Delhi: It's Kejriwal vs Kiran Bedi

Close finish? The BJP and AAP are seemingly in a neck-and-neck race in the Delhi Assembly polls

Delhi: It's Kejriwal vs Kiran Bedi

All eyes are riveted on Little Delhi, though it is not even a full fledged state and has only 70 assembly seats to its credit, because the February 7 elections here could influence the direction of Indian politics in the months to come.

Will these elections finally break the winning streak of the Bharatiya Janata Party seen in the last eight months ? If it does, it will give heart to forces opposed to the BJP and spur on moves for opposition unity in the states going to polls in the next two years. Till three months ago, it did not seem that the fledgling Aam Admi Party, which had notched up unexpected successes in the 2013 elections but lost steam after Arvind Kejriwal’s exit as chief minister,  would be able to put up such a fight.

As a result, most people would like to hedge their bets on the likely outcome of the Delhi polls.  It is a neck and neck fight between the BJP and AAP in the battle for Delhi, whose implications go beyond it.

Had that not been the case, the BJP would not have pulled out scores of its MPs from around the country, or 22 senior Union ministers to campaign for the party.  Had the battle not been a close one, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley would not been spending two hours daily to coordinate the campaign preparations, when he has to present a Union Budget by month end and all eyes are on North Block to see whether the government can walk the talk on the promises it has held out to the industry and investors.

Or, the BJP been compelled to bring an outsider, Kiran Bedi, into the party at the last moment, and project her as its chief ministerial candidate at the cost of loyal leaders who had worked to build the BJP over the years and who are naturally resentful at being sidelined. It is not without significance that the BJP brass is not relying so much on its local MPs as on its other leaders in Delhi. 

The turning point in the BJP’s poll strategy came with the kick-off rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Ram Lila grounds,  where neither the  numbers nor the enthusiasm was as expected. And a less-than-expected showing by the BJP in Delhi would do no good to the Modi image, when he has used event after event, on the domestic and foreign policy fronts, including US President Barack Obama visit to India, to keep the momentum going for him.

BJP chief Amit Shah swung into action and inducted top cop Bedi, a former colleague of Kejriwal in the Anna Hazare movement for the Lokpal Bill, and what is more, projected her as the CM candidate.  To opt for a complete outsider as its CM candidate was an unprecedented step for the BJP to take, and displayed its nervousness. For a party which had only a few months earlier won an absolute majority on its own in the Lok Sabha elections and swept in  all the seven seats in Delhi, was compelled  to plump for someone who had not even been a member of the party.

Bedi was brought in to consolidate the middle class, which had given Modi a total thumbs up in the LS elections but a section of it was looking at Kejriwal again. And to bring more women into the BJP fold, with women’s security having emerged as a major poll issue in the national capital, particularly after the horrendous Nirbhaya rape case. But there is a flip side to the Bedi story—there is a negative reaction to her name amongst a section of  the police  force to which she belonged and in the legal community, and more important, inside the party. Kejriwal, who had made an impressive debut in December 2013, notching up 28 seats, only three less than the more organised BJP with  Modi  leading its campaign, lost a lot of goodwill amongst Delhi’s middle classes when he quit after 49 days in government.

Kejri admits to ‘mistake’
Kejriwal has since then admitted to his “mistake”, promised not to repeat it, and apologised, raising the slogan,  “Paanch saal, Kejriwal”. He asked people to distinguish between a “galti”(misjudgement), which he made,  and “gunah”(crime) which he did not commit.  There are people who had begun to say, ”Now that Kejriwal has apologised for his mistake, let us give him another chance”.

The damage done to Kejriwal stemmed from the doubt that crept into people’s mind whether he and his team had what it took to rule Delhi, even as AAP was good at agitations and dharnas to expose public wrongdoing, and Kejriwal had a clean image. The disappointment in the middle class was all the more because it had set great store on Kejriwal, espousing an alternative politics, to deliver on his promises while being inside the government.

But during the last few months, Kejriwal and his team worked round the clock to undo the damage  of his resignation and consolidate his following in the bastis, where  he still has a widespread appeal amongst the poorer sections who remember him for reducing electricity and water bills during his short tenure, and for reducing corruption in the police force.

Poorer folk recall instances   how they could go to a government office during his short reign and get their work done without having to pay a bribe.

When the campaign started, Kejriwal hit the BJP where it hurt the most by calling it a party without a chief ministerial candidate. Modi, AAP said, was PM, he could not be Delhi’s CM.  The BJP has had several faces but no one as charismatic or clean enough to take on Kejriwal, and he has been gaining with every passing day. Pre poll surveys indicated that Kejriwal was the most popular CM candidate though BJP was the popular party. That was another reason why the saffron party plumped for Bedi.

The Congress which ruled Delhi for 15 years under Shiela Dixit was reduced to a paltry eight seats in Dec 2013, and may even take a greater hit this time round, with minorities  looking at the AAP as the alternative to defeat the BJP. The Congress stands a chance in those half a dozen constituencies where its individual leaders are strong and have nurtured their base. As a party, it is yet to show signs of bouncing back.

The Kejriwal versus Bedi battle in Delhi is in some way a fight between AAP versus AAP, for both come from the same  stream which had advocated a politics of change and an end to corruption.

 The battle  also represents the rise of new energies—and new leadership-- in politics, unconventional though it may seem. The Anna movement against corruption—which had Kejriwal and Bedi as the lieutenants of Anna Hazare may have died out but it left the middle class in the country’s  capital more politicised than before, insisting on change and accountability in governance.

 (The writer is a Delhi based political analyst)

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