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V Day musings

The enormity of Bharatiya Janata Party made me pull the lever for Aam Aadmi Party. But the calculus of the lesser evil as a guide to political action isn’t available to everyone equally

Mukul Kesavan Published 26.05.24, 08:07 AM
Representational image

Representational image Sourced by the Telegraph

I voted as I always do, in a government secondary school close to where I live. Delhi was scorching when we set out to vote, the air a solid mass of heat trying to melt the bodies that interrupted it. I considered shorts but a bourgeois sense of occasion — this was a general election — suggested respectability and trousers.

Not having acquired voter cards, my wife and I left for the polling station holding our Aadhaar cards and voter slips. In elections gone by, these slips were inserted into letter boxes by party cadres trying to get out the vote. There was nothing official about them; they were often stamped with political symbols that were obviously partisan, but they were a reassurance because they indicated that your name was on the electoral roll. This time round, the residents’ association had sent us official voter information slips issued by the Election Commission which seemed altogether more formal.


But lacking voter cards, there is always the anxiety that we might fall short of some rigorous proof of identity, so we carried our driving licenses as backup proofs of being. One of the ways in which voting is made sacred in Hind is that you must leave your phone behind and, with it, the profane distractions of ordinary life. It’s one of those rare moments in modern life when we are wholly in the world as it used to be before it was possessed by its digital ghost.

A beehive had fallen right in front of the gate to the school that housed the polling station and its unhoused bees were making the act of voting more heroic than it normally is. A solid citizen had stationed himself next to the exploded beehive the better to tell incoming voters that they should take the long way round, unconcerned about his own wellbeing. There is something about telling others what to do that is genuinely transcendent.

There was no queue and the Aadhaar card sufficed. The light on the electronic voting machine went green, I looked for the jhaadu, the Aam Aadmi Party’s symbol, and pushed it. There was a pause and a clicking sound; a slip displaying a photo of the AAP’s candidate, Somnath Bharti, surfaced, and disappeared. This was the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail at work. Given the rumours that periodically become viral about the vulnerability of EVMs to hacking, this was reassuring, despite the pictorial reminder that I was voting for Bharti.

One of the useful things about writing regularly about current affairs is that it’s easy to unearth what you thought about political actors like Bharti in the past. Ten years ago, in January 2014, I wrote an unflattering column in these pages about Bharti, titled “The Ugandan persecution”. Bharti, who was then the law minister of the Delhi government led by Arvind Kejriwal, had tried to get the police to arrest Ugandan women in Khirki village, a neighbourhood in Delhi, without due process on the grounds that they were prostitutes and their homes were drug-dealing dens of vice. The piece suggested that Bharti’s behaviour was xenophobic, if not racist.

The column on Bharti was written in late January, four months before Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party to an absolute majority in the general election. I was aware of the threat that Modi’s majoritarianism posed to the republic, but it did not yet control the Union government. Bharti, then, was the representative of a fledgling party that many, including myself, thought was a promising experiment in populist politics. His easy recourse to bigotry was particularly disappointing in that context.

The enormity of the BJP is a clarifying thing. It makes the workaday wickedness of netas from other parties seem trivial in comparison. It certainly made me pull the lever for AAP. But the calculus of the lesser evil as a guide to political action isn’t available to everyone equally.

A Sikh might find it impossible to vote for a party run by a family that presided over the pogrom of 1984. A Palestinian American, to take a foreign example, might baulk at voting for Joe Biden, despite the threat of Donald Trump, simply because of Biden’s role in enabling Israel’s genocidal violence in Gaza. The lesser evil is hard to vote for when it has actively sponsored your persecution. One of the privileges of belonging to a hegemonic majority — white elites in the United States of America, savarna elites in India — is that the perils you face — and, therefore, the political choices you make — aren’t existential.

That said, walking out of the school, I was at peace with my choice. Just the fact that the Congress and the AAP had managed to amicably divide Delhi’s seven seats between them was an example of oppositional realpolitik that deserved to be rewarded. In the decade that the BJP has been in power, its greatest achievement has been to consolidate a majoritarian common sense. The ceremony at Ayodhya on January 22 demonstrated the party’s ability to turn vandals into martyrs and sectarians into nationalists, to turn the republic upside down.

The struggle to get it the right way up again will be a long one regardless of how the BJP does in this election. It is tipped to win it decisively but even in the unlikely event that it doesn’t, the systemic damage it has done to pluralism, civil co-existence and ordinary public decency will take years to be repaired.

Sometimes the things its leaders say make me wonder if I’m living in an eccentric screenplay. Reunited with my phone, I found myself clicking on WhatsApp forwards which led to video clips where Modi is seen saying, variously, that he is convinced that he is a) divinely energised b) not biologically born of a woman c) sent by God to fulfil His works. He makes these claims during several conversations with simpering interviewers, and he makes them in an utterly matter-of-fact way. It’s an epic take on humble bragging: he (Modi) is but an instrument of His Will. That lowercase ‘h’ is trembling on the verge of capitalisation. The prime minister’s messianic self-belief owes something to Christian dogma with one crucial difference: immaculate conception has been replaced by divine deputation.

I shook my head, looked at the election mark on my finger, and felt all doubt slip away.

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