Return of The Muffler Man


 A week, they say, is a long time in politics. Imagine then, the seven months since a one-time tea-seller became India’s Prime Minister, as well as the full year since a former small-time tax bureaucrat-turned-guerilla politician with a muffler as his trademark winter-wear quit as Chief Minister of the small but politically significant city-state of Delhi, which houses the nation’s capital.

Time enough for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his fawning supporters (including many media commentators) to realize that his power-crazed Bharatiya Janata Party, which won the general elections last May seemingly on a Modi wave was, in actual fact, the prime beneficiary of an anti-establishment public sentiment triggered and fuelled by Anna Hazare’s nation-wide movement in 2011 against governmental corruption.

And time enough for Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal to regroup his band of dedicated volunteers, revisit the ideological roots of that same movement of which he was an integral part, engage tirelessly for weeks and months with all — including the lowliest of lowly citizens — in the city-state and then reclaim the chief ministership of Delhi in a delicious bit of karmic comeuppance. An IIT alumnus and now practitioner of Buddhist Vipassana meditation, Kejriwal is probably mindful of the mysterious ways of cosmic irony and the power of political symbolism. His tryst with Delhiites came a full Dhammic circle: the swearing-in ceremony was scheduled exactly a year — to the day — after he had resigned last February.

The reasons for that resignation, though legitimate, never seemed convincing enough to the people who mattered: the Delhiites. And the resignation itself came to haunt Kejriwal and his AAP workers in the initial days of their re-election campaign. In the absence of a clarifying statement from the party, which was otherwise famed for its ability to connect with the commoner, the public saw Kejriwal’s decision as an unjustified abnegation of responsibility by an inexperienced novice: he was termed a “bhagoda” (Hindi slang for “quitter”), besides being viewed as over-ambitious for contesting against Modi for the Benares Lok Sabha seat soon thereafter. Granted, the wheeler-dealers in both the BJP and the Congress had shown their true party colors by closing ranks to stymie Kejriwal’s push for genuine reforms — including ways to cleanse the corrupt Delhi administration. But the huff in which the Kejri group upped and left the scene recalled a bunch of petulant brats walking away from the breakfast table because they’re refused an extra cookie with their milk, not a group of idealist revolutionaries intent on cleansing the system inside out.

The smart politician that he is, a contrite Kejriwal promptly apologized for that reckless act. It somehow touched a chord of sympathy in the collective consciousness of the Delhi public. And the self-confessed true-blooded bania that he is, Kejriwal extracted in return a subliminal promise from the electorate that it would this time vote in his AAP candidates with a kind of majority that would obviate the need to rely on the backing of self-serving legislators from other parties. He’d asked for a fistful of support, he got a heaped shovelful.

The enormity of the verdict comes with its own king-sized baggage of expectations. Noteworthy among the goodies in AAP’s 70-point election manifesto are free Wifi connectivity throughout the city-state, a 50 per cent cut in power tariff, 700 liters of water free per day for every household, and — hold your breath — 1.5 million closed-circuit TVs in Delhi’s nooks and corners to nab criminals. Having promised the voters nothing less than the moon, the starry-eyed electorate is licking its lips impatiently. Kejriwal knows, more than anyone else, that these same voters will willingly write his political obituary if he blunders again. His candid opening remark during the election-victory acceptance speech (“This mandate….it’s scary”) reflected the jitters in the AAP think-tank.

But come to think of it, the man who should take pause and seek to calm the jitters in his own flock is Narendra Modi. There’s more than a grain of truth in the word-play of the popular media headline “Modi Wave Stopped By Kejri-Wall?”— and there’s more than one political analyst willing to drop that question-mark. In other words, the AAPocalyptic Delhi results could well have reverberated beyond the city-state’s borders, and might have even signaled the premature end of the “honeymoon” period for a national leader whose bombast and posturing during the Lok Sabha poll campaign has not been matched by corresponding results — or even efforts to achieve them — after assuming the nation’s top executive office.

Ordinarily, this should not have been the case. After all, India is a large, diverse, and complex country faced with challenges on every front. And the BJP-led federal administration could well argue that it’s still coming to terms with the mess of mega-scams perpetrated by its predecessor, the Congress. It might seem unreasonable to expect the new administrators to work miracles in the span of a few months. Also, it makes little sense to prima facie equate the result in a state-level election with the nation-wide popularity of its Chief Executive. Would Barack Obama, for instance, cop the blame for a Democratic contender’s defeat in the race for mayor of Washington, D.C.?

Curiously however, that’s exactly how the cookie has crumbled. And Modi himself asked for it in large part by going out on a limb to declare at his first major public rally (he addressed as many as four in the run-up to the Delhi state elections) that “Delhi’s mood today is India’s mood tomorrow.” These, in retrospect, could be his most famous last words. Puffed up by his own media-bolstered charisma, Modi used that platform to attack Kejriwal personally — ridiculing him as “a Naxalite who deserves to be banished to the forest.” To worsen matters, his party’s Delhi campaign — headed by his Gujarat henchman Amit Shah, renowned (at least, till BJP’s Delhi debacle) as the man with the Midas touch — was a classic textbook example of how not to run an election campaign.

