Sunday, January 26, 2014
Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, January 24, 2014
Friday, January 17, 2014
Counter-factual history — the perennial what-if question — holds out a strong attraction to many people, especially those who are disappointed at how events actually unfold. The post-mortem of an election, especially by parties and individuals who fail to make the grade, invariably results in an overdose of the counter-factual narrative.
Curiously, the temptation to lament missed opportunities has been the most pronounced in the Bharatiya Janata Party, which scored three famous assembly election victories on December 8 last year. Many of its activists believe that the BJP missed out on government formation owing to its failure to garner an additional 6,500 votes spread across four constituencies where it lost narrowly to the Aam Aadmi Party.
The lamentation in the BJP is understandable. Under ordinary circumstances, the narrow miss in Delhi would have been the least of the party’s problems. However, it is not what emerged from the electronic voting machines last month that is the source of concern but what transpired subsequently.
It is no exaggeration to say that the ability of Arvind Kejriwal to form a government with the unlikely support of the demoralized Congress altered ground realities. The exuberance of AAP supporters and its breathless media coverage have resulted in an AAP epidemic all over India, but particularly in urban and semi-urban parts of northern and western India. Egged on by a media that cheered the entry of every notable with a glamour quotient, the AAP undertook a national recruitment drive using innovative methods such as text messages, online endorsements and missed calls. Media reports suggest that the AAP has recruited some four lakh new members. In the social media, energetic AAP supporters have now begun occupying a patch that had become the near-monopoly of the NaMo brigade.
Encouraged by this staggering response, the AAP leadership has started aiming high. It has targeted Haryana, a state where the ripples from Delhi are easily felt, as its next big catch; and it has announced that it may field candidates in as many as 400 Lok Sabha constituencies. Earlier, Yogendra Yadav, one of its principal ideologues, used to quote Kanshi Ram as saying that the first election was for losing, the second one for making others lose and the third one for winning. Now, it has collapsed all three stages into an audacious bid to be the most spectacular game-changer in post-Independence history.
The AAP euphoria has even led to otherwise staid academics viewing it with great seriousness. At a seminar in the Observer Research Foundation, one of the more prominent think-tanks in Delhi, Professor Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University felt that the AAP had definitely stopped Narendra Modi’s march on Delhi. According to him, what was being witnessed was an “AAP wave” across India which had the potential to make all existing electoral calculations irrelevant. To be fair, he also added that the wave by its very definition could also prove woefully short-lived.
That the AAP phenomenon has to be taken seriously is undeniable. In the only credible opinion poll conducted by ABP News-Nielsen in the National Capital Region and in Greater Mumbai, it would seem that the AAP has certainly made a grand entry into politics. According to the poll, the popular support for the AAP in Mumbai and Thane stands at 17 per cent, a staggering 57 per cent in Delhi, an impressive 21 per cent in Haryana’s Gurgaon and Faridabad and a high 33 per cent in Ghaziabad and Gautam Budh Nagar in Uttar Pradesh. Translated into seats, this support would imply AAP victories in eight of the 21 seats polled, six of these being from Delhi.
Two further conclusions from this poll are in order. First, the inability of the AAP to translate its popular vote into seats, except in Delhi, is primarily the consequence of the fact that in both Greater Mumbai and the non-Delhi parts of NCR the BJP (and in Mumbai the Shiv Sena) vote seems to be holding. This is almost entirely a result of the enormous popularity of Modi, even in Delhi. Modi is the preferred choice as prime minister of 51 per cent in Greater Mumbai and 45 per cent in Delhi-NCR; Kejriwal follows with 18 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively; Rahul Gandhi lags behind with 22 per cent and 11 per cent endorsements.
Indeed, it would seem that only Modi stands between the AAP making a grand sweep of India’s two foremost metros.
Secondly, contrary to the media narrative that suggests that the AAP has stolen the thunder from the BJP’s middle-class support base, the poll suggests that the Congress is the foremost casualty of the AAP surge. In Mumbai and Thane, for example, the Congress, which won eight of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in 2009, could see its popular vote dwindle to 21 per cent, a fall of 16 per cent. In Delhi, where the party won all the seven seats in 2009, the Congress vote could fall from 57 per cent to a paltry 15 per cent. Likewise in Gurgaon and Faridabad, both won by the Congress in 2009, its vote could fall by 26 per cent to a mere 12 per cent; and in the NCR seats of Uttar Pradesh, the Congress would decline from 24 per cent to just eight per cent.
