By Swapan Dasgupta
One of the main functions of intelligence services is to prevent surprises. To the extent that the induction of Kiran Bedi into the BJP as the de-facto chief ministerial candidate for Delhi took both the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (and, by implication, its formidable support systems in the media) by complete surprise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah can be said to have scored an important tactical victory.
The Opposition’s “intelligence failure” meant that the AAP campaign centred on exposing the BJP’s lack of a credible Delhi face came to an abrupt and inglorious end. For the next few days at least, AAP posters positing the ‘charismatic’ Muffler Man against a ‘dreary’ Jagdish Mukhi or an allegedly ‘tainted’ Satish Upadhyay will appear singularly inappropriate. Kiran Bedi may not be every local politician’s cup of tea but there is little doubt that has credibility and a reputation for upright fearlessness that extends beyond partisan lines. In a quasi-presidential race, which is what the Delhi election is turning out to be, Arvind Kejriwal may discover that the advantage he hitherto enjoyed (going by the opinion polls) as the most-preferred CM choice of Delhi voters may have been nullified.
In the war of the Magsaysay Award winners, Delhi may well be split between voters in slums and Muslim clusters supporting Kejriwal and the middle class in its entirety and rural voters endorsing Bedi. The Modi-Bedi combination has the potential of tilting the scales in favour of the BJP. The key lies in both sides motivating their social support base to actually join the voter queue on February 7.
It is, however, important to remember that no election is ever won until the last voter has pressed the EVM button. There are enough examples of both initial advantages being squandered through tactical miscalculations and the challenger losing steam midway through the campaign. The BJP has scored by inducting a respected Delhi face such as Bedi into the party. Now it has to use her effectively so as to confer a local dimension to Modi’s ‘mission’. Tactically, it would be a mistake for the BJP to pit Bedi as a candidate in New Delhi against Kejriwal. Her appeal is pan-Delhi—as is Kejriwal’s—and reducing her to a constituency-level politician would be a case of mis-utilisation.
There are no doubt purists who feel that catapulting a new entrant into a leading role does disservice to the BJP’s reputation as a party of karyakartas that rewards long and selfless service. In their view, Bedi must first prove her credentials before she can be accommodated on the High Table. As a general principle, the purist view is unexceptionable. However, since the general election victory of 2014, Modi and Shah have undertaken a set of initiatives that are redefining the BJP. The mass membership drive launched late last year is an important departure from past practice. From being a karyarta-based party, the BJP is remoulding itself into a society-based organisation. Apart from being more representative, this expansion strategy involves lessening the importance of the ‘professional’ politician. This is not to undermine the importance of the traditional karyakarta who has served the party selflessly through both good times and bad. However, in today’s context when the party aspires to be in government at all levels, there is a compelling need to blend loyalty with both social spread and administrative competence.
In the case of Bedi, what tilted the scales in her favour was the winnability factor. That too was defined by the context. Kejriwal may well be a loose cannon and temperamentally a disruptive ‘anarchist’ better suited to lead protests than head a government. Yet, in his short political innings he has successfully posited himself as an upholder of political integrity and an indefatigable campaigner. Battling him in a Delhi where there inequality is stark and the arrogance of power offensive needed someone from outside the formal structures of politics. In the past, political parties have reached out to film stars and sporting celebrities to cater to such a need. But in a battle where Kejriwal was the principal opponent, such an approach would have been a self-defeating exercise in trivialisation. With her background as a formidable policewoman, civil society activist and anti-corruption crusader, Bedi was an ideal fit. Her image promotes change with responsibility and contrasts with Kejriwal’s reformist recklessness. At the same time, it caters to the underlying middle class exasperation with traditional netas.
Regardless of the eventual outcome—which, hopefully, will result in a clear mandate for one side—the Delhi election promises to be quite fascinating. That this will be an election fought on three levels—on the ground, in the studios and on social media—will add to the excitement. Unlike big states, voter turnout in Delhi has tended to be higher for Parliament, a shade less for the Assembly and poor for municipal polls. There is a distinct possibility that the February election should result in a turnout that matches the participation in the Lok Sabha polls of last year. If that happens it will mean that more and more people are acquiring a stake in the governance of the Delhi they live in. In the evolution of Delhi from being merely the National Capital to being a city in its own right, this election could well be a landmark.
Sunday Pioneer, January 18, 2015