The Bharatiya Janata Party may be overjoyed at the result of the Rajouri Garden by-election while the Aam Aadmi Party volunteers may be crestfallen today. But the biggest gainer in this outcome is the Indian National Congress that has managed a runner-up position howsoever distant. Both in 2013 and 2015 Assembly elections in Delhi, something unprecedented had happened. The polling continued well beyond 5 PM. During the twilight hours of 4 December 2013, INC workers spread across the city, particularly focussing on its strongholds, to appeal to their traditional voters that if they were indeed so put off by the 3 terms of the Sheila Dikshit government, they might try out the AAP, but at no cost should the BJP win! In 2015, it was Narendra Modi’s juggernaut that could not be stopped in the 2014 general elections, which had further won the territories of Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. Modi needed a snub, the INC thought.
That sell-by-date strategy of the INC has run its course. The oldest party of the country realised this not only in Punjab but also in 2 other States. In Uttar Pradesh, the AAP had no utility for the INC. From Goa, it has learnt that the Arvind Kejriwal magic does not work outside Delhi. Now that the campaign for the election for 3 municipal corporations of Delhi has begun, the INC has had enough of the AAP. After all, the receding party badly needs to make a comeback. An existential crisis stares at its face today.
The winning party in Rajouri Garden must introspect and find out why, when the people of Delhi are disillusioned with the AAP, 15,000 odd votes went to the INC. Because they were ideologically or temperamentally always of the INC. In that memorable journey by car from Shadipur to Kejriwal’s house in Kaushambi, Ghaziabad, in August 2013, which affected irreparably my opinion about him, I found the future Chief Minister of Delhi at his wit’s end trying to figure out how to win the Muslims and slum dwellers over. He had recently held demonstrations at a slum that the Delhi Police sought to demolish, and courted arrest. He said, when he had asked some of those slum dwellers in police custody who they would vote for, they had said there was no question of voting for any party other than the INC! They said, according to Kejriwal, that they were indebted to Indira Gandhi, thanks to the hundreds of slums that dot the city bearing the name “Indira Camp”, with some of them believing that she still lived and that she was still the Prime Minister of the country! As a former activist who has worked in every slum of the city, I can vouch for this story from Kejriwal.
At that point of time, although Kejriwal believed that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was pro-BJP (because of which he did not approach the guru to seek his blessings for the AAP), he was fascinated by an idea Sri Sri had reportedly shared with him during the heady days of the movement, India against Corruption. The godman had reportedly told him that the only way to turn the poor around was to make them swear in the name of their children that their votes would not be decided by who distributes alcohol in their shanties the night before an election. Later, of course, Kejriwal adopted sinister tactics of the INC to woo the poor. He turned as socialistic as he could, promising the have-nots as many freebies as could catch his fancy.
Now, Modi has understood this game no less, as is evident from the promise of loan waiver to farmers in Uttar Pradesh, which its new Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath fulfilled promptly on assuming office. Yet, what is that X factor that stops votes from coming back to the BJP in Delhi? When I had immigrated to the capital city in 1994, in the political chatter between fellow immigrants, we would wonder why the city was so right wing. That was the age of Madanlal Khurana and the city was dominated by 3 communities: Punjabis in the south and west, Jats in villages, Gurjars in unauthorised colonies and both Jats and Gurjars on the outskirts. Some people of Uttar Pradesh origins could be traced only in pockets of east Delhi. “Bihari hai kya?” used to be a quasi-racist slur of that Delhi, which the denizens of the city threw indiscriminately at anybody who couldn’t see reason in any mundane aspect of life. It was not necessary that the target of the jibe had to hail from Bihar, but more often than not it would be a poor boy working at a dhaba or travelling by bus in an unclean dress sporting an unkempt look.