What is equally significant is the poll finding that much of the AAP support is also derived from erstwhile Bahujan Samaj Party supporters. In the Haryana-NCR, BSP support is calculated to fall from 17 per cent to 11 per cent; and in the two NCR seats of Uttar Pradesh from 27 per cent to 14 per cent.
For the moment, the AAP is an uneasy coalition between the visible, vocal middle class and the plebeian. There is a mismatch between its leadership drawn from people who are either professional agitators or members of the middle class newly drawn into politics. This is an uneasy and unlikely social coalition which has come into being on the strength of a shared resentment of corruption. The middle class has reacted to mega-corruption in high places and the plebeian antipathy is to petty corruption, particularly in government-related services. Ideally, the middle class seeks to fight corruption with less government, and the plebeians with efficient delivery of welfare schemes. The two objectives are contradictory and irreconcilable.
The AAP derives its greatest strength from its culture of protest. Its biggest threat lies in having to spell out an agenda of governance. It is hoping to circumvent the difficulties by focussing on short-term symbolism in the hope that its government won’t last till the general elections. This is reminiscent of the first United Front government in West Bengal which lasted less than a year in 1967 but unleashed a social upheaval that was to engulf the state for many decades subsequently.
This T-20 approach to politics will undoubtedly pay some dividends. But in a general election, the AAP will be subjected to the same measure of critical scrutiny as the media adulation it is presently basking in. There is very little hope that it will be able to conceal the ultra-radicalism of the rag-tag body of activists who perceive it as a vehicle for a quasi-revolution in India. It is more than likely that the AAP intervention in national politics and the prospect of it contributing to the formation of a mandate-less government at the Centre will introduce a new element into the political discourse: the quest for stability.
The AAP is an idea that combines protest with recklessness. It can only be countered by even bigger ideas of hope for the future.
The Telegraph, January 18, 2014
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Saturday, January 11, 2014
Friday, January 3, 2014
|Arvind Kejriwal with Congress MLAs|
If media-determined perceptions are anything to go by, the past six months have been akin to a rollercoaster ride. The advent of the monsoons witnessed a flurry of excitement over the acknowledgement of Narendra Modi’s pre-eminence in the Bharatiya Janata Party. This move, the pundits assured us, was certain to be counter-productive for the BJP as it would contribute to a polarization that, in turn, would boost the fortunes of a beleaguered Congress. Ironically, when Modi was formally declared the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate on September 13, the media consensus swung to the other extreme. So euphoric was the response to Modi’s public meetings that a hardened Modi-sceptic, who had habitually described the Gujarat chief minister as a “mass murderer”, concluded that October would come to be known as the month the Delhi Establishment reconciled itself to the creeping reality of Prime Minister Modi. This appeared to be a self-fulfilling prophecy when the BJP coasted to conclusive victories in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and narrowly failed to touch the half-way mark in Delhi.
But then came an abrupt U-turn when the editorial classes discovered a new messiah in the Aam Aadmi Party leader, Arvind Kejriwal. By the time Kejriwal was sworn in as Delhi chief minister at a function in Ramlila Maidan — the venue of Anna Hazare’s landmark fast that broke the back of the United Progressive Alliance government in 2012 — the emerging consensus of the disproportionately Delhi-based chattering classes was that the Modi juggernaut had been halted. The new buzz was centred on the national ambitions of the AAP, its political blitzkrieg throughout India and a new dawn of Indian politics. By the time the Kejriwal-Congress arrangement announced it had fulfilled its poll promises on power tariffs and water rates in just 48 hours, even a large section of the social media concluded that Modi was yesterday’s man.
What seems clear from the media narrative is that the decline and impending decimation of the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls has already been factored in by the opinion-making industry. This has added to the state of demoralization in the Congress, particularly after its leadership and foot soldiers have concluded that Rahul Gandhi’s short-term electoral prospects are bleak. Far more than at any other time in post-Independence history, an incumbent ruling party is going into battle convinced of the inevitability of ignominious defeat.
