Friday, 30 January 2015

Amit Shah finally meet his match in AAP, the party of hope

The first sign that the BJP realised its gambit of naming Kiran Bedi as Chief Ministerial candidate had boomeranged was last Saturday when a bad-tempered Amit Shah chose a press conference in Patna to accuse Aaj Tak news channel of ‘yellow journalism’ and trying to do everything in its power to insure an election victory in Delhi for the Aam Aadmi Party. The cause for this nasty outburst was a snap poll broadcast by the offending channel the previous evening that showed Arvind Kejriwal still ahead of Kiran Bedi as Delhi’s preferred choice as Chief Minister. After a year of supreme electoral success it seems Amit Shah could not countenance even the faintest hint of failure. The fa├žade of confidence that has been the hallmark of Mr Shah’s rhetoric over the last year had cracked and there is no doubt AAP’s nimble and efficient election campaign was directly responsible for it. 

Well, Amit Shah’s temper must only have gotten worse in the days since, as subsequent polls have certainly been no kinder. Kiran Bedi’s candidacy, the much vaunted ‘masterstroke’, has been on a steep slide this week. Her lack of political experience, shaky interviews and a staunch refusal to debate Arvind Kejriwal have meant she has spent the week largely sequestered in her constituency of Krishna Nagar, where the BJP’s internal divisions are making her prospects for victory far from certain. When she did venture out, for instance to Timarpur for a road show, she suffered the indignity of losing her audience’s attention to marauding Modi and Ramdev look-alikes in an Audi, immediately following which her vehicle had the misfortune of running over a young man, who turned out to be the local candidate’s nephew. Not the most auspicious of beginnings. And now she has gone mute, ostensibly because of a soar throat and the need for what she terms as ‘voice rest’, but most suspect it is a damage limitation strategy ordered by Messrs Jaitley and Shah after Bedi endured a string of disastrous interviews, of which the most revealing and damning was conducted by Ravish Kumar of NDTV-India, causing a sensation on social media. Amit Shah must be rueing the influence of solid reporting from channels practising ‘yellow journalism’ as opposed to what I imagine is his preferred brand of ‘saffron journalism’. 

The condition of the BJP election campaign in Delhi as of now is that they have gone to full battle stations with twenty-odd central ministers, just about every BJP Chief Minister, 120 MPs and lord knows how many party functionaries as well as party workers from thirteen states being drafted into service by Amit Shah after Kiran Bedi’s imploding candidacy left the Delhi BJP non-functional and riven with discord barely a week before the election. In an almost unprecedented step Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley, the PM’s most trusted lieutenants, have taken direct control of the campaign and the BJP’s sulking state leadership has been bypassed altogether, with a senior BJP leader (you know who) anonymously quoted in yesterday’s Economic Times as dismissing local leaders as ‘irrelevant’. Considering this is a state election it is a most remarkable remark from this senior BJP leader. If as he says the BJP state leadership is really ‘irrelevant’ then in the eventuality of a BJP victory, and after the BJP’s horde of central leaders have returned to their neglected official responsibilities, it is this ‘irrelevant’ group of state leaders who will be handed the reins of power by the Modi, Shah, Jaitley triumvirate. Delhi will have to suffer the disunity and incompetence of these politically inept zeroes for five years. It is a purgatory that surely no resident of this great city can find acceptable, not even the most hardcore Modi supporter. With BJP workers unenthused and almost invisible on the ground in Delhi, it appears Mr Amit Shah is a Field Marshal who has a top-heavy campaign organisation with many Generals at his beck and call but when it comes to BJP’s foot soldiers only phantom armies exist. Mr Shah is trying to bus in party workers from a dozen states and also relying on the Sangh Parivar to fill the gap but with a dejected state party he is fighting an uphill battle. 

At present the BJP in Delhi has no manifesto, a defunct state leadership, and a Chief Ministerial candidate who in the last fortnight has shown herself not only totally unsuitable for the post she aspires to and probably even electoral politics altogether. So what exactly would a voter be voting for if he or she chose BJP in these elections? A mirage created by a team of expert travelling salesmen who will depart the scene right after the election and leave Delhi with a counterfeit government. If the Delhi unit of the BJP has splintered so badly while trying to fight an election then governance is a task that is clearly beyond their competence. Delhi deserves better and, fortunately, this time Delhi has a choice, in fact the only viable choice.

