Politics has a way of pulling surprises on the best of strategists. Textbook-style, Amit Shah of the Bharatiya Janata Party is the Carl von Clausewitz of Indian elections, a master strategist who has created the massive BJP electoral victory. Yet I wish I was a fly on the wall in Mr Shah’s office today. He must be completely puzzled by the current happenings in Delhi. Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party are driving the BJP crazy.
I was thinking out Mr Shah’s strategy. He must have thought that Modi’s victories elsewhere would add to the Delhi kitty. And he was probably hoping that the AAP’s 49-day reign would have left the impression of an anarchist, immature party. Yet, as the polls indicate, the AAP is bubbling to the top and Mr Kejriwal is as effervescent as ever. Even the desertions of AAP activists did not help. Shazia Ilmi looks like an apologetic version of herself, semaphoring to people that she is more addicted to power than politics. The BJP, which was expecting to sweep Delhi and complete the Modi wave, is sensing the tide turn.
Its anxiety about the results is seen in the overkill of responses. It summoned all BJP MLAs to campaign. It made Kiran Bedi its chief ministerial candidate, in an attempt to trump the AAP with an AAP-like candidate. Only Ms Bedi looks wooden, is almost robotic in her responses. The claim that Sushma Swaraj and others make that women will be safe in Delhi with Ms Bedi as chief minister, is silly. They are overprojecting her role as the lathi-charging cop, hoping it would add to her law and order image without realising that it is vitiating her role as a protester. One senses the BJP’s anxiety on TV as its seasoned professionals clash with young AAP activists like Raghav Chadha. These younger politicians look fresh and are able to steal points from the stalwarts.
The nature of the drama has changed. Mr Shah, Machia-vellian as he is, will realise that Mr Kejriwal’s campaign has an ethical edge that the BJP cannot produce in Delhi. Mr Kejriwal looks animated, smiles like a common man. Ms Bedi is too mechanical, sounding like a character from some old-fashioned play. The brilliance of Mr Kejriwal is that he has become the centrepiece of the election. He is the issue. He attracts attention with his puckish style and his promises sound idealistic. Mr Shah must be feeling that he is commanding a wooden army. Strategy is no answer to the creativity, the unexpected style of Mr Kejriwal. He still sounds like the boy next door.
One can relate to him. Ms Bedi appears and behaves like a parcel dropped from heaven. Even BJP loyalists must be wondering what they did to deserve this outsider who speaks neither their language nor claims their genealogy. What can Mr Shah do in this context? He cannot summon back Harsh Vardhan, who would have been the perfect foil to Mr Kejriwal. He knows that in turning Delhi elections into a mega show, he has created a spectacle of anxiety. Creating a department of dirty tricks will not help. The BJP is not a pristine party, but a matter-of-fact bunch of business operators. Mr Shah knows that the biggest challenge is which way the old Congress vote will go.
The Congress voter is in a worse situation. Rahul Gandhi is still more tied to history than the present. The BJP has threatened an SIT investigation into the 1984 Sikh riots. Sonia Gandhi and others act and respond as if they are in a séance. In such a situation, the Congress voter can remain loyal, register a none of the above (Nota) or launch the AAP. Converting Congress votes is the name of the game and even Mr Shah has no magic formula or strategy for it.
I watched Mr Modi on TV campaigning and I felt his voice had the wrong tenor and his speech was on the wrong scale. He was turning a battle for a Union Territory into a battle for the nation. Suddenly, Mr Kejriwal appears larger than life. He keeps bouncing back to checkmate Mr Modi. People sense a drama here a drama of David and Goliath Indian-style, where David grows in size and Goliath looks too large for comfort. The AAP goes beyond being underdog. It is changing the rules of the game by showing that politics can be unpredictable and unexpected.
Yet, regardless of who wins, there are other charges one must record. A few days ago, I was at Delhi University, at the political science department. Ravish Kumar of a TV channel, one of our best analysts, gave a fascinating lecture on how digital politics conserved the reactionary system. In a devastating analysis, he showed how computer analysts break up a constituency by silos targeting caste, gotra, profession, region, religion, playing to every primordial and parochial passion.
Digital information has created “choreo-cracy” where the computer solidifies the old Jajmani system of patronage and parochialism. There is no political community now, no politics of decision-making. The “blank call” is the acme of citizens’ response and the information grid substitutes for the old idea of the community. I wish people could hear the presentation in Mr Kumar’s inimitable style rather than my sedate summary. Yet I feel that it is the BJP that is best at digitalising elections, strategising information. Mr Kejriwal, I feel, seeks the organic, the convivial, the human in politics. In that sense, a vote for Mr Kejriwal will be a vote against the choreo-cracies of the future.
I feel this election is setting the stage for future battles, for alternative styles of politics, for new ways of conceptualising issues. My sense (I must confess I am not a survey-oriented social scientist) is that the migrant nature of Delhi society, the aspiration of dalits and marginal for a role in politics has helped trigger the imagination of Mr Kejriwal. His is the politics of access, of reasonable power, of fairness in educational opportunity ordinary issues with extraordinary implications. One hopes he retains the style, creates a nest egg of issues parties have often ignored and creates an effervescence not just around democracy but about the rule game called politics. Mr Shah must be sensing the irony of this election. A hard headed man, he must be wondering how the ethical, the naïve, the idealistic, the enthusiastic survive in this age of organisational politics where money is a measure of ideals.