Sunday, February 1, 2015

Mukul Kesavan - BJP's Co-Opting of Kiran Bedi Isn't Going to Plan

The Delhi elections should be an annual event, like the Jaipur Festival. They're fun, they're free (well, the voting is) and they perk the city up, they make this sprawling, surly dust bowl coherent. Strangers approach without uttering menaces, they are enthusiastic and sociable, and everywhere people gather purposefully without making other people afraid. It takes an election to make dilliwallahs urban.

This wasn't always the case. Before Delhi acquired a Vidhan Sabha in 1991, its politics was drearily municipal, almost entirely overshadowed by its status as the Union's capital. Even its municipal politics was fragmented, divided as it was into three urban bodies: the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the New Delhi Municipal Council and the Delhi Cantonment Board. Its politicians, both from the Jan Sangh (later the Bharatiya Janata Party) and the Congress, were resolutely parochial figures, machine politicians who mattered to no one beyond their constituencies.

In my childhood, Delhi's politics was dominated by the Jan Sangh. Madan Lal Khurana, Vijay Kumar Malhotra and Kedarnath Sahani made this city of small shopkeepers a bastion of majoritarian politics. Flawed though the leaders of the Jan Sangh might have been, they seemed positively genteel compared to the gang of Congress politicians who dominated Delhi's political landscape in the 1980s, men like H.K.L. Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and the durable Jagdish Tytler. These men did come to national attention, but for the wrong reasons: their behaviour during the Congress-led pogrom that targeted Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.

When Delhi became a state of sorts, thanks to the 69th Amendment, there was great excitement, and the BJP won a handsome victory in the inaugural election in 1993. A series of BJP notables - Vijay Kumar Malhotra, Sahib Singh Verma, Sushma Swaraj - took turns at being chief minister. But thanks to the remarkable success of Sheila Dikshit in making Delhi a Congress borough from 1998 to 2013, Delhi's politics went back to being predictable and local.

The turning point in the history of Delhi's politics was the assembly election of 2013, when the Aam Aadmi Party led by an inspired Arvind Kejriwal turned both customary wisdom and poll predictions on their head and won enough seats to form a government, which famously lasted 49 days before it committed suicide. For six months between the assembly elections in Delhi and the results of the Parliamentary elections in May 2014, a politics incubated in Delhi seemed central to the politics of India... and then the bubble burst. The AAP won four parliamentary seats in all and none in Delhi. The BJP won a resounding majority and Narendra Modi towered over a political landscape populated by runts and pygmies. Good governance, responsible realism and Amit Shah seemed to carry all before them.

So why are anchors and pundits excitedly discussing snap polls in late January 2015 when the real polls ought to be a foregone conclusion? Is the resurgent excitement about the AAP's prospects one last spasm of wishful thinking by a defeated commentariat routed by Modi and the BJP? Or does the gossip about Kiran Bedi's induction and the BJP's panic and Kejriwal's new confidence bear witness to the durability of populist politics in India's largest urban cluster? Does it tell us something about the likely trajectory of politics in an urbanizing India, more generally?

The BJP's calculation in this election has been that the promise of economic dynamism through good governance and charismatic leadership which won them the national election and then a series of assembly elections, should carry the day in Delhi too. Kiran Bedi's co-option has been read as anxiety about this formula not working in the national capital. This might be true, but it is at least as likely that the BJP always saw Kiran Bedi as an ally within India Against Corruption and adopted her as a mascot to lay claim to a share of Anna Hazare's legacy - the authoritarian, discipline-and-punish part of it that fits the sangh parivar's vision of a well-drilled nation.

In this reading, Kiran Bedi, former policewoman and inspector general of Delhi's prisons, is seamlessly assimilated to Narendra Modi's rhetoric of good, stable governance. She brings the virtuous cachet of India Against Corruption minus the insurgent insolence that was Kejriwal's unique contribution. Thus, she is stable, constant, experienced and true where Kejriwal is mercurial, untried, a bhagora and an anarchist. I don't find it hard to believe that Amit Shah picked Kiran Bedi out as a trump card early on and played her late to finesse Kejriwal.

