On Saturday afternoon in East Delhi, busloads of men in saffron caps and scarves, waving their BJP flags, make their way good-naturedly past a couple of police checkpoints and into a sandy lot between a shopping mall and a smart hotel, incongruous in otherwise shabby surrounds. They are here – we are here – to watch the Prime Minister tell the electorate why they must vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in this local election, to do what they have not done since 1998 and enable his party to govern the national capital. It is precisely one week before the city goes to the polls and Narendra Modi is going to be wheeled out at four rallies across Delhi to ensure that the voters get the message: BJP is Modi; Modi is BJP.
But before we get to Modi on this grey, breezy Saturday afternoon, we have to suffer through the warm-up acts. Here is Manoj Tiwari, member of parliament for North-East Delhi and prominent Bhojpuri singer and film star, giving us a few snatches of verse. Here too is Dr Harsh Vardhan, the minister of Science and Technology, who failed to lead the BJP to a sufficient majority in December 2013, opening the door to Arvind Kejriwal's (in)famous 49-day stint as chief minister. And also here is Kiran Bedi, the BJP's chief ministerial nominee, playing second fiddle not just to Modi but to the almost comically malevolent figure of Amit Shah, the BJP president.
Bedi was parachuted in by the BJP leadership only a couple of weeks ago after hearing what the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has admitted in The Organiser, its house journal, was "adverse feedback… against the Delhi BJP." The same article, as reported in the Indian Express, admits to initial chagrin among the BJP's Delhi leaders at Bedi's sudden elevation. In Shahdara, though, whatever resentment the Delhi BJP's erstwhile top brass might have nursed seemed forgotten. Bedi was punctilious in her mentioning of party stalwarts like Harsh Vardhan and Satish Upadhyay. Even more reassuring for those who had been overlooked was the absence of Bedi from the life-size cardboard cutouts on stage of Modi and Shah.
The BJP's presumptive chief minister knew her place; in any case, she was shown it once again when she was allowed about 10 minutes for her stump speech. Bedi said it was her first public rally as a politician, and for such an occasion her performance was anemic. She spoke at length about safety for women and the confidence women expressed in her when she walked around her mooted constituency, Krishna Nagar, every morning. Safety for women would be achieved through Civil Defence and Home Guard volunteers on the streets, closed-circuit cameras everywhere and self defence classes. Her other main idea was 'Dil ki Baat', a local version of Modi's radio show 'Mann ki Baat'. A vote for her, she told the mostly male crowd, "would be like a vote for your mother or your sister." She might have had more luck had she taken the approved BJP candidate's tack of saying a vote for her would be like voting for Modi. As it was, the most animated anyone in the crowd became was when Bedi asked for a glass of water, her voice presumably hoarse from the effort of thanking senior BJP leaders.
After Bedi, it was Shah's turn. The massed BJP cadres stiffened. It couldn't be long now before Modi turned up. Engineering a campaign that resulted in an astonishing 71 seats in Uttar Pradesh during the General Election has completed the resurrection of Amit Shah in Indian public life, from the arch Modi goon to election strategist supreme, cleared by a special CBI court of all charges in an alleged fake encounter killing. His tactics and the hope, aspiration and yearning reposited in Modi have already led to unprecedented success in Assembly elections in states such as Maharashtra.
Why, then, is the BJP struggling so mightily in Delhi? The party won all seven seats on offer in the General Election but the latest poll numbers, conducted by the Economic Times, Hindustan Times and ABP News-Nielsen respectively, have the BJP trailing the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Bedi trailing its president Arvind Kejriwal in public trust and approval ratings. These polls have the AAP winning anywhere from 35 to 41 seats; a party needs to win 36 seats, a simple majority in the 70-seat Delhi legislature, to form the government.
Shah has been single-minded in hitting Kejriwal where he is widely considered most vulnerable – his decision to disband his government after just six weeks to take on Modi in Varanasi. The 'bhagoda', to employ the Kejriwal-baiters' favorite taunt, took a disastrous decision to desert Delhi for a quixotic, self-aggrandizing fool's errand. "Take revenge on AAP," Shah croaks heavily into the microphone, in Hindi of course. Revenge, or 'badla', is a favourite word of Shah's, employed at every opportunity, calculated to stoke the put-upon, woe-is-me self-pity of the vast majority. The BJP's voters need to take revenge on Congress; on Kejriwal; on the secular left; on minorities who convert Hindus, steal their women, have too many children and get jobs and educations based on unfair reservations. It's a long list. For now, though, it's Kejriwal who's the target. "These guys", Shah says, referring to the AAP, "are liars. They do not do what they say they'll do." The evidence is half-truth folded into insinuation into slander, piled upon rumour piled upon slander. Kejriwal, for instance, flew to Dubai in business class to raise money from 'anti-national' sources. "Look at the sort of country he chooses," Shah smirked when he told this story. All that stuff Kejriwal said about not wanting a government house, Shah continued, or a government car. He still hasn't left his government house. Give him five years in office, Shah paused for effect, and he'll be parking a plane on his front lawn.
