NaMo T-shirts.

This D-day, which should rightfully be christened Decimation Day, the BJP anticipated. But officially, since the numbers were still rolling in, they didn’t want to appear brash or too well prepared for their victory. So the owner of Roshan Tent House, the giant caterer, started out defensively by saying, “I’ve been banned from revealing how much all of this cost. The party has forbidden me from speaking about this to the press. As a caterer I am always prepared for occasions like this. Plus I have been a BJP wallah since I was born. I am doing this for free. It is seva.”

And then came an admission – “I was told to be prepared for May 16 from the day the party manifesto was released. On April 7.” Alongside came some numbers of the cost of this operation: Rs 15 lakh for the tent and air-conditioners, Rs 550 per plate of food.

Inside one of the private meeting rooms in the Godzilla-sized victory tent, Akhilesh Mishra was soaking it all up. He was the head of the BJP’s IT cell, what is known in-house as N.Doc – the National Digital Corporation Centre, formed in December 2013 to carpet bomb cyberspace. Today, he churned out a fascinating nugget.

N.Doc has been working on what they call India’s 160 “digital constituencies” – towns where the internet penetration is more than 10 percent and includes large cities like Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh or the rural outskirts of Kanpur in UP. These may not be on most people’s first list of target audiences for an Internet campaign. They would be wrong. In these digital constituencies, 60 percent of users access the Internet on their smart phones, according to Mishra. “We are a very tech savvy party, unlike the Congress,” Mishra added, smiling.

Alongside this was the much-discussed India 272 platform – for which Mishra and other key NaMo campaign organizers galvanized around 1.5 million volunteers to tweet and upload catchy political repartee. And also campaign on the ground to make sure that the BJP crosses the halfway mark of 272 parliamentary seats. Each parliamentary constituency had 3 coordinators, under whom were assembly-level coordinators.

1pm. As the numbers soared meteorically on the screens past 272 and onto 335, insiders in the party let go of any latent fears they may have harbored.

Flushed from a series of TV discussions, one spokesperson said to another, with a newly formed air of diffidence, “Now we’ll have to tolerate Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu.” Everything about this line was in the tone in which it was said, which to my ears sounded like: Since the Tamil Nadu chief minister and head of the AIADMK, Jayalalithaa had openly voiced her dissent against Modi, some within the BJP were only too happy to gloat and imagine what it might be like to see her squirm. Even though she brought in the numbers in her state, the party no longer needed her or any other allies to form a new government.

More hours and tsunami-like numbers later, everyone was marvelously relaxed. So relaxed that a party insider did not shoo me away when I asked him how much this very successful campaign had actually cost. “Rs 30,000 crore is what I have heard,” I said tentatively. “Is that way off the mark or quite close to what you reckon was spent,” I pressed on, not expecting an answer.

“Well, that doesn’t sound off the mark to me,” he replied, “but of course you won’t get anyone to officially admit to this.”

“Of course,” I said. Inwardly I marveled at the party that was now no longer afraid to admit this figure. So the price tag of a campaign that had apparently run on a ‘development’ plank had cost Rs 30,000 crore. Was it okay in the reverie and cheer to now strip Modi of this most valuable mask?

And then another one fell away – that this election had not been about Hindutva. As party spokesperson Aman Sinha entered a discussion on how the BJP had become the giant-killers, he clarified how crucial the support and campaigning of the larger Hindutva bodies allied to the party had been. “The Sangh Parivar is the real X factor in this election.”

Unaware of these conversations in the tented sanctum sanctorum of victory, was a troupe of performers outside in tattered fake tiger skin costumes and monkey faces painted on. “We are from the Katputli colony in Delhi,” said one of the performers, “and we’ve come to cheer Modi because what we really need is some help to prevent the big corporate developer from evicting us from the slum we live in. Can you help?”

Further down 11 Ashoka Road, a street now exploding and lit with firecrackers, was the deafening drumroll of the Sohan Lal Band. The original Sohan Lal had crossed over with one horse from Karachi during Partition. Many shaadis and band-baajas later, a manager called Mausam was now at the helm of the sparkling, brassy business, happy to deliver unto the BJP a rip-roaring celebration. “We knew six months ago that we have to ‘bajao’ our band here,” he said as the trumpets blared on, making it impossible and unnecessary to continue any meaningful conversation.

At the end of the road was another man who knew before the media did that Modi would be PM. Saddam, the mahout of two elephants, Gulabo and Yauvan, had been summoned by the BJP to signal victory in style. But on D-day, the trio had been left in the lurch because Saddam wasn’t given permission to bring the two magnificent creatures into the party courtyard. So they stood at the end of the road adorned with the party symbol – a lotus painted in bright pink on their ears – and spent the afternoon chomping on hay and splattering the road with king-sized excreta.

* * *

Just one road away, on 24 Akbar Road, the only sound to be heard all day last Friday was the drone of generators attached to OB vans with satellite dishes poking out from the top. Inside the Congress office – deathly silence. And one image that summed it all up: a row of tripod stands with no cameras. A lonely seller of daal vadas decided to pack up shop midday. And in his office, the Congress party’s stalwart and media manager-in-chief, Janardan Dwivedi bravely held fort. Luckily for him, the audience was mostly a pliant group of indulgent reporters ready to commiserate. “Let’s switch off the TV. It’s very disruptive,” said one.

Dwivedi tried to keep face in the only way the Congress knows. By making out as if he knew that this was coming all along. “I am not surprised by these results. Anyone who is surprised by this shouldn’t be in politics. Yes, it is slightly worse than what we expected…” And the sentences rolled on.

It was the turn of 24 Akbar Road to wear the clown face. Like Miss Havisham, Dickens’ famously jilted bride living in a state of perpetual mourning, this old office was the perfect metaphor for a withered elite left behind by new faces, greater expectations.

Revati Laul is an independent journalist who has worked in television and print. She is based in New Delhi and tweets at @revatilaul.