Elections to Delhi have been announced for February 8, 2020. Winning these elections may be important for Arvind Kejriwal, but it is even more important for India, or at least for that part of India which cherishes all that the constitution had promised it.
Although Delhi has just 70 seats, only 14 million voters (less than 2% of India’s electorate) and is not even a full-fledged state, its politics is disproportionate to its numbers for it is the national capital, houses all the foreign consulates, is the hub of all media reporting and is a genuine microcosm of India. Its residents represent the full spectrum of Indian politics, ideologies, opinions, religions, regions, castes and concerns. It is, in short, a good barometer of the mood of India.
And this barometer appears to be falling rapidly, indicative of unsettled weather ahead. The country is caught up in a toxic miasma of controversies and protests over the economy, Kashmir, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens and National Population Register, violence in universities, police atrocities and strikes by unions.
Narendra Modi’s government, true to its nature, refuses to either acknowledge the unrest or engage with citizens; it is like a tunnel-boring machine which can only push forward blindly and has no reverse gear. It continues to defend itself by dissembling lies and half-truths, branding all opposition to its policies as anti-national, and unleashing waves of uniformed repression. It uses its massive parliamentary majority as a sledgehammer to bludgeon the states, mutilate the spirit if not the letter of the constitution, and bulldoze its divisive policies through an apprehensive landscape.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has just lost Maharashtra and Jharkhand, but the loss has only made it more vicious, vindictive and determined to reassert its authority.
This then is the perilous backdrop of the elections in which Kejriwal has to strive to retain power. The Delhi elections will be a referendum on the lethal goulash of Modi’s policies, not just on Kejriwal’s achievements which are considerable and should have won him the elections on their own strength. But make no mistake, the results of these elections will determine the future course of our democracy, and not just who rules in Delhi.
The unholy trinity of CAA-NRC-NPR is casting its malevolent shadow on this country, it is what is uppermost on citizens’ minds right now, and is what has unleashed the police repression at Jamia Millia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University, Meerut, Bijnor, Muzaffarpur and Bangalore. It is what has brought the youth of this country on the streets in numbers and with anger not seen since J.P. Narayan’s mass movements.
It is clear the country does not want this spectre, but our democratic institutions and safeguards will not confront the monster. Expect nothing from the legal challenges in the Supreme Court, given its recent track record: at best the court will refuse to intervene on grounds of national security and sovereignty, à la Rafale, at worst it will rule that the distinction between Muslim and other religions in the CAA is ‘reasonable’.
Expect even less from our mainstream political parties and leaders who (barring Mamata Banerjee and Priyanka Gandhi) have crawled into their holes to weather out the storm. Expect nothing but a mercenary servility from the media. Expect little from Big Capital and the expanding list of billionaires, barring a Rahul Bajaj and an Ananda Mahindra here and there.
Forget about the “autonomous” institutions, they are riddled with more actual “termites” than Assam and Bengal. The Modi-Amit Shah duo, with their customary meticulousness, have sown up all the loose ends. The only part they cannot take for granted is the electorate, and the only language they understand is the message from the ballot box. Nothing will stop them – not the judiciary, not international opinion, not mass suffering, not deaths from violence, not the constitution, not the collapse of institutions. But an electoral loss in Delhi will almost certainly stop their assault, if for no other reason than that it will give other states (and even the BJP’s allies) the nerve and reassurance to oppose Modi’s disastrous policies. A Nitish Kumar may still turn and a Naveen Patnaik may still get off the fence.
The only opposition to the government today is civil society, specially its youth and students. Kejriwal has to mobilise them and win them over, and add their support to the overwhelming good work he has done in Delhi in the fields of power, water, education, slum improvement, women’s safety.
He should make the Delhi Police’s violence and naked partisanship the basis for arguing for a different party at the state level, to act as a counter check to a rampaging Union home ministry. He should discard the caution he has shown so far in denouncing the NRC and NPR: Delhi has tens of lakhs of migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal whose livelihoods would be destroyed in the struggle to obtain valid documentation from villages they left years ago. The NRC is no longer a Hindu-Muslim issue, it will leave millions of Hindus disenfranchised too, as Assam has shown. He must tap into this fear and not pussy foot around it.
The BJP, for all its posturing, is not confident of a victory in Delhi and some early polls predicting a near sweep for the Aam Aadmi Party will make it more desperate and ruthless. It will dig deep into its bag of dirty tricks and black trunks of electoral bonds to manipulate a win. The recent goondaism in JNU may just be a preview of what is yet to come – violence to intimidate and divide, dog whistles to the police, complaints to the Election Commission, more falsehoods by prime time anchors and the IT cell, more false cases against AAP leaders.
Delhi is the last frontier for India’s democracy. Delhi’s citizens can no longer feign ignorance or remain disconnected. If the BJP wins this election, it will proclaim it as validation for its policies and for the CAA and NRC, and push them through even more relentlessly and ruthlessly. The Rubicon would have been crossed and there will be no second chance. Kejriwal must win Delhi, not just for himself but for India.
Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. A keen environmentalist and trekker, he has published a book on high altitude trekking in the Himachal Himalayas – The Trails Less Travelled.