The national in the municipal

Democracy has its paradoxes and ironies, built as a system of differences. Its institutions are supposed to allow for dissent and for diversity. However, electoral democracy can, at times, set up the basis for tyrannical rule. A majoritarian democracy can become a megalomania of numbers. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) today is a party that believes in a majoritarian democracy in search of absolute control. It is not a question of passing a few laws, it is a plan for a deeper cultural control. We can sense it while having a look at the electoral map, the saffronisation of India coming across as a visual epidemic. As the electoral dots multiply, one colour dominates the electoral universe. This saffronisation is literally a project for total cultural control.

A party in search of such totalities does not look kindly at alternatives or at competing realities. The earlier picture we had of democracy, in the Congress era, was a more affable one. As we moved from the national to the regional or local levels, the control of national parties would weaken and dissent built around local issues would create a smattering of oppositional entities. Such parties, with their tiny pockets of representation, were seen as adding to the pluralism of democracy. They were seen as necessary at the local level because they focussed on specific issues. They usually aligned themselves with larger forces at the national level while amplifying the voices of ethnicity, locality and language. Democracy did not see them as parochial creations but as a part of the politics of scale.

Towards more intolerance

As we moved from the macro to the micro, diversity was supposed to multiply. Such local diversity was seen as a healthy sign, a way of accommodating variation and plurality at a local level. Two examples of this would testify to this. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which was a local party, could be almost secessionist in Parliament in terms of language and still be listened to with tolerance. Laldenga, once seen as an insurgent, was equally at home as Chief Minister of Mizoram in the 1980s. Such was the tolerance the Indian polity displayed.

A totalising party such as the BJP has no such affable theory of diversity. In fact, it sees difference as a sign of absence, of a failure to infiltrate an area. Difference is immediately identified as disturbance, sedition, dissent and a challenge to the party’s plan for an absolute majority. Opposition in any form is threatening. When BJP president Amit Shah looks at a map of India and sees differently coloured dots, I think he sees red, literally, wondering why these regions are not saffron.

There is a second dynamic here that we must understand. Small parties often tend to have large egos, and larger aspirations. The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was a perfect example. After winning a resounding victory in Delhi, it visualised new and victorious constituencies in States like Goa and Punjab, apart from imagining itself as an alternative to the BJP across the ‘Hindi Belt’. Smallness always allows for hubris and the AAP, on the basis of its Delhi victories, was already branding itself as a national party.

For a while, the AAP did warm the imagination of middle-class India. It offered not only a more ‘grass-roots-oriented’ theory of politics but also a different style, emphasising a range of experiments in governance. Its attempts to reform school admissions and its efforts to raise the question of environmental pollution met with an almost euphoric response. It suddenly appeared like a model for a future India. In its own tiny, Lilliputian way, the AAP had become a threat for the BJP; the possibility of an epic David vs. Goliath battle was real.

Rise and fall of AAP

The BJP has had a second plan for dominance, beyond countering the effervescence of parties like the AAP. It sees any resurgence of civil society as a threat. In fact, one of its first tactics was to suppress the variety of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) blossoming across India. It has also systematically attacked university space in the country, all part of its efforts to align the Constitution with the world view of the party.

Arvind Kejriwal, in his initial years, combined the imagination of a civil society leader and the allure of a small party’s head. The AAP’s rise might have been a local event but it always managed to make national news. Given the lassitude of the Congress, the AAP was like a new guerrilla party which could easily outpoint a behemoth like the BJP. The very idea of such a David vs. Goliath battle was manna for the media. The BJP saw the Delhi municipal election as a continuation, an add-on to the Uttar Pradesh election. A defeat would have reopened the Pandora’s box of scepticism. One could see that the media immediately took its cues from the political signals of the BJP. Municipal elections elsewhere get a footnote or a terse notice. In Delhi, the footnote had become amplified to an epic quality. The municipal landscape, for a week, commanded national attention.

For the BJP, and particularly for Amit Shah, the miracle of U.P. needed repetition. In many people’s minds, municipal Delhi was a hinterland of U.P., an outhouse of migrants from that State. As Yogi Adityanath entered the phase of governmentality, Mr. Shah had to invent a ‘junior Adityanath’, to convince political pundits of his political acumen. He did just that by appointing Bhojpuri star Manoj Tiwari to head the Delhi campaign. Mr. Shah had to produce an Adityanath for Delhi’s wards, which are chock-full of migrants from the Purvanchal region of U.P.

Oddly, Mr. Tiwari’s first foray into electoral politics had been as a Samajwadi Party candidate against Mr. Adityanath in Gorakhpur, in 2009. In Mr. Tiwari, Mr. Shah found a man to outmanoeuvre Mr. Kejriwal. He offered a more cheerful theory of urbanism, a more optimistic scenario of citizenship, a smart election for the smart city boroughs of Delhi.

A municipal election, despite its miniaturised form, became representative of national possibilities. The U.P. State elections and the Delhi municipal elections became in that sense a hyphenated battle. Mr. Tiwari had to reproduce the devastating power of Mr. Adityanath’s victory at the local level. He did.

Politicians often sense the future in little events. They read the tea leaves of localities to predict new possibilities. Mr. Shah is a brooding futurist who sensed the strategic value of Delhi’s municipal elections. By rolling over a discouraged Mr. Kejriwal, he realised that municipal elections could be read as a major national victory. He did just that, consolidating his role as the electoral Napoleon of the BJP onslaught. The Delhi civic elections have clinched his reputation as a Mr. Juggernaut. Even sceptics like this writer have to acknowledge the tactical power of the victory.


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