In stark contrast to BJP the Aam Aadmi Party has a battle-hardened leader in Arvind Kejriwal, a team of leaders flanking him who would form a most formidable cabinet, and most importantly the party has an agenda for governance compiled in the form of the innovative Delhi Dialogue:Vision 2020 program through which the party participated in a conversation with the people of Delhi to better understand their expectations from government. Based on this public outreach the party has over the last couple of months formulated and presented in instalments an extensive roadmap for Delhi’s future encompassing every issue of significance from water to power to education to women’s safety to health care to industry to waste management to housing to transport to rural Delhi. Vision 2020 is not a manifesto slapped together at the last minute, a task the BJP has shockingly foregone after burying Dr Harsh Vardhan’s efforts, but a living document containing the aspirations of the people of Delhi for their next government. It is clear that in Delhi there is only one party that is prepared to govern. AAP is the only party running a positive campaign in this election in the face of a blitzkrieg of negativity. BJP’s expertise in the political dark arts has served them well up till now but AAP has earned the trust of Delhi voters through months of outreach and campaigning, it is the party of hope now and BJP is acting like a party with nothing to offer but bluster and false promises. 

For Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah the Delhi election is no longer about the welfare and future of the people of Delhi, if it ever was. They are only interested in adding a notch to their impressive string of electoral victories and then moving on to concentrate their energies on their next prize, Bihar. They will hand over Delhi’s government to the same dysfunctional state leadership that they themselves have now sidelined from the campaign. The BJP campaign is only about winning for the sake of winning by any means possible and is totally disconnected from the aspirations of Delhi’s people. A loss in Delhi would be a crushing blow for the Modi Government and that is why at this late hour ministerial reinforcements have been deployed. There is panic in the BJP ranks and the voters can sense it. With the exodus of ministers form their offices into the electoral arena the Modi Government has literally been shuttered and will likely continue to be till polling day. Most crucially, Mr Jaitley has been pulled away from his Budget preparations and Piyush Goyal should be concentrating on the crucial stake sale of Coal India Ltd instead of doing election duty in Model Town. 

BJP’s desperation was there for all to see in its farcical press conference yesterday where an overly aggressive Rajiv Pratap Rudy asked five questions about long-forgotten allegations to AAP while himself ducking questions from the press about Prime Minister’s extravagant pinstriped suit and why Kiran Bedi refused to debate, which would be the idea venue to confront Arvind Kejriwal with all the questions they wanted. No answers were on offer to either question, and probably never will be. Nirmala Sitharaman was even more jarring today. BJP have promised to ask five questions every day till the election, presumably with a new central leader playing the quizmaster each time. State leaders are nowhere to be seen, probably tucked away in cold storage somewhere, and they continue still ducking a debate. Desperate measures, indeed. And then this morning we awoke to a half-page BJP advertisement in the Indian Express in the form a cartoon mocking Arvind Kejriwal’s family in the most crass manner possible and, even worse, in the background was a portrait of Anna Hazare with a garland around it, signifying a posthumous disposition. With this disgraceful advertisement the last shred of credibility of Kiran Bedi as a CM candidate was wiped out and the BJP was left to explain how on Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary they had wished dead the country’s most respected Gandhian. Even BJP supporters found it reprehensible. When a party decides to go completely negative in the last week of a campaign it is a high risk strategy where there is an even chance of causing voter backlash. That Amit Shah had to resort to such a high risk strategy tells you exactly how much of a tight spot the BJP currently finds itself. 

In 1987 there was another all-powerful Prime Minister of India who thought he had the world at his feet and shocked the country by firing his Foreign Secretary, which coincidentally took place in late January as well. It was the beginning of a steep fall from grace. The sacking was followed shortly thereafter by a humiliating defeat in an election held in a state belonging to the National Capital Region, Haryana. Will history repeat itself? Stay tuned, we’ll find out on February 10. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Kejriwal Rising...

Every so often in an election campaign there is a moment when a leader finds his voice and everything seems to fall into place. Arvind Kejriwal had just such a moment yesterday answering questions from prospective voters in a Times of India/Navbharat Times Hangout session. 

The Aam Aadmi Party campaign in the 2013 Delhi elections was a renegade campaign asking for protest votes from a disillusioned electorate against the political establishment. I doubt very much that those who voted for AAP in 2013 or even the party itself ever fathomed that it would have the opportunity to form a government. It was a protest vote that surprised everyone and the rest is history. This time around there is no doubt whatsoever that AAP is running on an agenda of governance and has a plan for ruling Delhi for five years. It also has a leader who has been campaigning relentlessly for weeks, irrespective of the cold weather, and voters have responded. Unlike the late-arriving Kiran Bedi, whose campaign is only now getting started two weeks before the election, Arvind Kejriwal has covered the length and breadth of Delhi. A considerable percentage of voters have seen and heard him in the flesh, and he has seen and heard them. He is a candidate now in sync with the electorate and instinctively familiar with their aspirations, which is why his stump speech is so on song and on target now. Nothing can replace a candidate spending time on the ground and amongst the voters in a political campaign. Kiran Bedi is learning that lesson the hard way.

