The first sign that the BJP realised its gambit of naming Kiran Bedi as Chief Ministerial candidate had boomeranged was last Saturday when a bad-tempered Amit Shah chose a press conference in Patna to accuse Aaj Tak news channel of ‘yellow journalism’ and trying to do everything in its power to insure an election victory in Delhi for the Aam Aadmi Party. The cause for this nasty outburst was a snap poll broadcast by the offending channel the previous evening that showed Arvind Kejriwal still ahead of Kiran Bedi as Delhi’s preferred choice as Chief Minister. After a year of supreme electoral success it seems Amit Shah could not countenance even the faintest hint of failure. The façade of confidence that has been the hallmark of Mr Shah’s rhetoric over the last year had cracked and there is no doubt AAP’s nimble and efficient election campaign was directly responsible for it.
Well, Amit Shah’s temper must only have gotten worse in the days since, as subsequent polls have certainly been no kinder. Kiran Bedi’s candidacy, the much vaunted ‘masterstroke’, has been on a steep slide this week. Her lack of political experience, shaky interviews and a staunch refusal to debate Arvind Kejriwal have meant she has spent the week largely sequestered in her constituency of Krishna Nagar, where the BJP’s internal divisions are making her prospects for victory far from certain. When she did venture out, for instance to Timarpur for a road show, she suffered the indignity of losing her audience’s attention to marauding Modi and Ramdev look-alikes in an Audi, immediately following which her vehicle had the misfortune of running over a young man, who turned out to be the local candidate’s nephew. Not the most auspicious of beginnings. And now she has gone mute, ostensibly because of a soar throat and the need for what she terms as ‘voice rest’, but most suspect it is a damage limitation strategy ordered by Messrs Jaitley and Shah after Bedi endured a string of disastrous interviews, of which the most revealing and damning was conducted by Ravish Kumar of NDTV-India, causing a sensation on social media. Amit Shah must be rueing the influence of solid reporting from channels practising ‘yellow journalism’ as opposed to what I imagine is his preferred brand of ‘saffron journalism’.
The condition of the BJP election campaign in Delhi as of now is that they have gone to full battle stations with twenty-odd central ministers, just about every BJP Chief Minister, 120 MPs and lord knows how many party functionaries as well as party workers from thirteen states being drafted into service by Amit Shah after Kiran Bedi’s imploding candidacy left the Delhi BJP non-functional and riven with discord barely a week before the election. In an almost unprecedented step Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley, the PM’s most trusted lieutenants, have taken direct control of the campaign and the BJP’s sulking state leadership has been bypassed altogether, with a senior BJP leader (you know who) anonymously quoted in yesterday’s Economic Times as dismissing local leaders as ‘irrelevant’. Considering this is a state election it is a most remarkable remark from this senior BJP leader. If as he says the BJP state leadership is really ‘irrelevant’ then in the eventuality of a BJP victory, and after the BJP’s horde of central leaders have returned to their neglected official responsibilities, it is this ‘irrelevant’ group of state leaders who will be handed the reins of power by the Modi, Shah, Jaitley triumvirate. Delhi will have to suffer the disunity and incompetence of these politically inept zeroes for five years. It is a purgatory that surely no resident of this great city can find acceptable, not even the most hardcore Modi supporter. With BJP workers unenthused and almost invisible on the ground in Delhi, it appears Mr Amit Shah is a Field Marshal who has a top-heavy campaign organisation with many Generals at his beck and call but when it comes to BJP’s foot soldiers only phantom armies exist. Mr Shah is trying to bus in party workers from a dozen states and also relying on the Sangh Parivar to fill the gap but with a dejected state party he is fighting an uphill battle.
At present the BJP in Delhi has no manifesto, a defunct state leadership, and a Chief Ministerial candidate who in the last fortnight has shown herself not only totally unsuitable for the post she aspires to and probably even electoral politics altogether. So what exactly would a voter be voting for if he or she chose BJP in these elections? A mirage created by a team of expert travelling salesmen who will depart the scene right after the election and leave Delhi with a counterfeit government. If the Delhi unit of the BJP has splintered so badly while trying to fight an election then governance is a task that is clearly beyond their competence. Delhi deserves better and, fortunately, this time Delhi has a choice, in fact the only viable choice.
