#PollVault: 'Chowkidar Modi' Tries to Defuse Rafale Taunt, Rahul Raises Pulwama

The weekend may be the time to unwind, but for political parties, there was no time to relax.

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New Delhi: If the ‘tea-seller’ was the BJP’s leitmotif in 2014, five years later, it is the ‘security guard’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday unveiled a new campaign – ‘main bhi chowkidar’ –  triggering a feud with the opposition on social media.

Throughout Saturday, national and regional parties announced their respective candidates. While defections were a recurring aspect, March 16 may also go down in history as the day the practice of deputation between political parties was introduced for the first time.

At 9 am, Modi tweeted a three minute and 45 second music video, with the hashtag, #mainbhichowkidar. The song featured smiling people from across the country lip-syncing to lyrics about fighting corruption and developing a ‘New India’, and repeating the chorus: ‘Main bhi chowkidar’. It ended with a call for an interaction with Modi on March 31.

The Election Commission on March 10 had called on political parties not to use images of the armed forces in advertising campaign. But, in the BJP’s new campaign song, lyrics of not tolerating terror are conspicuously accompanied by visuals of an actor smearing camouflage paint on his face, strapping on ammunition and putting on a helmet. It is followed by a ‘troops’ traversing dense jungles, pointing their guns forward and surveying the area. There is also ‘footage’ of bombs being dropped on targets – an obvious reference to the Balakot strikes.

Modi had, of course, characterised himself as India’s ‘chowkidar’. But, over the course of last year, the opposition tried to co-opt the phrase by asserting that ‘chowkidar hi chor hai’, when raising issues like the price of Rafale jets and the flight of fugitive businessmen from India.

The BJP has re-purposed the opposition’s sneer with the hope to recreate the impact it had in 2014. The #MainBhiChowkidar campaign is supposed to kickstart the BJP’s re-election battle.

Around five hours later, Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “Defensive tweet Mr Modi! You feeling a little guilty today?” It was posted along with a photo of Modi with businessmen Anil Ambani, Mehul Choksi, Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Gautam Adani.

Modi’s tweet had a link for the Twitterati to click on to ‘pledge’ themselves to the BJP, which automatically resulted in a reply from his official account.

An obviously fake handle with Nirav Modi’s name posted a pledge of ‘main bhi chowkidar’, which led to an automated personalised tweet from Modi acknowledging his support. The tweet was subsequently deleted, but not before many people noticed. The Congress, too, jumped in to taunt the ruling party. The latter countered that Congress was using photoshopped images.

Launching the Congress’ campaign in Uttarakhand, Rahul Gandhi again used the ‘chowkidar chor hai’ jibe for Modi and raked up the procurement of Rafale and the issue of fugitive businessmen, at a public rally in Dehradun on Saturday.

Also read: #PollVault: Congress Looks to Minimum Healthcare Guarantee, BJP to Modi Biopic

Rahul Gandhi – who went to meet the relatives of security personnel who had been killed in action – also questioned Modi’s response to the Pulwama terror attack. “I cancelled all programmes when the Pulwama attack happened. But, Modi ji was shooting for a documentary in the Corbett Tiger Reserve when the attack happened. You can see his videos over the internet where he’s smiling in different poses. And then he talks of nationalism,” he said, as per media reports.

While Modi did not make any public statements on Saturday, finance minister Arun Jaitley posted on his Facebook page that Rahul Gandhi was relying “on fake and manufactured issues.”

“Fake issues raised in Rafale, Balakot, Judge Loya’s death, bank loan waiver, JNU issue, EVM, GST, demonetisation or Nirav Modi and Mallya, or be it the special status for Andhra Pradesh or the issues of economy, every time fakery and manufactured issues of opposition fell apart… If fake issues are taken out of Rahul Gandhi’s speech, nothing will perhaps be left,” he said.

Parties double down on candidate selection

While social media fireworks and public rhetoric were heating-up the political atmosphere, parties doubled down on deciding the key element in their electoral fight – choosing viable candidates.

At their party headquarters in central Delhi, BJP leaders held marathon meetings, which went past midnight, to decide the first list of candidates. Throughout the day, chief ministers and state leaders were going into the meeting of the Central Election Committee, as discussions lasted beyond schedule. Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived at the party headquarters around 6:30 pm and left about seven hours later.

However, no announcement was made on the candidates, which will likely be for constituencies that go to polls in the first round of voting on April 11. According to Hindustan Times, a shortlist of the candidates would likely be drawn for finalisation on Monday.

While BJP leaders deliberated till late, Congress leaders, too, were burning midnight oil.

Just a few minutes before the clock struck 12, Congress released its fourth list of 27 candidates.

Notable names on the list included Shashi Tharoor from Thiruvananthapuram. The party dropped seven time MP-KV Thomas from Ernakulam and Ninon Ering from Arunachal East, replacing them with sitting MLA Hibi Eden and James L. Wanglet, respectively. Former chief minister Nabam Tuki will be the candidate from Arunachal West, challenging minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju.

