Congress may lose that tag to Kejriwal’s party in Delhi. The latter will eat into Congress’ votes.

The so-called semi-finals before the 2014 parliamentary polls have drawn to a close, but for Delhi, which goes to polls on Wednesday. The city-state has not seen a similar triangular contest ever. Its many imponderables make the Delhi elections the most interesting of all the fights to the five State assemblies, this early winter.

Almost all the opinion polls have predicted a Congress loss, with one even suggesting that Chief Minister Sheila Dixit will lose to Arvind Kejriwal, the chief of the new entrant, the Aam Aadmi Party. This one prediction marks all that the AAP stands for: decimation of a “corrupt” Congress.

The political project of the Hazare-Kejriwal anti-corruption platform since early 2011 should successfully conclude with the Congress’ loss of power, first in Delhi and then at the Centre.

A close scrutiny of the AAP, its political signifiers, its slogan and appeals, and the voters it seeks out sharply carve out a distinct political pattern and strategy.

Symbols

Politics, particularly the electoral variety, is all about perception built around symbols. Mahatma Gandhi’s famous fasts were against the communal award to split the electorate, against Partition violence and for communal amity.

In a Gandhi redux, Kisan Baburao Hazare and Kejriwal donned the ‘Gandhi cap’ and undertook a fast protesting corruption in the Congress government.

The series of fasts, proactively promoted by the media, ended in creating an atmosphere of distrust of Congress governments in various states and at the Centre.

The obvious beneficiary of this anti-Congress mood is the Opposition BJP, particularly in towns and cities, where caste, kinship and historical oppression don’t lead to politics of identity and representation.

This anti-Congress mood over allegations of corruption was the basic premise on which the electoral debut of the AAP was sought to be planned last year.

The AAP borrowed heavily from the symbols of Gandhi’s politics: the so-called Gandhi cap, the peaceful, self-flagellating tool of the fast, and the exacting Gandhian standards of personal probity for its leaders.

Thus, the AAP’s success, to a large extent, is the success of the Gandhian legacy in what seemed to be a nation that had forgotten the Mahatma.

But in a city where the first attempt on the Mahatma’s life was made by a Partition refugee, who will vote for a Gandhian?

Post-Independence Delhi traditionally had a larger following for the RSS black cap. So, the votes for the white cap have to come from the traditional Congress bastion and that is exactly what the AAP is looking at.

It could be a coincidence that the Mahatma’s last fast was at a valmiki or sweeper colony of Delhi, where the manual scavengers used to live.

Though manual scavenging is officially banned, there still are men and women who carry night soil on their heads in the capital city. And this group used to vote for the Congress. By choosing for itself the “broom” symbol, the AAP has persisted with the Gandhian symbolism.

Parivar voter

After the defeat in the 2004 parliamentary polls, the high-profile BJP leader Pramod Mahajan who ran his party’s poll campaign, candidly said that the loss was largely because the BJP was perceived as a party of the rich while the Congress was considered to be the common man’s party.

The BJP is perceived to have always represented, rightly or wrongly, the upper castes, the upper classes, the trading and the priestly communities and the interests of those opposed to affirmative action and minority representation.

In fact, the Congress had coined a slogan, “Congress ke haath, aam admi ke saath” (Congress’ hand is with the common man), for the 2004 elections.

So, it is no coincidence that the Aam Aadmi Party, by its very name is trying to appeal to the Congress voter and completely co-opt the Congress’ ‘aam aadmi’ constituency.

Like Delhi’s Red Fort that has the diwan-e-aam and diwan-e-khaas, (separate enclosures for the emperor to give audience to the commoners and the gentry), the new politics of Delhi is attempting targeted electioneering.

The AAP’s slogans and electoral strategies further make it clear that the party is not wooing the Parivar voter at all. Kejriwal’s appeal seeking a fresh probe into the Batla House encounter is clearly aimed at the ghettoised and often paranoid Muslim voter.

But this one statement is enough to turn the regular Parivar voter against the AAP and its candidates. So, there is no threat of the BJP vote getting split in normal circumstances.

As if a measure of abundant caution, Kejriwal has also appealed for a probe into the Ishrat Jehan fake encounter case, which is a red rag to any committed saffron campaigner or voter who admires the BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Worse, Kejriwal went to Bareilly in a much-publicised move, met Tauqeer Raza Khan, a riot-accused cleric who had issued a fatwa against Taslima Nasreen, and openly admitted that he had gone to offer prayers at the dargah (“maatha thekhne gaya”)

Curiously he did not make any publicised visit to the shrine of Vaishno Devi or the cave at Amarnath which would have confused the Parivar voter.

Muslim voters

The most hilarious aspect of spin-doctoring was the AAP’s friendly commentators claiming that only the AAP has ever put up minority candidates from predominantly “Hindu seats”, forgetting conveniently that the Congress had for long played the minority card well and had given tickets to Muslims and Christians to contest from seats as varied as New Delhi to Faridabad to just about any seat anywhere.

The sustained focus on Muslim votes, the sweeper community, the jhuggi-jhopdi or slum clusters, the total refusal to even appeal to the Parivar sentiments, even at the cost of inviting the “Muslim appeasement” attack, might help the AAP split the Muslim votes away from the Congress.

If effective, just this one poll strategy could be enough to lead to the Congress’ defeat. Whereas, in the absence of adding the BJP core voter or the RSS shakha-goer to its kitty, the AAP does not seem to be hurting the BJP.

If this prognosis holds good, the Congress can get defeated, the BJP can return to power in the State and the AAP can replace the Congress as the “commoner’s party”.

Interestingly, the only platform that Kejriwal shared with politicians before his plunge into politics was with the RSS ideologue, K. N. Govindacharya, controversial ‘godman’ Ramdev, former BJP union minister Ram Jethmalani, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy and others at Ramlila Maidan on February 27, 2011. Kejriwal dismisses this meeting as a “one off”, without any political significance.

Though upper-caste IITians and former bureaucrats are not common men and are surely more “khaas than aam”, Kejriwal’s politics should be taken at face value.

The splitting of the Congress votes could just be a mere consequence of Kejriwal’s attempt to usher in a new politics, carrying the Gandhian symbolism forward at a time when the Congress and its leaders have forgotten all about Gandhi's politics of probity, integrity and justice.

Whatever be Kejriwal’s ideological moorings, for now his politics, undoubtedly, is a gush of fresh air in the suffocatingly sordid world of the politics of pelf.

(This article was published on December 1, 2013)
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