The demography of the city has changed drastically over the next two decades. East Delhi is now dominated by people from Bihar and Purvanchal. Even in the south, for every Punjabi landlord, there are 3-4 Bihari, Bengali and Purvanchali tenants. While Bengalis no longer living in Bengal have just the economic reason to leave their home State, Biharis do not migrate leaving behind the political atmosphere they were accustomed to back at home. Not only on the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University but also in their neighbourhoods, their conceptualisation of a government is a maai-baap sarkaar. To them, a party that opens up the market is a Baniya party, notwithstanding the fact that competition is an idea few Baniyas would like. The BJP does not endear to this gentry because Pramod Mahajan in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was rightly or wrongly seen as favourably disposed towards Mukesh and Anil Ambani while the likes of Kejriwal has succeeded in creating a perception that Modi favours another tycoon from Gujarat, Gautam Adani. In fact, since the day Modi assumed the office of the Prime Minister, every time he spoke of “Make in India” or “ease of doing business”, I received memes via WhatsApp from my innumerable Bihari and Purvanchali friends that carried a sketch of Chanakya with a message that, when translated, reads: “When the ruler of the country becomes a businessman, the country is sold out!”
It does not matter to them that Vajpayee was perhaps more liberal in economic policy than PV Narasimha Rao, which became manifest especially when Yashwant Sinha gave way to Jaswant Singh as the country’s Finance Minister and, as explained above, economic liberalism is anti-Baniya. It does not matter to them that Vajpayee, the boss in that government, is a Brahmin and so were several State unit heads of the BJP of that era. It does not matter to them that one of the first executive decisions of the first Kejriwal government was to clear the Rs 372 crore subsidy the Delhi administration owed to Anil Ambani’s company BSES. It does not matter to them that Kautilya had never uttered the words they attributed to him in the meme. It does not matter to them that Modi is a Ghanchi, an OBC, and not a Baniya. By this term, they refer to a proclivity and not a caste. Whatever the BJP’s proclivity be, it is perceived Baniya-like in this section of the electorate. In politics, perception matters more than facts.
From the 5 unsuccessful bids for power that the BJP has made consecutively, it is obvious that the party is unable to fight this perception. Its vote share is stuck in the range 30-33%, which largely comprises swayamsevaks of the RSS and a section of the urban middle class that relates to the ideology of free markets (to which the BJP comes the closest of all parties that have mattered so far in elections). This percentage is not enough to seize power back from the INC after losing to it on the plank of the exorbitant price of onion in 1998.
Rather than appreciating the fact that the term “Baniya” refers to a perceived proclivity and not a caste, the Modi dispensation set out to disturb the caste equation in Delhi with as much zeal as it has betrayed in some other States. If it denied power to Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Haryana and Adivasis in Jharkhand, it replaced the Goels, Gargs, Guptas and Agarwals from its Delhi unit with Jhas, Mishras, Upadhyays
Hereafter, even as the BJP faces an AAP that has lost its sheen, thanks to the loss of the latter in Punjab and the drubbing Kejriwal’s party received in Goa, it must think of a way to attract Biharis and Purvanchalis who have begun deciding the narrative of Delhi. A purabiya Manoj Tiwari cannot be all that there is to the elusive answer. Where is the ‘special package’ for this section of the electorate? Bihar showed Modi in 2015 that promising lakhs of crores’ worth of grants or loans from the Centre cannot be that package. Delhi had shown the same year that a good economic idea like service portability from one electricity distribution company to another would not work either. The missing factor is mass connect. The Delhi BJP karyakarta‘s laziness, seen in the way he whiles away the time between one election and the next, attending a few odd RSS functions once every few months where swayamsevaks alone are invited, must give way to receiving regular messages from the leadership and spreading these to the people via door-to-door campaigns. If there is one reason that the idea of a free market does not sell in India, it is the fact that no well-networked and well-resourced political organisation hard sells it among the masses in the manner comrades sell their ideology at the grassroots.
