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Can Kejriwal stop the Modi juggernaut?

Rahul Singh (Poll Position)
Filed on February 6, 2020 | Last updated on February 6, 2020 at 09.03 pm

On February 8 a crucial election will be taking place in India which could indicate the current political mood of the Indian public. The Indian budget has just been presented in parliament.

The best that can be said about it is that it has confused most Indians, even the economists! Its prime objective should have been to revive the flagging Indian economy, and to create more jobs. These are the two main areas where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been failing the nation. There was little sign in the budget that those areas have been addressed, let alone rectified. Instead, non-resident Indians (NRIs), eight million of whom work in the Gulf countries and whose remittances have created considerable wealth for India, have been left wondering where they stand in the new tax structure announced by the Indian finance minister.

But let us move on, since this column is not about the budget. Though the coming election involves only India's capital, Delhi, termed as a 'union territory', not a full-fledged state, its outcome has enormous significance because of the context and the timing. Last year, in May 2019, the BJP won a huge victory in the Indian general election, bigger than five years earlier.

The opposition was decimated. That electoral victory emboldened the more radical BJP elements to further their Hindutva agenda. There was an open talk of a 'Hindu rashtra' (Hindu rule), where Hindus - who constitute roughly 80 per cent of India's 1.3 billion population - would have the upper hand, with the minorities - meaning mainly the 200 million Indian Muslims - being marginalised and becoming essentially second-class citizens.

The first move was to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian constitution which gave Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in the Indian union, a special autonomous status. Then, even more controversially, a new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in the Indian parliament, where the government has a big majority. It openly discriminates against Muslims. To many Indians, not just Muslims, this goes against what Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi, the revered founding father of India's independence, stood for. Indeed, the CAA militates against the very 'idea of India', as a pluralistic, secular, and tolerant society.

Protests have followed the passing of the CAA. They have been centred in a poor Muslim-majority area of Delhi called Shaheen Bagh (Majestic Garden). But not all the protesters have been Muslims. They have come from other communities as well, along with thousands of students and activists. This writer was present at one such protest, sitting alongside M.K. Raina, a well-known actor, originally from Kashmir. Barkha Dutt, the internationally famous TV anchor, was filming the proceedings and interviewing the protesters, who were mainly women. On the stage, as a backdrop, a large Indian flag was displayed, and alongside it was the preamble of the Indian constitution, which embodies the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, that were first enunciated in the 1789 French Revolution. The intent of the protest was clear: It was upholding the unity of India and the values enshrined in the Indian constitution, which were under threat.

The Shaheen Bagh protests, now completing their second month, with no signs of abating, have been replicated in several parts of Delhi. They have also spread to other cities like Mumbai, India's commercial capital.

The election itself is a virtual David versus Goliath contest. The Goliath is, of course, the formidably popular Narendra Modi, a vote-catching machine. The David, on the other hand, is a low-key, former civil servant barely known a few years ago, Arvind Kejriwal. He rode on the back of an extraordinary moral crusader, Anna Hazare, who has been battling malgovernance and corruption in public life. Sickened by the numerous scams that were taking place in the second term of the prime ministership of the Congress Party leader, Dr Manmohan Singh (though he was himself an honourable and 'clean' politician), Hazare set up camp in Delhi, attracting tens of thousands of supporters. Kejriwal was one of them. The movement steadily gained momentum, capturing the Indian public's imagination. India had seen nothing like it before. However, Hazare did not want to get into politics. Kejriwal differed. He felt that the only way to affect change was to go for the jugular and politically challenge the powers-that-be. That was the origin of the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man's Party), led and founded by Kejriwal, which is presently in power in Delhi.

When AAP came on the scene, Sheila Dikshit of the Congress Party was the chief minister. She had managed to keep the BJP juggernaut at bay. But the corruption that surrounded the Congress brought her down. To everybody's amazement, AAP swept the polls. It won an incredible 67 out of 70 seats in the Legislative Assembly at the last election. But the BJP could not be written off. It won all seven of the Delhi seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, in the 2019 General Election. The message? Delhi's electorate wanted AAP to handle their day-to-day local issues, but put their faith in the BJP for the kind of matters tackled at a higher level, such as foreign and economic policy, defence, and communications.

Hence, Kejriwal has wisely stayed away from what is currently roiling India and led to the many protests and demonstrations just described. He has concentrated on what mainly affects the lives of his electorate, namely a constant supply of clean water, cheaper electricity rates, better government schools, and more health facilities. These concern all stratas of Delhi society, though, needless to say, they impact the poor more than the affluent. Though the issues before the 20 million inhabitants of Delhi may mainly be local, what is happening in Kashmir and the implications of CAA are bound to impact their minds. Which is why Saturday, February 8, when Delhi's voters go to the polls, is going to be a test case for both AAP and BJP, Kejriwal and Modi respectively.

Rahul Singh is a former editor of Khaleej Times


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