Delhi Elections: The contest heats up

Many think the BJP is struggling in Delhi. Can Bedi shore up the support for the BJP?
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

As Narendra Modi’s juggernaut began to roll during Parliament Elections last year and began to attract huge responsive crowds it became apparent that the BJP did not need anyone- no converts from Congress or even film stars to fill up empty spaces. Modi was a rock star that needed no help. He built a tidal wave of support that was capable of getting even ‘electricity poles’ elected. That was in April-May last year. Since then a lot of water has even flown in Delhi’s very quiet, but stinky Yamuna.

Truly, what will be really tested in the Assembly Elections scheduled for February 7, is how much the public mood and perception about Prime Minister Modi and his BJP government changed since he came to power in May last year. Are the masses enjoying their ‘acche din’ or not?

Arvind Kejriwal, leader of Aam Admi Party (AAP) and a strong contender for the Chief Minister’s post if his party gets elected claims that Modi is nervous about his party’s prospect in the capital- which has been without a state government for the last one year and has been under President’s rule. The evidence that he offers about Modi’s growing nervousness is the relatively tepid response the PM got during his recent Ramlila Maidan rally.

He alleges that the crowds were brought in from Haryana and neighboring Rajasthan and still they failed to meet the target of the organizers. In fact they fell woefully short. In the rally, Modi had dubbed AAP and its leader for being anarchists and naxalites and claimed that it was the BJP that should be elected as it knew how to govern.

Looking at it, Delhi Assembly Election was nicely building into another encore of Modi- Kejriwal contest when the BJP leadership seems to have had a rethink probably spurred also by opinion polls that show AAP catching up really fast. Few days back, the party in a high profile function attended by party President Amit Shah and Union Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, inducted the former police officer and leader of the India Against Corruption. Although there is no confirmation, she gave an impression that she was ushered in the party with the promise that she will be the chief minister if the BJP gets elected.

Bedi, during the height of anti-corruption agitation led by Anna Hazare had refused to join any political party and prided herself by saying that she wanted to be an independent voice without being weighed down by party discipline. She had been extremely critical of Narendra Modi and the kind of stewardship that he provided to Gujarat at the time of 2002 Godhra riots and stated that one day he would have to answer for it. Those sound bytes seem so distant now. Since then Bedi had been at the periphery slipping into irrelevance and minding her NGO that, too, was mired in all kinds of controversies including that of making fake bills and overcharging travel. Minor crime, but a taint nevertheless if you are literally dancing on an anti-corruption stage.

Kejriwal and a section of the media sees the induction of Bedi as an admission on the part of Modi and rest of the BJP leadership that things are not really working for them in the capital. Bringing in Bedi, BJP believes, would steal Kejriwal’s thunder as in many ways she has a CV similar to him. She, too, is a Magsaysay Award winner and has been part of the bureaucracy. Bedi, again, has had rough time with the Congress government and she was denied an opportunity to be the Commissioner of Police. So from that standpoint, BJP leadership has shown a mid course correction in the way they want to fight the Delhi election.

Besides concentrating on the civic issues, the BJP does not want Kejriwal to monopolise his fight against corruption. To give more meaning to this strategy, they also quickly included an attractive and articulate young leader of AAP, Shazia Ilmi. For a while, Ilmi had been flirting with BJP after losing twice- once in the assembly elections and later in the General Elections when she was fielded from Ghaziabad. After her Lok Sabha loss she had demanded inner party democracy in AAP. Later, she was found holding a broom to lend support to Swacch Bharat campaign. It became clear that it was a matter of time when Ilmi, too, joined the BJP.

Their induction in the BJP is an attempt to confuse the voters, who were fed on the carefully crafted message that there was little difference between the AAP and BJP. Lot of emails went out during the Assembly Elections last year that for the CM’s job people should vote for Kejriwal and for the PM’s they should back Modi. It worked well in many ways as the larger objective of both the political formations was the end of the Congress rule in Delhi and elsewhere. In some ways the vote bank of AAP and the BJP was similar. Kejriwal managed to get massive support, but fell short of winning a majority. This compelled him to take the support of the Congress.

Rest is history. AAP decided to resign in 49 days allowing his detractors in the BJP and Congress to tar him as someone who ran away from responsibility. Aggressive BJP campaign succeeded in rubbishing AAP in the General Elections to the Lok Sabha to ensure that their vote does not get distracted and falls in entirety in their favor. Kejriwal himself lost against Modi in Varanasi.

Kejriwal’s vote bank now has gone through a reshuffle. No longer does he get gushy support of the middle class that wanted to throw out the Congress and its leadership for its manifest corrupt ways in the last Assembly Elections. They did not spare Sheila Dikshit who was so popular once upon a time with the middle class. AAP now is looking more like Congress and is trying to garner the support of Dalits, Muslims and the poor. It is hoping that the Congress shrinks to a point so that it manages to get more votes than the usual 28 percent that it has been getting in the last two polls.   

On the other hand the Congress is using the departure of Bedi and Ilmi to reinforce the point that there was little difference between the BJP and AAP. Right through the India against Corruption movement led by Hazare and Kejriwal, Congress leaders had alleged that both the formations were working in tandem. VHP and RSS leadership did not conceal this fact and openly provided support and crowds to the agitation. For the Sangh Parivar it did not really matter who came to power as long as it wasn’t the Congress.

Congress which is looking very sleepy after its huge loss in the Parliament Elections is hoping that its support base comprising of minorities and the Dalits will return and help them revive. Their calculations are based on the fact that the minorities live in fear ever since the party was voted out of power. For the first time in 30 years, Delhi witnessed communal riots in Trilokpuri. Also, a church was burnt and another vandalized. Interestingly, the response of Kejriwal to these acts of violence and vandalism has been very restrained. Even other party leaders like Prashant Bhushan have been saying in private that the party will not take up the issue of communalism directly rather tackle it through other means.   

Quite clearly, he does not want to go overboard on talking about secularism realizing how it can antagonize the majority Hindu community.

Be that as it may, the Delhi elections will be keenly fought. As Delhi is a highly literate and affluent city, the results will be a firm indicator whether Modi remains as popular as he was seven months ago.