At about this time, the crowd turned their faces to the sky. Young men began clambering onto a low wall. Older men held out their arms, imploring those on the wall to help them up. Everywhere were bathetic scenes of middle-aged men inelegantly splayed on the shoulders and even heads of younger men in an optimistic bid to scale the wall and wave at the buzz saw whir of two approaching helicopters.
Modi had arrived.
Dressed in his now-customary ostentatious fashion, a blaze of orange against honeyed gold, Modi took Shah's baton and ran.
It seems a waste of the Prime Minister's considerable powers of voice modulation and sarcasm to employ them in the service of putting down the AAP and Arvind Kejriwal. This election, Modi intoned, would tell the world what it should think of Delhi. "The world is watching," he said, "in what light will we show Delhi?" In what light does it show the Prime Minister to be sparring and exchanging insults with Kejriwal? If the world is watching, why is Modi not more statesmanlike? More than one BJP insider has said that Modi is determined to stamp out Kejriwal's burgeoning threat, that it comes from the same place as his determination to achieve a 'Congress-mukt Bharat'. In essence, Modi is in it for the long haul, it is essential to the legacy he wants to leave, and Kejriwal cannot be allowed to become too successful.
Darpan Singh, a Deputy Metro Editor at the Hindustan Times who has been reporting on the AAP from the start suggests that adversarial, ad hominem politics do not always play well with the electorate. "Going after a politician personally can backfire," he says, on the phone, "remember when Priyanka Gandhi made her 'neech rajniti' remark? Or when some other Congress politician called Modi a 'chaiwallah'?" The evidence that the barbs aren't working is in the poll numbers. If you ignore the ones that have the BJP forming a majority and the more recent ones that have the AAP doing the same, the inescapable conclusion is that this election is too close to call, that another stalemate is not impossible, and that a Kejriwal wave is sufficient countervail to any Modi wave.
This must be deeply puzzling to both the BJP and Congress (though the latter, "on ventilator" as Amit Shah puts it, may have other things on its mind), who have pushed the 'bhagoda' line so hard. Why are Delhi voters willing to give Kejriwal a second chance? Singh points out that the "voters have already punished AAP once and many voters are willing to forgive Kejriwal a bad political decision because they believe his integrity and honesty remain intact." Kejriwal has succeeded in convincing those voters that his intentions when he quit were honorable, that Lokpal was a cornerstone of the AAP agenda, and that his quitting office was the result of an excessive zeal to do the right thing rather than personal ambition.
"It hasn't been easy to get the message across," Singh says, "Kejriwal has been holding three meetings a day for months now and in each of those 100-plus public meetings he has apologized for quitting, has owned up to his mistake." He has laid a foundation, Singh believes, that is strong enough to withstand even the dodgy funding accusations being hypocritically, albeit straight-facedly, leveled by the BJP and Congress. "No one who is committed to voting for AAP is going to change his or her mind four days before the election, especially when it's an accepted fact of Indian politics that funding comes from dubious sources. The fact remains that AAP was not taking money under the table, that they were taking cheques."
But the undecided voter is going to swing this election and the AAP must not only be above suspicion but must be perceived to be above suspicion. The polls are tantalizing. The BJP pulled off what many observers considered a masterstroke in picking Bedi as their chief ministerial nominee but they're not sure what to do with her. Shah's electoral strategy, at its most rudimentary, is to concentrate the party's fortunes entirely on Modi's sway with voters. He recognizes that the Delhi elections are different, that faced with Kejriwal's Laxmanesque 'common man' charisma the BJP has no choice but to present its own star candidate; but in Amit Shah's worldview there's no room for another star alongside Modi. So Kiran Bedi, a candidate with a clean record of service, finds herself on the sidelines without a date at what is meant to be her coming-out party.
What the AAP did in 2013 was extraordinary. What they might do on February 10 would be even more radical. Delhi voters go into these elections with their eyes open, knowing the municipal corporation is controlled by the BJP, knowing the central government is BJP. If they still pick the AAP, the message will be heard everywhere: that there is more than one idea that holds sway in India, more than one way to define and achieve progress or, in other words, vikas.
Back in Shahdara, east Delhi, Modi is easing into his stride. There's a joke or two or six at Kejriwal's expense. Sheila Dikshit's three terms as chief minister are dismissed as being disastrous for Delhi. Modi, in his and Shah's election fable, has a monopoly on good governance. It is a commanding performance, cajoling, persuasive, intensely self-involved. Neither Kiran Bedi nor Delhi get much of a look-in. Delhi's choice is Caesar or Asterix; you'd have to be entirely without a sense of humor or irony to not relish the prospect of Delhi as a little Gaulish holdout.
Shougat Dasgupta is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.