What, in brief, went wrong for the BJP in Delhi? Let’s count. Supremely arrogant after last year’s truly impressive performance in the national elections, followed by a string of comparatively minor successes in a few state assembly polls, the BJP masterminds gambled heavily on the Modi image: just parade him around, they said, and we’ll collect the votes that will fall in his trail. Add to this one-size-fits-all kind of dubious formula, the absence of a well-researched and well-reasoned manifesto on local issues; the deliberate delay in holding the Delhi polls in the hope that the coat-tail effect of the Lok Sabha victory would carry them past the winning post; the personalizing of the Delhi elections by first pitting Modi against Kejriwal (as if the former was BJP’s chief ministerial candidate), and then the panicky last-minute foisting of Kiran Bedi as the face of the party to shield Modi’s image in the face of a likely defeat; its dirty-tricks department tacitly supporting (and probably facilitating) the similarly last-minute “expose” of AAP’s alleged funding irregularities by a group of disgruntled AAP workers; the playing of the communal card by allowing the party’s extremist fringe to run amok with outrageous statements and you have a sure-fire recipe for electoral disaster.

But Modi’s much-talked-about million-rupee suit (see sidebar), which he wore while schmoozing with President Obama during the latter’s India trip on the eve of the Delhi elections, must count as the final straw that broke BJP’s back. A sartorial brownie point scored for nationalist pride against the developed world represented by an American President, the same suit now became a glaring marker to judge his government’s concern for the country’s poor. And also a revealing reference point to compare him against Kejriwal, the commoner clad in a crumpled bush-shirt, baggy trousers, and worn-out sandals — and don’t forget the muffler. The Delhiite who had voted in the BJP for all of the city-state’s seven Lok Sabha seats in 2014, saw the party less than a year later as an insensitive rich man’s club that willingly tolerated — even encouraged — rabble-rousing communalists in its ranks, but which had little time, sympathy or concern for the basic daily needs of the voting public.

If Congress lost India using negative propagandist tactics against Modi in the general elections last year, the BJP did a ditto against Kejriwal last month — and lost Delhi.

In sharp contrast, Kejriwal and AAP ran what was probably one of the cleanest campaigns in India’s electoral history. They refrained from personal attacks, eschewed any semblance of communal color to their campaign even if it meant a gutsy refusal of support from the Jama Masjid’s Imam Bukhari. Unlike any other political party, AAP campaigned with funds of which every rupee was accounted for and displayed on the party website, the campaign itself focusing entirely on issues concerning the common man — such as bijli-sadak-paani (power-roads-water) as well as women’s safety. It’s nothing short of a marvel and also an object lesson in constructive grass-root engagement that the AAP volunteers, far from being disheartened by the delaying tactics of the BJP in scheduling elections for nearly a year, instead used the time to build ground-swell support for their proposed policies and action-plans. This they did through door-to-door campaigning, and through mohalla-level meetings. Result: they got a firm grip on the core issues — issues that every citizen everywhere expects his government to address in his quest for a better quality of life: corruption-free governance, safer streets, controlled inflation, reasonably-priced public utilities. By letting the people deliberate openly on these issues and come up with ideas for practical solutions, Kejriwal and his party have doubtless embarked on the journey of truly empowering the people.

AAP also benefitted in large measure from the residual goodwill its administration had generated during the party’s earlier 49-day stint in Delhi. Hamstrung by being a minority party in the previous legislative assembly and dependent therefore on the support of an unreliable Congress to stay in power and implement its plans, AAP.1 had nonetheless made its intentions abundantly clear and laid the groundwork for numerous public projects and schemes that AAP.2 is now beholden to pursue. The overwhelming mandate (67 seats in the 70-seat assembly after a record 67.08% voter turnout) tells us that the Delhi voters voted with their feet, in a manner of speaking, and were convinced that AAP did more for Delhi in seven weeks than Modi-BJP has done for India in the last seven months.

AAP’s — and its administration’s — X-factor by far however is Arvind Kejriwal’s underdog persona. His frugal lifestyle, his straight talk, and his transparent sincerity have endeared him in no small way to the people he’s been mandated to serve. Honest and personally incorruptible politicians are hard to find in a corrupt system. Even more scarce are those like Kejriwal who transcend those virtues at the individual level and bravely take on the task of overhauling that establishment. Such trail-blazers get labeled “subversive” “anarchist” and even “Naxalite” by commentators and columnists on the payroll of big business or even those who’re just too astonished by the audacity and sweep of this revolutionary vision. And talking of labels, the very word “politics” may have begun shedding its seedy cloak-and-dagger connotation in the post-Kejriwal era.