Curiously, there seems to be a direct correlation between the Congress being written off and the growing deification of the AAP and its austere leader. The projection of Kejriwal as the man who successfully punctured the Modi balloon may well have a lot to do with the fact that he is a Delhi phenomenon. The country has not been lacking in individuals who have not allowed the trappings of office to get to their head. Mamata Banerjee didn’t move into more spacious government accommodation after decimating the Left in 2011; Naveen Patnaik lives in his father’s tasteful house and does not use a government vehicle for party work and social visits; the Goa chief minister, Manohar Parrikar, apart from being an IIT graduate, is known for his casual attire and a distaste for security bandobast; and despite being in office for more than 11 years, Modi’s portfolio of personal assets has not kept pace with his professional advancement.
It is entirely possible that the decision to make a fetish of a modest lifestyle wasn’t that of the over-enthusiastic AAP activists alone. Few fledgling political parties have managed to secure such generous media endorsement in such a short time as has the AAP. Today, despite heading a fragile government in one small city-state, the AAP is receiving the full-throated editorial backing of India’s largest media company and a clutch of influential TV channels. The projection of the AAP’s alleged national importance has, to a very large extent, been entirely a consequence of the hype created by India’s largest English-language daily. The AAP began its entry into electoral politics last year with modest expectations. After the Delhi verdict and the media’s gush gush coverage of everything it does, the AAP has begun its Lok Sabha campaign convinced that it alone has the energy and imagination to stop Modi.
What has contributed to this over-exuberance isn’t some private poll but a set of circumstances. First, the complete rout of the Congress in Delhi and Rajasthan triggered two sets of reactions in the left-liberal intellectual coterie that dominates the intellectual discourse in India. This influential section of the Establishment concluded that their initial belief that Middle India would be repelled at the prospect of a so-called “Hindu extremist” at the helm in the Centre was a case of wishful thinking. Modi, they concluded, was not merely popular but that the Congress didn’t have the political weaponry to counter him. Having quite accurately gauged that the euphoria around Modi was based on a protest against corruption and the general disrepair of the present-day Congress Establishment, they honed in on the AAP as the only force that could steal Modi’s thunder by mirroring the very same concerns and, often, using very similar imagery. It is no accident that the AAP propaganda of late has been primarily directed towards tarring both the Congress and the BJP with the same brush. It is aware that accusations of questionable integrity hurt the BJP far more than they damage the Congress.
This is not to suggest that the AAP’s new-found support among the very people who had earlier lent their intellectual support to the Congress’s ‘inclusive’ politics is based on a belief that the new party can dramatically spread outside Delhi and engulf the whole of India. The realists acknowledge that outside Delhi, AAP’s best prospects are in Haryana, which has two competitive strands of unwholesome politics, and in western Uttar Pradesh — the regions which are part of an extended National Capital Region. However, it is calculated, not least by the Congress, that a spirited AAP intervention in about 50 urban-dominated Lok Sabha constituencies, which were expected to fall into the BJP’s kitty quite effortlessly, could end up stealing a sizable chunk of the saffron party’s middle class vote. If the AAP ends up depriving the BJP of at least 20 seats, it would put a big question mark over Modi’s ability to become prime minister.
The Congress, it seems at present, isn’t contesting the Lok Sabha elections to win and form a government. Those hopes have been abandoned. It is engaged in the 2014 battle to prevent Modi from becoming prime minister. The Congress is quite content to having a BJP-led government with a L.K. Advani or a Rajnath Singh as prime minister. The Delhi Establishment fears Modi and Modi alone because he has the ability to change the rules of the game and put the Congress into a position of permanent Opposition.
Regardless of how often AAP supporters wish a plague on both the Congress and the BJP, there is a convergence of views between AAP and Congress on the Modi question. At present, this convergence is understated and expressed only in the “outside support” the Congress has conferred on the AAP in Delhi. However, as the campaign for the Lok Sabha poll intensifies, we are likely to see important strategic shifts of Congress votes and social constituencies to the AAP. This can produce dramatic results if the AAP can complement the accretions by eating into the BJP’s middle class base. If the middle classes continue to seek deliverance in Modi, the AAP can end up damaging the Congress more grievously and enlarging the scope of a BJP triumph. Such an outcome, however, would be an unintended consequence.
The Telegraph, January 3, 2014