Also read: Explainer: The Defection Story Playing Out in West Bengal

To ally or not to ally

Meanwhile, the capital’s own electoral fortunes were also seeing another flip-flop.

Two days after Delhi congress chief Sheila Dikshit’s statement that Modi was “stronger and more determined” than Manmohan Singh, political journalists and media reports are talking of a “renewed” momentum for a tie-up between Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Dikshit had been vehemently against any alliance with AAP for Delhi’s seven parliamentary seats. The Indian Express reported that the formula being discussed is both Congress and AAP getting three seats each and a joint candidate in the seventh one. All seven seats will go to polls on May 12.

Incidentally, BJP’s Delhi unit has asked the state election commission to appoint special observers at mosques in a sharp attack against chief minister Kejriwal. AAP retorted that similar rules should also apply to RSS shakhas.

Congress has meanwhile finalised its alliance with Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, though the seat-sharing scheme will be announced after Holi. JMM executive president Hemant Soren announced on Saturday evening that the alliance with Congress has been “officially sealed.” In the tribal dominated state, Congress is fielding candidates after discussions with JMM and Babulal Marandi’s Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik).

Another alliance Congress announced on Saturday was with Apna Dal’s faction led by the founder’s widow, Krishna Patel. The smaller regional party will contest two seats – Basti and Gonda – in Uttar Pradesh. A day earlier, the other bloc of Apna Dal – led by elder daughter Anupriya Patel – confirmed a seat sharing agreement with the BJP.

In the northeast, BJP’s state alliance partner in Tripura – Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura – announced its own candidates for the two parliamentary seats. While IPFT and BJP had come together to oust the Left government in the 2018 Assembly elections, differences have since cropped up, including opposition to the citizenship amendment bill. The BJP had already indicated as early as last July that it will contest both seats alone.

The BJP has been ahead of Congress in quickly stitching up alliances.

In Assam, Asom Gana Parishad has been brought back into the fold after its rebellious extrication over the citizenship amendment bill. They have been granted three seats –along with an offer of a Rajya Sabha seat – after a meeting between AGP leaders and BJP president Amit Shah in Delhi on Saturday morning.

But, the impact of this alliance is yet to be gauged, with several AGP members against this partnership. While AGP leaders met with Shah in Delhi, the party’s workers got into scuffle with protestors opposed to a fresh alliance with BJP, outside their party headquarters in Guwahati.

In Nagaland, Congress announced that former chief minister K.L. Chishi – who had contested unsuccessfully to be an MLA from the BJP – will stand from Nagaland’s only parliamentary constituency.

Political revolving door

The revolving door among the parties continue, with resignations and defections between political parties keeping pace with the rising mercury levels India’s forthcoming summer.

The BJP lost two sitting parliamentarians on Saturday.

In Assam, BJP MP from Tezpur, R.P. Sarmah resigned from the party after not being considered for re-election. Media reports from the northeast have stated that Congress may be trying to woo Sarmah.  There was earlier speculation that the BJP may field state finance minister Hemanta Biswa Sarma from Tezpur.

Another BJP MP – from the Gangetic plains – also resigned from the party and joined Samajwadi party. Prayagraj MP and tobacco baron Shyama Charan Gupta joined the SP and will contest from Banda. He was the sole ruling MP on the parliamentary standing committee on finance, but strongly criticised demonetisation.

Meanwhile, former Uttarakhand chief minister B.C. Khanduri’s son Manish Khanduri was inducted into the Congress by Rahul Gandhi at his rally in Dehradun on Saturday. Khanduri was removed as chairman of the standing committee on defence last year. The parliamentary panel had produced several reports which were critical of the defence preparedness of the party.

There was some good news for BJP in Odisha, as two members from ruling Biju Janta Dal (BJD) joined the party. They were the sitting MP from Nabrangpur, Balabhadra Majhi and former state minister, Damodar Rout. Majhi is the second BJD MP to join the BJP after Baijayant Jay Panda.

However, the most novel ‘defection’ took place in South India, where Janta Dal (Secular) general secretary, Danish Ali joined Bahujan Samaj party. Danish Ali had been involved in finalising seat-sharing discussions between the Congress and JD-S.

In an unusual gesture, JD(S) leader and Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumarswamy tweeted that this ‘defection’ had taken place with his blessings. As per media reports, Mayawati had been looking for a Muslim face and is likely to field Danish Ali from Amroha constituency.

On Saturday, YSR Congress bagged five leaders from Telugu Desam Party (TDP), including sitting Kurnool MP Butta Renuka. She is the fourth TDP MP to join Jaganmohan Reddy. Andhra Pradesh is scheduled to hold both Lok Sabha and Assembly elections on April 11.

EC directive on manifestos

Along with finalising candidates, political parties have to now also release their manifestoes at least two days before voting starts.

On Saturday, the Election Commission amended the model code of conduct to direct that parties shall not release manifestoes during the prohibitory period. As per Section 126 of the Representation of People Act, there cannot be any form of election campaigning in the last 48 hours before voting.

During the 2014 elections, Congress had complained to the EC that the BJP’s release of manifesto on April 7 – when Assam and Tripura were voting – was a violation of the model code of conduct.

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