I do believe, though, that the move hasn't worked for two reasons. The first, less important, reason has to do with Kiran Bedi's shortcomings as a political candidate. Humourless self-righteousness might work for a 'social activist' (it might even be a credential), but it is an unattractive quality in a politician. Confronted by an audience or an interviewer, Bedi begins with smiling generalities and ends with teacherly scolding. She converses in telegraphic talking points that are sometimes surreally at odds with the questions she's being asked. It isn't hard to see why her handlers don't want her to debate Kejriwal and her refusal to engage does seem to be hurting the BJP's prospects in Delhi.

But Bedi's persona wouldn't matter so much if the BJP's understanding of the legacy of India Against Corruption was accurate. It isn't. The BJP seems to believe that the extraordinary support the IAC mobilized in Delhi and urban India was provoked by corruption and can, therefore, be addressed by good, honest governance. This is an overly literal reading: corruption in the hands of the AAP was a metaphor for the misery inflicted on citizens by an opaque, unaccountable and distant State.

The rudeness and insolence that became Kejriwal's trademarks during his first campaign, thrilled his supporters not because their natural home was an anarchist mob, but because it was a public and dramatic way of putting the State, its agents and its enablers in their place. The white Ambassador with its red light and siren, the VIP cavalcade, the predatory cop and the untouchable private corporation became symbols of a system that shuts out its citizens. The obverse of this was that fabled beast, the Lok Pal, a Grand-Inquisitor-cum-dragon that would keep an incorrigible system honest, plus radical devolution that would bring the State within the reach of the neighbourhoods and localities in which citizens live.

Delhi is wall-papered with wonderfully detailed portraits of Narendra Modi wearing kurtas of many colours, but only two expressions. The first, early batch of posters has Modi, not smiling precisely, but looking gracious. The second, more common sort, has him impressively groomed as always, but impassive, formidable. Kejriwal's posters are more animated: one of them has him in a crowd being greeted by an old man.

Modi's charisma, Kiran Bedi's administrative experience and the BJP's rhetoric of good governance do not directly address radical disenchantment with an opaque and centralized system. Delhi's election will turn on whether the urban citizen's angry skepticism about the State is allayed by the pharaonic reassurance offered by Modi or harnessed by Kejriwal's theatrical promise to cut Leviathan down to size. Meanwhile, we can enjoy the BJP's questions, the AAP's answers and Kiran Didi's bid to be a small star to Modi's sun. To nit-picking idiots who point out that small stars are big suns up close, she might gnomically say, as she has said elsewhere, "That's my choice. That's my choice. And you have to respect it."

Kiran Bedi on mute: If BJP doesn't want her to talk, can they trust her with CM's job?
If the gag order has come from the party, if Bedi is not allowed to speak again till the election, the BJP will certainly rethink its decision to make Bedi the chief minister if it wins the election. That is a lot of ifs. But the signs are ominous for Bedi. While she continues to speak in the sign language, the BJP has signaled that it is moving beyond Bedi. She has been quietly omitted from the party’s posters and the speeches of its other prominent leaders.  According to this NDTV report, the BJP seems to have changed its strategy and is now back to where it had started: with Narendra Modi as the face and voice of the campaign.“Many BJP posters in Delhi constituencies now feature only Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mr Shah and the local party candidate. 

Modi may be 'lucky' for India but Kejriwal's still the aam aadmi hero

In May 2014, when Modi became the PM, crude oil was selling at $110 per barrel. On Thursday (January 29), it crashed to a six-year low of $44 per barrel before staging a minor recovery. On January 29, 2009 — exactly six years ago — the price of petrol in Delhi was Rs 40.62 per litre. Today, in spite of crude prices going back to the 2009 levels, petrol is priced at Rs 58 in Delhi. Logically, petrol should have been cheaper. But, it isn’t. By not allowing fuel prices to fall in proportion to the decline in crude, a feat it has achieved by raising tax, the Modi government will pocket almost Rs 18,000 crore.