All this was prologue to the command performance Arvind Kejriwal put on in the Times of India hangout yesterday. He had the calm demeanour of a candidate who was confident and seemingly unruffled by the hoopla and never-ending media circus surrounding this high-profile election. This was a different Arvind Kejriwal from the one who was sworn in as Chief Minister almost a year ago. The intervening year has been a trial by fire for AAP and its leader. Electoral defeat felt like a kick in the teeth, introspection was bitter, admitting mistakes was painful, and starting again from square one was necessary. Yet AAP diligently went through the process of rebirth, parting ways with some old comrades in the ensuing difficult process but also gaining new blood as is to be expected, and has emerged as a party with its core ideology intact but a party that has been toughened by experience and a realistic understanding of the political process. All these qualities were on display as Arvind Kejriwal answered queries yesterday on every subject under the sun and also took the opportunity to unveil a 7-point agenda for governance underlining what will be his party’s priorities if elected to office: reduce prices, cheap electricity, water supply for all, bring an end to corruption, improving quality of government schools and adding 20 more colleges with Outer Delhi as an education hub, insuring a safer Delhi for women while installing CCTV cameras across the city, improving the quality of government schools, and providing affordable health care. I would have preferred to add an eighth item to the list in the form of skill development and job creation, but they are included amongst the top priorities of AAP’s very comprehensive Delhi Dialogue commitments that were drawn up with feedback from Delhiites. 

On the question of jhuggis, he said the people who lived there deserved a humane approach from us and not demolitions. About Kiran Bedi he said if she had been serious about being part of a new kind of politics she should have joined AAP and not waited till two weeks before an election to join the BJP, a party which stood for everything she claimed to oppose earlier. On Anna Hazare and Shanti Bhushan he wisely voiced his respect and let it rest there. He deftly downplayed the prospect of discord with the Centre if elected, and added that a BJP government in Delhi would merely be a pawn in the hands of the Centre but an AAP government would actively defend Delhi’s interests. He reiterated his offer to debate Kiran Bedi, saying the voters had a right to get clarity from her on a whole raft of important issues. On migrants he said it was wrong to blame them for all of Delhi’s problems and eloquently stated that Delhi was the nation’s capital so it belonged to everyone and all were welcome to participate in the quest for a better future for the city. He ended by making a plea directly to BJP and Congress voters, saying they had repeatedly voted for both national parties and Delhi’s problems only got worse, even Modi in the last seven months had failed to improve their lot, Kejriwal assured them of a better future if they relinquished their party affiliations and voted for AAP this time. 

These were the well modulated and mature words of a leader who already sounded like the Chief Minister of Delhi. Ideological fires that originally burned bright and fast have cooled to reveal an Arvind Kejriwal who understands that sometimes patience and compromise can be just as effective instruments in politics as protest and aggression. To borrow Kiran Bedi’s favourite word, Arvind Kejriwal has been evolving and all for the good. It has made him a better leader of the Aam Aadmi Party and it will make him an excellent Chief Minister of Delhi. 

After a year of waiting and campaigning Arvind Kejriwal is ready to return to the job, and no matter what results come in on February 10th, apna AK is a man of destiny. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Kiran's Adventures in Wonderland

Kiran Bedi has been a constant presence as an avid participant on India’s nightly television news debates these past years, railing with moral outrage against the hypocrisies and misdeeds of politicians and political parties. So it is a particularly stark irony that she has spent the last twenty-four hours squirming and evading an invitation to a public debate from Arvind Kejriwal. She has tried to use every excuse in the book to justify her sudden dislike for the whole concept of debating. With old tweets emerging of her exhorting national leaders to debate in the past, Ms Bedi’s position got even more untenable and indefensible. The transition into the political arena always takes some adjusting, but to do so while also being parachuted in as Chief Ministerial candidate is a tall order indeed, and the pressure appears to be taking its tool on Kiran Bedi’s hard-earned credibility. 