But of one thing, there is little doubt. Kejriwal and his AAP have shown that Modi is not unbeatable — and that’s quite an achievement particularly since it happened within a year of Modi’s Lok Sabha triumph. The ripples are being felt way beyond the borders of Delhi. Already, the BJP has softened its negotiating stance against its ally — the PDP — in Jammu & Kashmir, and agreed to the latter’s terms for forming a governing alliance. Regional satraps such as Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal), Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad Yadav (Bihar), Akhilesh Yadav (Uttar Pradesh) and Omar Abdullah (J&K) are rejoicing at the unraveling of the BJP in Delhi, hoping that the party’s reversal there will have a domino effect on the forthcoming elections in other states.

More than anything else though, it might be helpful to look at AAP as an idea whose time has come, rather than as a party seeking electoral gains in the myopic race for legislative power. From that perspective, its victory in Delhi could well become a silent and indirect referendum of sorts on the much-touted Modi model of economic development. Perhaps it’s time for the country to revisit the choice it made in the last general elections, and question the hollow oratory and low-brow showmanship of a leader whose so-called “vision” — at least, so far — has meant little more than making fiery speeches about giving every Indian a life of dignity, and then consorting with big-name industrialists and crony capitalists to bless their mega projects located on land “grabbed” from poor hapless peasants in the name of “development” through an unjust and immoral law and a callous governmental machinery.  


Congress who?

For the Congress Party which failed to win a single seat in last month’s Delhi state election, and 62 of its 70 candidates forfeited their deposits after failing to secure one-sixth of the valid votes polled in the constituency, things can’t get much worse. Expectedly, its performance in the other states too hasn’t been scintillating either.

In Delhi itself — a one-time stronghold of the Congress — the prognosis is indeed worrisome. While its national rival BJP at least managed to hold on to its 30-plus percentage vote share that it had enjoyed in the previous (2013) election, the numbers for the Congress show that after a 15-year-period since 1998 when the party’s vote share suffered a reduction from 58% to 43%, the share of 25% in 2013 and a shocking 9% in 2015 tells its own story.

Political observers point to a lack of will among the top brass to put up a fight. The reluctant scion Rahul Gandhi made one campaign speech of note in which he lashed out at Modi for his million-rupee suit, and was on the evening before the elections seen at a boisterous dinner party with friends in a post Delhi restaurant. Little wonder that party workers are openly calling for his sister Priyanka Vadra to lead them. On Feb 23, the day parliament reconvened, the party announced cryptically that Rahul had gone “sabbatical leave.”


Fit to Suit?

The infamous Rs 1 million suit monogrammed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s name.
While President Obama stuck to conventionally tailored (and colored) dark business suits during his India trip during this year’s Republic Day celebrations on the eve of the Delhi elections, his Indian counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi indulged in an unusual bit of sartorial flamboyance. He wore a “pin-striped” bandh-gala suit for sure, but those pin stripes on closer viewing were simply rows of his full name “NARENDRA DAMODAR MODI” embroidered with golden threads (called zari in India). The total cost of the monogrammed suit: Rs ten lakhs or one million Indian rupees!

After word spread and the suit began drawing flak from outraged citizens and political rivals than praise from fashionistas, the BJP opted for quick damage control: the party spokespersons announced that the suit would be auctioned and its proceeds used to fund Modi’s pet project — the clean-up of the River Ganga.

The three-day auction garnered Rs. 43.1-mil (approx $700,000) for the suit. A diamond merchant from Surat was the successful bidder. But there was little joy in the BJP camp: the damage had been done. A poll defeat can rarely be attributed to a single factor, but speculation among the party cadres is rife that Modi’s extravagant — if slightly weird — dress sense, which perhaps unwittingly projected BJP as the party of the wealthy and the well-heeled, may have cost it the Delhi election.


A New Low

While the BJP’s seat share plummeted from 32 in the last Delhi election to just three in the present assembly it set a new low was also set in the substantive quality of the campaign speeches.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi not only addressed four public rallies to garner support, he also requisitioned the services of his entire cabinet for electioneering duty. But the leaders who hogged the limelight were those whose statements dragged the campaign to unprecedented depths in foul-mouthed vulgarity as well as obscurantist and sexist thinking.

Union minister of State Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti told voters in an election rally that the time had come for them to choose between “Ramzadon” (those born of the Hindu Lord Ram) and “Haramzadon” (those born illegitimately —o r more plainly, bastards). “Aapko tay karna hai ki Dilli mein sarkar Ramzadon ki banegi ya haramzadon ki. Yeh aapka faisla hai.” (You must decide whether you want a government of those born of Ram or of those born illegitimately). Another minister, Giriraj Singh had earlier compared Modi to Lord Ram.

BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj, who has begun a revisionist campaign to extol Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse whom he’s called a patriot, exhorted all Hindu women to produce at least four children. Taking a potshot at the Muslim personal law prevalent in India, Maharaj said: “The concept of four wives and 40 children will not work in India and the time has come when a Hindu woman must produce at least four children in order to protect Hindu religion.”

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