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A COMMON THREAT

- The Congress has closed ranks with the AAP on Modi

If media-determined perceptions are anything to go by, the past six months have been akin to a rollercoaster ride. The advent of the monsoons witnessed a flurry of excitement over the acknowledgement of Narendra Modi’s pre-eminence in the Bharatiya Janata Party. This move, the pundits assured us, was certain to be counter-productive for the BJP as it would contribute to a polarization that, in turn, would boost the fortunes of a beleaguered Congress. Ironically, when Modi was formally declared the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate on September 13, the media consensus swung to the other extreme. So euphoric was the response to Modi’s public meetings that a hardened Modi-sceptic, who had habitually described the Gujarat chief minister as a “mass murderer”, concluded that October would come to be known as the month the Delhi Establishment reconciled itself to the creeping reality of Prime Minister Modi. This appeared to be a self-fulfilling prophecy when the BJP coasted to conclusive victories in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and narrowly failed to touch the half-way mark in Delhi.

But then came an abrupt U-turn when the editorial classes discovered a new messiah in the Aam Aadmi Party leader, Arvind Kejriwal. By the time Kejriwal was sworn in as Delhi chief minister at a function in Ramlila Maidan — the venue of Anna Hazare’s landmark fast that broke the back of the United Progressive Alliance government in 2012 — the emerging consensus of the disproportionately Delhi-based chattering classes was that the Modi juggernaut had been halted. The new buzz was centred on the national ambitions of the AAP, its political blitzkrieg throughout India and a new dawn of Indian politics. By the time the Kejriwal-Congress arrangement announced it had fulfilled its poll promises on power tariffs and water rates in just 48 hours, even a large section of the social media concluded that Modi was yesterday’s man.

What seems clear from the media narrative is that the decline and impending decimation of the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls has already been factored in by the opinion-making industry. This has added to the state of demoralization in the Congress, particularly after its leadership and foot soldiers have concluded that Rahul Gandhi’s short-term electoral prospects are bleak. Far more than at any other time in post-Independence history, an incumbent ruling party is going into battle convinced of the inevitability of ignominious defeat.

Curiously, there seems to be a direct correlation between the Congress being written off and the growing deification of the AAP and its austere leader. The projection of Kejriwal as the man who successfully punctured the Modi balloon may well have a lot to do with the fact that he is a Delhi phenomenon. The country has not been lacking in individuals who have not allowed the trappings of office to get to their head. Mamata Banerjee didn’t move into more spacious government accommodation after decimating the Left in 2011; Naveen Patnaik lives in his father’s tasteful house and does not use a government vehicle for party work and social visits; the Goa chief minister, Manohar Parrikar, apart from being an IIT graduate, is known for his casual attire and a distaste for security bandobast; and despite being in office for more than 11 years, Modi’s portfolio of personal assets has not kept pace with his professional advancement.

It is entirely possible that the decision to make a fetish of a modest lifestyle wasn’t that of the over-enthusiastic AAP activists alone. Few fledgling political parties have managed to secure such generous media endorsement in such a short time as has the AAP. Today, despite heading a fragile government in one small city-state, the AAP is receiving the full-throated editorial backing of India’s largest media company and a clutch of influential TV channels. The projection of the AAP’s alleged national importance has, to a very large extent, been entirely a consequence of the hype created by India’s largest English-language daily. The AAP began its entry into electoral politics last year with modest expectations. After the Delhi verdict and the media’s gush gush coverage of everything it does, the AAP has begun its Lok Sabha campaign convinced that it alone has the energy and imagination to stop Modi.

What has contributed to this over-exuberance isn’t some private poll but a set of circumstances. First, the complete rout of the Congress in Delhi and Rajasthan triggered two sets of reactions in the left-liberal intellectual coterie that dominates the intellectual discourse in India. This influential section of the Establishment concluded that their initial belief that Middle India would be repelled at the prospect of a so-called “Hindu extremist” at the helm in the Centre was a case of wishful thinking. Modi, they concluded, was not merely popular but that the Congress didn’t have the political weaponry to counter him. Having quite accurately gauged that the euphoria around Modi was based on a protest against corruption and the general disrepair of the present-day Congress Establishment, they honed in on the AAP as the only force that could steal Modi’s thunder by mirroring the very same concerns and, often, using very similar imagery. It is no accident that the AAP propaganda of late has been primarily directed towards tarring both the Congress and the BJP with the same brush. It is aware that accusations of questionable integrity hurt the BJP far more than they damage the Congress.

This is not to suggest that the AAP’s new-found support among the very people who had earlier lent their intellectual support to the Congress’s ‘inclusive’ politics is based on a belief that the new party can dramatically spread outside Delhi and engulf the whole of India. The realists acknowledge that outside Delhi, AAP’s best prospects are in Haryana, which has two competitive strands of unwholesome politics, and in western Uttar Pradesh — the regions which are part of an extended National Capital Region. However, it is calculated, not least by the Congress, that a spirited AAP intervention in about 50 urban-dominated Lok Sabha constituencies, which were expected to fall into the BJP’s kitty quite effortlessly, could end up stealing a sizable chunk of the saffron party’s middle class vote. If the AAP ends up depriving the BJP of at least 20 seats, it would put a big question mark over Modi’s ability to become prime minister.

The Congress, it seems at present, isn’t contesting the Lok Sabha elections to win and form a government. Those hopes have been abandoned. It is engaged in the 2014 battle to prevent Modi from becoming prime minister. The Congress is quite content to having a BJP-led government with a L.K. Advani or a Rajnath Singh as prime minister. The Delhi Establishment fears Modi and Modi alone because he has the ability to change the rules of the game and put the Congress into a position of permanent Opposition.

Regardless of how often AAP supporters wish a plague on both the Congress and the BJP, there is a convergence of views between AAP and Congress on the Modi question. At present, this convergence is understated and expressed only in the “outside support” the Congress has conferred on the AAP in Delhi. However, as the campaign for the Lok Sabha poll intensifies, we are likely to see important strategic shifts of Congress votes and social constituencies to the AAP. This can produce dramatic results if the AAP can complement the accretions by eating into the BJP’s middle class base. If the middle classes continue to seek deliverance in Modi, the AAP can end up damaging the Congress more grievously and enlarging the scope of a BJP triumph. Such an outcome, however, would be an unintended consequence.