Arvind Kejriwal has aced “smart politics”; he refused to fall into the trap of Amit Shah’s Big Bang Hyper-Nationalism and has 62 seats to show for it.
By dodging engagement on the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA, Article 370 and Kashmir, Kejriwal, at the age of 51, will start a third consecutive term as Delhi’s Chief Minister – not bad for a politician who made his debut just eight years ago.
This is the second time that Kejriwal has won against a campaign mounted by Shah. The biggest takeaway from this AAP victory is that it defeated the full wrath of Shah, the second-most powerful man in India, who made the Delhi election about himself and the agenda to which he is wedded.
Shah addressed a record number of rallies, walked door-to-door, imported Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Nitish Kumar, thrust sleepovers upon 275 of his MPs – and has eight of 70 seats to show for it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed only two campaign rallies in Delhi, making it clear that this was, in every way, Shah’s big play.
Kejriwal and AAP fought to keep the election focused on development and the services they have delivered as Shah, in what can only be described as a disgraceful communal campaign, made (his version of) patriotism and minority-bashing the only issue.
Shah told people “Press the EVM button so hard that the current hits those sitting in Shaheen Bagh”. Those he wanted electrocuted are a group of Muslim women protesting against the controversial CAA on a road in Delhi. The normally mild-mannered Prakash Javadekar, union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, called Kejriwal a “terrorist”. The candidates put up by Shah described the Delhi election as “India versus Pakistan”. And Yogi whooshed in to proclaim Kejriwal was “feeding Biryani to Shaheen Bagh”. This was not a campaign with nuance. Junior Finance Minister Anurag Thakur led a campaign slogan to “shoot all traitors”. The BJP left nobody unclear about who qualifies as said traitors.
It was Shah versus Shaheen Bagh and even saw a bored Delhi Police look away as two men fired gunshots in crowds.
The Congress, the third contender in Delhi, has generously gifted all its political ground in Delhi to AAP, winning not a single seat for the second time in a row. This is the same party which under Sheila Dikshit, governed Delhi for 15 years.
Delhi may have served as some sort of circuit breaker for the surge of anti-minority-ism that Shah engendered, but it is futile to deny that he has changed Indian polity perhaps forever – after all, every political party is now forced to maneuver the lines he has carved out as acceptable for patriotism, nationalism, belonging and more. Kejriwal recited the Hanuman Chalisa on television and ducked questions on CAA; thanks to Shah, the acid test for all leaders and parties today is Hindutva Lite. Shah kept daring Kejriwal to come clean on whether he supported Shaheen Bagh or not. Despite a police lathicharge in Jamia Millia Islamia University, which was also protesting the CAA, Kejriwal did not visit the campus. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), home to the tukde-tukde gang in the BJP’s political lexicon, saw armed goons slash at students, yet no politician of any note visited the campus.
So anyone who says the Delhi result turns down the dial on bigotry is delusional. The imploding economy, the huge jobs crisis and the lockdown in Kashmir are issues that the Modi government does not want to address and it has succeeded in keeping them off the electoral agenda. Strong local leaders such as Kejriwal and Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab can defeat the BJP in regional contests but these cannot be spun as defeating the hard Hindutva of Modi and Shah at the national level. Remember AAP lost all the seven parliamentary seats in Delhi just months ago. It succeeded this time in asking voters to choose to its governance record of education, Mohalla clinics and free electricity and water. This clearly created discomfiture for the BJP which did not want this conversation with the voter.
So yes, with political strategist Prashant Kishor in tow, who won his grudge match against Shah, Kejriwal succeeded but this is a local victory, no matter how spectacular it is.
The real test will be the Bihar election scheduled for later this year and the West Bengal election next year. Shah has debuted the model of the campaign he will use in both states and the opposition will need to find answers without being squeamish on secularism.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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