May 23 will prove if Opp gambit worked

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May 23 will prove if Opp gambit worked

Sunday, 12 May 2019 | Swapan Dasgupta

An excruciatingly long election campaign, coupled with the scorching summer heat, invariably results in fatigue and weariness. As the country approaches the final two rounds of voting, this is becoming painfully apparent. At this stage of the campaign, the leading players have more or less said their lines, positioned their campaigns and prepared the ground for voters to exercise their choice. What is being witnessed now are local embellishments that are aimed at either further motivating the committed or confusing the other side.

The past week has witnessed the election campaign being driven by events, both real and contrived. Take the case of the rally of sadhus following an elaborate yagna for Congress leader Digvijaya Singh hosted by the colourful Computer Baba in Bhopal. The event, quite predictably, attracted a great deal of media attention that the former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh desperately needed after the sustained limelight on his BJP opponent Sadhvi Pragya Thakur of “Hindu terror” fame. By suggesting that he was no less a Hindu than his opponent, Singh may have been a little out of tune with his national leadership but it suited him locally.

Then take the controversy over Rajiv Gandhi’s grand holiday in Lakshadweep in 1988, some 31 years ago. That this issue, stemming from one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s asides in a campaign speech should have attracted national attention and been transformed into an almighty controversy may seem bewildering. No doubt it was delightful reliving an issue that had attracted attention three decades ago. However, without delving into the archives and the hazy reminiscences of those who were involved in either instructing the Gandhi children in deep sea diving or helping the then Prime Minister rescue a dolphin, some points become clear.

First, it was clear that Modi’s references to the dodgy record of Rajiv Gandhi was a crafty decoy aimed at provoking his Congress opponents. Secondly, the Congress fell into the trap, with both Rahul and Priyanka protesting too much and the Congress ecosystem rushing in with clean chits that in turn provoked a debate centred on dynastic entitlement. Thirdly, it took almost four days before the Congress realised that it had been tricked into debating dynastic politics rather than anything substantial.

Unfortunately for the party, the bid to restore the narrative came to nought because of Sam Pitroda’s insensitive remarks on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Pitroda was made to eat his words and compel his party to issue a clarification after some 36 hours but the damage was done. With Punjab yet to vote, the Congress had to once again undergo harrowing interrogation over its role in the riots. In short, the debate introduced an element of uncertainty in one of the few States of India where the party was seen to be in a comfortable position. More to the point, the controversy may well cast a shadow over its prospects in Delhi and Haryana where there is a significant Sikh population.

Finally, there was the controversy over a scurrilous leaflet that was circulated in East Delhi that called into question the character of the Aam Aadmi Party’s candidate Atishi Marlena. I do not have any authentic information on who was responsible for this disagreeable leaflet. However, two things stand out. First, that the leaflet was clearly written by someone who was not in the political mainstream. Indeed, it was crafted to be wilfully filthy and hurt the side on whose behalf it was circulated much more than the AAP candidate. Secondly, without hesitating for even a moment, AAP chose to use the leaflet to level charges against the BJP and its celebrity candidate Gautam Gambhir. By breaking down at a Press conference, Atishi sought to become an object of sympathy. Certainly, Gambhir was caught off guard completely and had to fall back on a defamation notice against the AAP candidate.

The truth about this leaflet will probably never be known. However, from AAP’s perspective, it provided a grand opportunity to gain the upper hand in a contest with a cricket star. The formidable Left-liberal ecosystem that has a commanding presence in the media came out with all guns blazing, to try and secure a massive sympathy vote for Atishi. By portraying her as a vilified woman, deserving of sympathy, it diverted attention from some of her more radical views that didn’t necessarily gel with Delhi voters. Most important, by charging Gambhir with the offence, it sought to de-glamorise the cricketer.

After the votes are counted on May 23, we will know whether this exercise has succeeded or not. In a larger sense, whether AAP wins East Delhi or not matters little since the party is not a serious claimant for power nationally. However, the battle seems to be of paramount importance to the Left-liberal establishment. This section of the Indian elite doesn’t have much stake in the Indian election. It is viscerally opposed to Narendra Modi but doesn’t really have too much faith in the viability of a post-poll mahagathbandhan. Indeed, it often seems that this chunk of the beautiful people are reconciled to a second term for Modi.

Given this bleak scenario, the Left-liberal establishment has transformed the general election into a prestige battle in just three seats. The first is Begusarai, where Kanhaiya Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University fame is contesting on a CPI ticket. The second is Bhopal where its favourite Congress leader is trying to defeat unrepentant Hindutva. And the third seat is East Delhi where AAP candidate Atishi is ‘one of us.’

The election campaign is well and truly over. All that remains is for people to vote and the votes counted. Barring an unanticipated event, the 2019 battle is over. Everyone is too tired.

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