In stark contrast to BJP the Aam Aadmi Party has a battle-hardened leader in Arvind Kejriwal, a team of leaders flanking him who would form a most formidable cabinet, and most importantly the party has an agenda for governance compiled in the form of the innovative Delhi Dialogue:Vision 2020 program through which the party participated in a conversation with the people of Delhi to better understand their expectations from government. Based on this public outreach the party has over the last couple of months formulated and presented in instalments an extensive roadmap for Delhi’s future encompassing every issue of significance from water to power to education to women’s safety to health care to industry to waste management to housing to transport to rural Delhi. Vision 2020 is not a manifesto slapped together at the last minute, a task the BJP has shockingly foregone after burying Dr Harsh Vardhan’s efforts, but a living document containing the aspirations of the people of Delhi for their next government. It is clear that in Delhi there is only one party that is prepared to govern. AAP is the only party running a positive campaign in this election in the face of a blitzkrieg of negativity. BJP’s expertise in the political dark arts has served them well up till now but AAP has earned the trust of Delhi voters through months of outreach and campaigning, it is the party of hope now and BJP is acting like a party with nothing to offer but bluster and false promises.
For Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah the Delhi election is no longer about the welfare and future of the people of Delhi, if it ever was. They are only interested in adding a notch to their impressive string of electoral victories and then moving on to concentrate their energies on their next prize, Bihar. They will hand over Delhi’s government to the same dysfunctional state leadership that they themselves have now sidelined from the campaign. The BJP campaign is only about winning for the sake of winning by any means possible and is totally disconnected from the aspirations of Delhi’s people. A loss in Delhi would be a crushing blow for the Modi Government and that is why at this late hour ministerial reinforcements have been deployed. There is panic in the BJP ranks and the voters can sense it. With the exodus of ministers form their offices into the electoral arena the Modi Government has literally been shuttered and will likely continue to be till polling day. Most crucially, Mr Jaitley has been pulled away from his Budget preparations and Piyush Goyal should be concentrating on the crucial stake sale of Coal India Ltd instead of doing election duty in Model Town.
BJP’s desperation was there for all to see in its farcical press conference yesterday where an overly aggressive Rajiv Pratap Rudy asked five questions about long-forgotten allegations to AAP while himself ducking questions from the press about Prime Minister’s extravagant pinstriped suit and why Kiran Bedi refused to debate, which would be the idea venue to confront Arvind Kejriwal with all the questions they wanted. No answers were on offer to either question, and probably never will be. Nirmala Sitharaman was even more jarring today. BJP have promised to ask five questions every day till the election, presumably with a new central leader playing the quizmaster each time. State leaders are nowhere to be seen, probably tucked away in cold storage somewhere, and they continue still ducking a debate. Desperate measures, indeed. And then this morning we awoke to a half-page BJP advertisement in the Indian Express in the form a cartoon mocking Arvind Kejriwal’s family in the most crass manner possible and, even worse, in the background was a portrait of Anna Hazare with a garland around it, signifying a posthumous disposition. With this disgraceful advertisement the last shred of credibility of Kiran Bedi as a CM candidate was wiped out and the BJP was left to explain how on Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary they had wished dead the country’s most respected Gandhian. Even BJP supporters found it reprehensible. When a party decides to go completely negative in the last week of a campaign it is a high risk strategy where there is an even chance of causing voter backlash. That Amit Shah had to resort to such a high risk strategy tells you exactly how much of a tight spot the BJP currently finds itself.
In 1987 there was another all-powerful Prime Minister of India who thought he had the world at his feet and shocked the country by firing his Foreign Secretary, which coincidentally took place in late January as well. It was the beginning of a steep fall from grace. The sacking was followed shortly thereafter by a humiliating defeat in an election held in a state belonging to the National Capital Region, Haryana. Will history repeat itself? Stay tuned, we’ll find out on February 10.