It is time for the AAP, on the other hand, to figure out its role in Indian politics beyond being a proxy of the INC. Now, neither the stealing of INC’s poll tactics nor the transfer of INC’s votes will do. At this juncture, a loss in the civic polls or even a show less impressive than an MCD equivalent of the victory in 67 Assembly seats will drive a death knell into its future prospects. The socialist opposition in the country has realised that Modi can be more socialistic than them, thereby closing all fronts of attack on him. The AAP, therefore, cannot win by riding on the promise of the dole, more so because the older covenants are yet to be honoured.
The dynamics of a civic poll are vastly different from those of an Assembly election where the constituency gets reduced to one-fourth the size. Even in Muslim pockets, if the voters feel that the AAP is on a decline, the votes will go back to the INC. Kejriwal stands a chance only where the people are fully anti-incumbent. Realising its lacklustre performance in the past tenures, the BJP is cleverly invoking Modi in its appeals via radio messages as well as street campaigns even though the Prime Minister is not repeating the folly of entering the campaign for the election in a city-State or asking Union ministers to hit the hustings with relentless attacks on Kejriwal, making him an object of sympathy. So, what can be the AAP’s winning strategy for 23 April?
It actually cannot have one after the resounding victory of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, whose ripples will be felt in Delhi, with just about 10 days left for the campaign for MCD. The only way forward for Kejriwal is to turn serious. Dramatics, which he is so adept at, will give him diminishing returns. Whining non-stop makes him a big bore. If the middle class throws its weight behind the BJP as it used to do in the 1990s, and the poor repose their faith in the INC, Kejriwal will be reduced to being the Asrani of Sholay: “Aadhey idhar jao, aadhey udhar jao; baaqi mere saath aao!”
The former Indian Revenue Services officer must look up to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for lessons in inculcating gravitas. As of now, Kumar is the only opposition leader left who commands the respect of the poor and the middle class alike, much as his personal integrity, Lohiaite socialism and inhibition to sign contracts with private sector companies for development projects combined cannot bring Bihar back to the glory of the Magadha Empire that every Bihari recalls so fondly. This is undoubtedly the lesson for original drama queen, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, too, after the Kanthi Dakshin Assembly election despite the Trinamool Congress’s win in that constituency, as the vanquished CPI(M)’s bhadralok votes will gradually move to the BJP hereon. Histrionics won’t work for her either, nor will minority appeasement, as the UP election has shown, but her story will be dealt with in another article.
Under the heap of all the economics-defying poll promises Kejriwal had made in 2013 and 2015 was tucked an assurance no economist can take exception to. He had committed to bringing back industries to Delhi. Industry, it goes without saying, translates to jobs. And it means business. Neither the fellows of Kejriwal’s caste nor the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Scheduled Castes will resent not having to rush to Gurgaon or Noida for work every morning. Can he ferociously make this a poll pitch in the 10 days he has in hand, promising at the same time a freedom from the ‘Inspector Raj’ of MCD and low taxes for office spaces? As advised to the Swarna Bharat Party in my previous article, this is the last chance of attacking the socialist, bureaucrat-loving Modi. Once he has ensured a decimation of all opposition, he plans to turn to liberal economics in his second term, which he is sure he will get in 2019.
As for the INC, it has to find another adorable, motherly character like Sheila Dikshit on top, never mind all the charges of corruption and allegation of callousness in handling the 16 December 2012 incident of gang-rape she faced towards the end of her third term. It is time for the party to take heart from the sight of return of its traditional voters. But it must bring its house back in order fast — before Sonia Gandhi passes the baton on to Rahul Gandhi for national politics and the party turns listless thereafter.
Finally, may no party commit the blunder that the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party did in Uttar Pradesh. Falling over each other, they spoke so much of Muslims that Hindus felt they did not count at all. May the native population of Delhi not feel that every contender for power is focussing on the population of migrant workers while neglecting their lot. When such a thing happens, the slighted community responds to the appeasers with an emphatic backlash.