Her response to the offer to debate was that she was too busy ‘delivering’ and the debate with Kejriwal could wait till after the election on the floor of the state assembly. She is a new entrant to politics so perhaps she does not fathom that ‘delivering’ is what you do after being elected into government, whereas debating is what is expected from you during an election campaign. When an enthusiastic media did not buy into her first explanation, she went through a litany of more excuses ranging from the illogical to the farcical. My favourite bit was her saying that it was impossible to have 500 debates for 500 news channels, when she was well aware that the invitation was for one debate to be telecast by all channels. She was having a very bad day and the musings of BJP spokesman Sambit Patra only added to the mess the BJP found itself in yesterday. All the while Arvind Kejriwal and AAP were putting on a powerful display with a road show in the heart of Delhi comprising thousands of volunteers on the streets. In contrast the BJP was wracked by dissent in various parts of the city from supporters of those ignored in the ticket allocation, including at its headquarters by the upset followers of the Delhi state President himself. It’s becoming increasingly apparent to one and all that there is only one party in Delhi that has a comprehensive plan of an action for governance and a cohesive leadership team all set to put it into action from Day One. The overflowing crowds attending AAP’s jansabhas day in and day out get absolutely no media attention but are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore especially in the Outer Delhi area, a BJP bastion, that looks like it is about to flip over to AAP after the Modi Government’s scandalous Land Ordinance enraged rural voters. 

The brutal truth of the matter is that Kiran Bedi is not ready for the role she has been gifted by the BJP leadership. All doubt on this question was removed with her disastrous appearance on Arnab Goswami’s show last night, where she walked out in the middle of the interview, after she faltered badly in her attempt to answer basic questions about her divinely-inspired political conversion. Her particular brand of antics did not help matters, especially when she began to wave around a blue folders with the PM’s name visibly written on it. Also her habit of speaking about her plans for Delhi in unintelligible acronyms like 6P and 6S only added to the general sense that she was out of her depth. Apart from her greatly reduced zeal for the issue of anti-corruption, there is also a glaring contradiction in her main campaign pledge of promising safety for Delhi’s women, in that she still believes the Delhi Police should continue to report to the Union Home Ministry, which will mean police continues its old ways without reform and without paying much heed to the views of the Chief Minister of Delhi, irrespective of whether the incumbent is a former IPS officer or not. As for her turbulent IPS career, controversy seemed to trump accomplishment at every turn, especially during mid-career postings in Chandigarh, Mizoram and Tihar. As a result successive governments avoided giving her senior posts of consequence, ultimately leading to her premature retirement. This does not disqualify her from the post of Chief Minister of Delhi by any means, but it does mean that voters should take her boasts of administrative excellence with a very large pinch of salt. And even better, it demands that her claims bear the scrutiny of a debate between Chief Ministerial candidates. Could it be that’s exactly why she doe not wish to take part?

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Great Indian Debate: Kejriwal vs Bedi

Finally all the players are in place and Delhi is ready for the last act of the most fascinating elections in a generation to play out. Personalities and media sensationalism aside, the contrast between the Aam Aadmi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party could not be more clear-cut and the voters have a fateful decision to make in the next fortnight. A debate between Chief-Ministerial candidates of AAP and BJP would certainly help voters in making up their minds.

Ever since the televised Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates of 1960, election debates between leadership candidates of the main political parties have become a staple of democracies in most parts of the world, even in the home of Westminster democracy, but the world’s largest democracy has been a conspicuous hold out. It is a particularly glaring anomaly considering how fast television news has boomed in India in the last decade, especially the transformation of the evening news into nightly bouts of verbal warfare. 

In the absence of leaders challenging each other face-to-face the voter is left to rely on unintelligible skirmishes between party spokespersons and the point of view of an increasingly partisan media universe, where certain parties, leaders, and issues can be blanked out for months on end without the recourse of appeal. No real debates seem to take place in Parliament and state legislatures anymore with proceedings becoming increasingly fractious. So it is time India breaks out of this electoral straitjacket and what better time than elections in the nation’s capital to kick off this new tradition of leadership debates. Let the untested and unchallenged political rhetoric of Indian elections be put through the crucible of a debate and let voters see for themselves which candidate is speaking credibly from hard-won experience and which candidate is spouting unsubstantiated inanities. 

Arvind Kejriwal has taken the lead and made the offer to Kiran Bedi, a debate between Delhi’s two main Chief Ministerial Candidates, moderated by a neutral person and telecast by all. Will Ms Bedi accept the challenge? She seems uncharacteristically reluctant, but the voters of Delhi, and India, certainly hope she rises to the challenge.