AFTER tense days despite exit polls predicting outright victory for him, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party did sweep the Delhi polls with 62 seats in the 70-member assembly. The BJP gained five seats over its previous tally of three, well below its much-advertised expectations of capturing power.
The Congress for the second time scored a duck. Some say it played a weak hand to facilitate opposition victory. If true, that’s the model to defeat Prime Minister Modi’s increasingly authoritarian rule. It eluded the opposition last year.
Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) didn’t spare any idiom of hate speech to target Muslim women or the wider popular resistance to his communally framed citizenship law. Delhi thus won a significant victory over the politics of hate. Home Minister Amit Shah, the wholesale agent for communal poison he mixes effectively in his electoral strategy, has tried to appear contrite. He now claims his colleague’s calls to shoot protesters at the iconic Shaheen Bagh venue may have backfired on the campaign.
Shah’s comment was closer to a ploy to mask the moral defeat of the communal law, which he and Mr Modi had campaigned hard for in Delhi. The prime minister’s minders in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are adamant that the law to exclude Muslims — a key plank in their proposed Hindu rashtra — must stay at any cost, and that was exactly what Mr Modi also reiterated at the weekend. Therefore, the battle is on and, in fact, now moves into a more critical phase.
Kejriwal’s victory apart, for the bigger challenges ahead, the opposition appears to be in disarray.
Kejriwal’s fine victory was built around his five years of investment in free primary healthcare, spruced up free schools with water and cheap electricity for the underprivileged. He did well in taming the BJP without getting involved in its communal vitriol.
There is criticism that Kejriwal used religious metaphors in a public show of his reverence for Hindu deities, but he also sang a biblical song used in the civil rights movement. Mr Kejriwal kept himself aloof from Shaheen Bagh whose sympathisers voted for him en masse. He had also backed the assault on Kashmir’s special status.
The criticism seems petulant under the circumstances, not the least because the ideal leader of an ideal party to lead the march against Modi does not exist. Previous searches have drawn a blank. Congress promised to sell cow urine in Madhya Pradesh, among other offers, to its imagined or real Hindu voter.
The left has not been untouched by the virus. Its use of religious motifs as cultural icons in West Bengal for decades stand in contrast to its stark failure to popularise its truer ideological plank of scientific temper, not to forget scientific socialism. The result has been telling. Following its rout in West Bengal, a massive chunk of the party cadre walked over to the BJP.
Ironically, it is the Shiv Sena with its baggage of Hindu fascist ideology that has moved to a more reassuring position with Maharashtra chief minister Udhav Thackeray admitting recently that it was a mistake to mix religion with politics. Shiv Sena, of course, cannot suddenly discard its pet reference points, including taking pot shots at Pakistan. The rivalry with Raj Thackeray, a former kinsman of the Sena, makes it necessary for him to keep looking over the shoulders in competitive bigotry. But that’s all that the opposition has to shape into a winning team.
Besieged Kashmiris and imprisoned public intellectuals languishing in Pune jail would do well to petition the European Union and UN for relief rather than lean on India’s hollowed democracy for support. Fortunately, Maratha leader Sharad Pawar has taken up the Elgaar conspiracy case in a political battle with the Modi government. The case involves false charges against some very bright and committed Dalit activists in a bizarre plot to assassinate Mr Modi. After the BJP government was ousted from Maharashtra, the case was transferred to the central investigative body answerable to Mr Shah. Mr Pawar has objected to this.
Kejriwal’s victory apart, for the bigger challenges ahead, the opposition appears to be in disarray, mostly for selfish reasons. Elections are due in Bihar in November and they promise to be a complex proposition for all concerned.
Popular leftist leader Kanhaiya Kumar is already campaigning there for all the secular and democratic causes the Communist Party of India represents. His youthful caravan is routinely targeted by mobs along the dusty journey, and Modi’s supporters are not the only suspects. Kanhaiya lost the parliamentary elections in May last year in which he was pitted against two major contending flanks — Lalu Yadav’s secular politics and the BJP’s rabid communalism. The latter exploited the division and trounced them both. As long as the priceless secular vote continues to be thus split the BJP and its local allies would claim critical advantage, not the least in Bihar. The same holds true for other vital contests due next year.
In fact, after Bihar, until 2024 when Modi faces the next general elections, there are some two-dozen state contests to test his chances.
In May 2021, the opposition gets another chance to tame Modi in West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu, among the major states going to polls. Communist-ruled Kerala also heads for elections around the middle of next year. However, the BJP has found it difficult to breach the state’s secular and democratic tradition.
The presence of the left in the opposition ranks is always reassuring, particularly in view of its much-liked government in Kerala, which has been outspoken on the citizenship law. However, the left also brings its own baggage of sectarian priorities that may yet again torpedo chances of a joint campaign against Modi. If the left cannot find a way of building bridges with Mamata Banerjee for the assembly elections next year, it should be prepared to accept responsibility for any adverse outcome.
[The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org]
Published in Dawn, 18-02-2020